Whatever ‘it’ is, Sam Silvera has got it. When the ball goes near the Central Coast Mariner you expect something to happen. He takes the game on at every opportunity, usually at breakneck speed, often with dazzling close control. He’s just turned 19 and his career is at that precious moment where he’s coming to terms with his potential and the rest of us get to enjoy watching him figure it out, like an action-movie hero’s coming-of-age montage.
On Saturday against Adelaide, Silvera set the tone as early as the fifth minute, turning broken play 35 metres from goal into a penalty with just three touches. The first of those was the most exciting. With the ball bouncing awkwardly in his direction he declined the opportunity to bring it under control safely and retain possession; the default play. Instead, he allowed the ball to run across his body for a split second, enabling him to maintain momentum, reach out a right boot and wrongfoot the onrushing Michael Jakobsen. At a stroke United’s defence was checking off a list of things it never wanted to do: turn at speed, face its own goal, and confront an attacker moving with the ball at pace. All of this from just one touch.
Later in the first-half, Silvera ghosted past Michael Maria with an ease that brought to mind that time Paul Gascogine had his own TV coaching show and spent some of it proving how much better he was at football than some primary-school kids. After that he channelled Ronaldinho to feint his way beyond Ben Halloran and stand up a cross that deserved better from Giancarlo Gallifuoco. Possibly the most thrilling passage of all arrived in the 81st minute when Silvera went full George Best and demanded the ball on the edge of his own penalty area. He only made it midway into Adelaide territory before he was felled, but the chutzpah offered a glimpse of an extravagant future.
Silvera was the second-youngest man on the field at Central Coast Stadium. The youngest was Adelaide’s Louis D’Arrigo, and the contrast between the pair is worth considering. Silvera was eye-catching, D’Arrigo virtually camouflaged. Silvera played with abandon, D’Arrigo discipline manifest. Silvera was individually brilliant, D’Arrigo a cog in a machine. Both, in their own way, excelled.
D’Arrigo, the 2017-18 Y-League player of the season, plays like a man twice his age. As United’s midfield anchor he rarely ventures beyond arm’s reach of his centre-halves. This umbilical connection gives Adelaide defensive solidity, offers little room between the lines for opposing sides to exploit, and creates the platform upon which the rest of the team establishes its structure.
When Adelaide are in possession D’Arrigo is a ready outlet for a pass, always looking to form a triangle with the ballplayer and a third teammate. Without the ball he has already proven himself an astute decision maker, knowing when to commit and when to hold his ground. Much of his effectiveness in this context is difficult to quantify; it’s spoiling, jockeying, and corralling opponents into poor options, as much as it is a highlight reel of punishing tackles and commanding interceptions.
Central to these competencies is D’Arrigo’s Visual Exploratory Frequency – the term coined by researchers to demonstrate how players who are forever scanning the field and taking in information make for better footballers. Watch D’Arrigo closely next time he plays; he’s like a scarlet meerkat, always on the lookout for danger or opportunity.
That a player born in 2001 can already appear to cruise through 90 minutes is a signpost to a bright future. His is a game that will only improve with experience. In these early stages Gertjan Verbeek deserves praise for giving the youngster a conservative remit, allowing him time to refine his core skillset without being burdened by undue responsibility. That can come later.
In the offseason United were tasked with replacing arguably the greatest player in their history, Isaias. They have done so in the most satisfying of ways, with an in-house replica.
Watching D’Arrigo and Silvera go about their business in Gosford was Richard Scudamore, the former English Premier League executive engaged by A-League clubs to maximise the value of their newfound independence. And in his first public comments since accepting the consultancy, Scudamore declared: “Homegrown is still the most exciting thing. The holy grail is the local boy made good because they are your best asset.”
There obviously has to be more to the competition’s growth strategy than that, but as a starting point it’s refreshing to hear it stated so explicitly, and reassuring to know those assets are out there – whether they’re staring you in the face, or require a little closer inspection.