Josh Brillante's move from Sydney FC to Melbourne City all about evolution
It was the 33rd minute at AAMI Park last Saturday, and Melbourne City were down 1-0 to local rivals Melbourne Victory. Chasing the game with the ball, in a big match. It took 48 seconds, from Scott Jamieson throwing the ball back in, for City to lose the ball.
Those 48 seconds showed the best and worst of Josh Brillante.
Initially, Brillante cramps space for Jamieson, consequently allowing Victory to shuffle across in defensive shape when the ball then goes out to Scott Galloway. The midfielder is first on the scene to provide a third-man option for Adrian Luna, but Leigh Broxham pressures well. Brillante nevertheless helps the team keep the ball, and play then filters back to the left wing. Craig Noone passes to Curtis Good, and as Victory shuffle back across, he then drifts in between Ola Toivonen and Elvis Kamsoba. That's where the space is, in order to penetrate the first defensive line.
Good then fires a pass into Brillante, who had checked for Broxham and teammate Harrison Delbridge's positions in the lead-up. Sensing pressure, though, he passes back to Good with his first touch, instead of opening his body up and turning into space. The ball then goes back across to Galloway on the right.
Again cramping space, Galloway can only then try a direct pass over the top of the Victory defence for Luna. The ball hopelessly trickles out.
Brillante barely touched the ball for five of those 48 seconds but his impact on the collective was immense, both in positive and negative senses. To reference a famous Juanma Lillo quote, "Show me who your holding midfielder is, and I'll tell you what kind of team you've got."
That passage was not only a perfect microcosm of Brillante as a footballer, but an insight into the progression he is having to make at Melbourne City, outside of the comfort zone Graham Arnold's system at Sydney FC provided.
In three years since returning from an ill-fated spell with Fiorentina, the 26-year-old won everything he could in Australia with Sydney. That he was the only midfielder playing locally, who was selected in Bert van Marwijk's preliminary Socceroos squad for the 2018 World Cup, spoke volumes.
For midfielders in the A-League, few can match Brillante's ability to cover ground -- and quickly. It allows him to both pounce on stray passes, and keep a ball ticking over. In the 2017-18 season for example, no player touched the ball more than him. But that was also a critical reason Sydney lost to Melbourne Victory in the semifinal that season.
Why? Because questions remain with Brillante: How does the ball tick over? With him against an embedded defence, how does the team penetrate as a result, if at all? Because when it comes to spatial awareness, was his general lack of inclination to risk a directive or a recognition of his own fallibility?
Aside from circulation of the ball at Sydney, Brillante held very little attacking responsibility. Especially in an era where the central midfielder's importance has never been greater, he played like a visual antithesis to Newcastle Jets' Steven Ugarkovic. At City under Erick Mombaerts, this season, that has had to change.
Returning to face his old team this weekend, that change has indeed been felt on a personal level. But his reaction to it helps unearth the positive mindset he contains. Chiefly, what has he learnt since coming to Melbourne City in the offseason?
"For me, one of the big things that I've learnt personally, just being more aggressive and playing balls forward, not being scared to make a mistake or a bad pass. Instead of just keeping possession for possession's sake," Brillante told ESPN.
"The more and more you do that, the more and more it becomes instinct. I've noticed passes come off more regularly and it's a nice feeling.
"We played a certain way in a certain system at Sydney, so it has been nice to change within a team environment. It can get ... maybe not boring ... but to develop your game just by being in a different environment.
"Some players will take it differently. I've seen it as an opportunity to learn and develop as a footballer, it's actually been quite enjoyable to get forward more. It's kept me on my toes and always thinking what I need to do in a game situation, but it's a bit out of the norm from what I've been doing over the past few years."
It is what made his movement to create a passing avenue for Good -- and immediate pass back -- in the aforementioned passage on Saturday so conspicuous. Because the first step is to embrace risk and take up that position to begin with. The next step is to accept the consequent defensive pressure in the scramble that comes with that, to then truly impact the game on and off the ball.
This season, Brillante has had to play in advanced positions for City, with Rostyn Griffiths now seemingly the first choice as the deepest midfielder. Though he helps the team defend up the pitch, something very evident away to Western United, there is not a high variance or improvisation in movement off the ball. Thereby, like against Victory and Perth Glory in recent weeks, making City a little predictable against a deep block.
One particular pattern when Brillante is further forward -- where he will dart behind the defensive line as City switch the ball from one flank to the other -- highlights his own preferences and psychological conditioning.
"It's still something new to me," he said. "The more games I play, the more chance there is for it to happen. Those third-man runs are probably the more natural thing for me, rather than to get the ball into feet and dribble.
"I've always been a simple kind of player -- bounces, wall passes and through balls, instead of being that player in tight.
"Risk, over time in football, can become a good habit more than a risk. It's something that you become good at so risk goes down.
"You want to be penetrative and play attacking football and I guess as a midfielder, especially a defensive midfielder, you can just get kind of stuck being a link man and bouncing all the time."
Especially in context of their own hopes for title contention, this month for City has seemed rather important. With a win over Newcastle sandwiched by timid losses to Perth and Victory where they had the majority of possession -- and games to come against Sydney and Western United -- there is a sense this month can legitimise them or not. Brillante just as much.
Yet, the process of learning and improving is one he is not only open to. It is necessary and that, in a competitive team environment, is an important quality to have.
"You always ... up until you retire and even after, you're always learning and that's an important thing to understand," he said.
"Because once you start thinking you don't need to improve or you know everything, you come to a standstill. You take things from different coaches and different players and different systems, you just have to adapt. Otherwise, you're not going to go very far."