Sydney FC boss Steve Corica tells ESPN how he plans to get club back on track

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For a club that prides itself on being the A-League's benchmark, Sydney FC cannot escape that the 2021-22 A-League Men campaign represented a calamitous fall from grace. Spoiled by years of trophies delivered by teams that would somehow just figure out a way to win, the Sky Blue fanbase was suddenly confronted with the ignominy of missing finals.

Sydney were supposed to be better than this -- they were supposed to be the best-run club in the league. But there was no hiding from reality. Winners of almost half the trophies on offer in the preceding five years, the Harboursiders crashed to eighth to miss the finals for the first time since 2016. Their 11 defeats represented the most in a season since 2013-14. Their 37 goals scored were the fewest since 2015-16, while the 44 goals conceded were their most since 2012-13.

There was a jarring sense that the principles underlining a dynasty had now reached their use-by date. The approach espoused by manager Graham Arnold and continued under Steve Corica had served to swell the club's trophy cabinet and completely shift how rival clubs -- and the national team, given Arnold's elevation to Socceroos coach -- approached possession, but it held no mysteries for rivals in 2021-22. Innovation had turned to stagnation; triumph had turned into defeat.

Against this backdrop, the need for rejuvenation was apparent. And off the field, it was already on the way: the club preparing to move into the newly built Sydney Football Stadium as one of its major tenants and chief executive Danny Townsend heading to the same role at the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) to be replaced by Adam Santo.

One of the biggest questions, though -- one that was argued at great lengths by the club's own fanbase -- was if Corica would be retained, or if the long-time club servant would find himself moved on to make way for a new era.

"When you're not doing well, of course," Corica told ESPN when asked if he feared for his job. "We want to do well at this club. We want to win trophies. Last season wasn't great for the club, nor myself. I've got to take responsibility for that. But the three seasons before that have been very successful; we've made three Grand Finals in a row, which I don't think anyone else has done that. We won two out of the three, which is not bad, and a Premiership along the way as well."

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It was partly that winning record, as well as the goodwill generated by a connection with Sydney stretching back to the club's birth, that saw the club back Corica to lead their efforts to return to glory: signing the 49-year-old to a two-year contract extension that will make him the longest-tenured coach in their history.

"When you're winning it's easy," Corica said. "When you're losing there's more responsibility on yourself. You take a hard look at yourself and the staff and the players around you. It's definitely a good learning experience. Not something that I'd like to be doing again this season. That's why I think we've strengthened really well.

"I've had a very good time at the club here. I just want to win trophies. The club expects to win trophies. We haven't won one in the last couple of years even though we made Grand Finals and finished second in my third year. Obviously, that's the plan."

But while Sydney's plan called for the retention of Corica, that didn't quite extend as far as the team's playing roster and, in particular, a foreign contingent that has traditionally been one of the strongest in the league. Bobo, Kosta Barbarouses, Luciano Narsingh, and Milos Ninkovic all headed for the exit, while Diego Cabello, Robert Mak, and Joe Lolley were all lured from overseas while former England international Jack Rodwell crossed from Western Sydney.

Elsewhere, Alex Parsons joined from Brisbane and several players were promoted from the club's successful NPL side, though given the foundations have been traditionally built on veteran talent, many are taking a wait-and-see approach to their deployment.

"We've brought [the new signings] in because of the new structure that we're looking at this season," Corica said. "They fit in really nicely to the way that we want to play this year; with wingers, with exciting dribbling and I think they're both going to be very good for the club and exciting for the league."

The departure of Ninkovic, however, stung. It had to, such was the role that he had played in the club's folklore, let alone with what came next. After seven years of success at Moore Park, the 37-year-old did what many had thought inconceivable in July when he officially switched to Wanderers -- but only after a dramatic few weeks in which both parties posted hastily deleted farewell messages, declared they were negotiating, and then announced their divorce.

Various explanations for the exit have been provided from both camps, with Ninkovic recently responding to Corica telling News Corp that the veteran only wanted to play "20 or 30 minutes" each game by declaring to Code Sports that he never said such a thing and that the catalyst for his exit was a demand from Sydney that he secure citizenship.

"We gave him [Ninkovic] every opportunity to stay at the club," Corica told ESPN. "Even when he did retire we wanted to offer him a job within the club, whether it was coaching or doing something else. He obviously didn't see that, the way that he wanted to stay at the club, and he had an opportunity to move on. Whether that's for family reasons or money reasons, I'm not sure.

"We've had this chat a couple of years ago with Ninko almost going to Macarthur as well. It's not the first time this has happened. He has moved on now, which is disappointing for us because he was a fantastic player for the club, he'd been here for seven years but it's obviously his choice to move on and go to the dark side."

Now, with a number of new foreigners, a bevy of young talents such as Adrian Segecic and Jaiden Kucharski primed for expanded roles, and holdovers such as Max Burgess, Alex Wilkinson, and the returning Luke Brattan, Corica is targeting the biggest shift the Sky Blues have seen in approach in years: a pivot from the 'Arnieball' 4-2-2 to a 4-3-3. Wingers, forward runs, and dribbling are the name of the game.

"Last year wasn't great and towards the end of the season I was starting to think about it already," he said. "But I don't think we had the players to make that change. So we stuck it out the way we had been doing for quite a while, which was very successful [in the past]. Even the players that have been here for a while and are still here, they needed a change to freshen them up. Even my coaching staff and myself needed a change to freshen us up.

"I think the existing players, they can adapt to new things... the players that we brought in, we wanted specific things. Joe Lolley likes to dribble, he's got a great left foot so he can shoot and score goals; good deliveries into the box. Robert Mak, he likes to make forward runs, he's got tight control and he likes to play little one-twos and stuff like that.

"These are the areas that we wanted to improve and excite people as well. I think these two players can excite people. There are even young Australian players in these areas, Segecic, who has had a very good preseason so far and he's going to be an exciting one to watch for this season ahead."

While coaches by necessity need to be willing to shift and change formations and personnel based on a number of factors, their principles, their raison d'etre as a coach and the prism through which they see the game, are more resilient.

"I like to be very positive with the ball," he explained. "But, I also respect that defence wins you titles and for me, it's important that we defend well. We've got to be very strong defensively but we've got really exciting players we want to enjoy themselves when they've got the ball and make a lot forward runs that stretch teams and play my style of football."

Of course, it's one thing to talk about transitioning to a new style and another entirely to consistently execute it on matchday. The phrase "no plan survives contact with the enemy" comes to mind and the biggest challenge for Corica's new approach will arrive when the slog of a long season begins to bite and results become adverse.

Still, he has set a target of more silverware and says that finals football is "definitely" coming back. The pressure is on.