Where for art thou, Khalfallah?

A-League, The Team

It has now been over 270 minutes since Fahid Ben Khalfallah (FBK) last made an appearance for The Vuck. He last came on as a substitute in the 78th minute against Adelaide United in round three and has not been sighted since. He’s made only two starts out of five in the A-League so far this season.

What makes this so perplexing is the fact that it was only around 18 months ago, he was on the stage of the Crown Palladium delivering a memorable Victory Medal winning speech. FBK beguiled A-League opponents on a regular basis. He was both a regular provider and scorer of goals, not all that long ago.

FBK appears to have descended well down the pecking order. This is even before you consider that another attacking midfielder/forward has since joined the club in Maximilian Beister. As this goes to print, the likes of Austin, Rojas, Troisi and Beister are all ahead of him right now. Beister has not even been selected yet – but it’s hard to consider a player of his age, pace and pedigree not getting first dibs in what is already a highly competitive front third.

This would be less of a concern if we weren’t talking about a player who takes up a valuable visa spot on the roster. With five visa spots available to all A-League teams it is more or less assumed that all five should be players of significant quality. Quality enough to merit the work permit. Quality enough to be starting week-in, week-out.

So where has it all gone wrong?

There’s a number of working theories.

Firstly, it would appear that he has slowed down. Now aged 34, he no longer seems to have the enterprise and dash that saw him bamboozle defences in his debut A-League season (2014/15). Secondly, there’s a sense of complacency about him every time he takes to the pitch – he appears to have entered a comfort zone. This is coupled with what can only be described as disgruntled body language. Thirdly, as we saw last season it often seems that he was ‘figured out’ by opposition defences. What’s FBK going to do here? Oh he’s going to cut inside, isn’t he? 

We can only guess what Kevin Muscat must be thinking.

After his stellar debut season, the Vuck public pressure around his retention was strong (#PenTheBen). He arrived in Melbourne having signed a one year deal and The Vuck moved heaven and earth to retain his services. He was attracting interest from other A-League clubs; we know that for a fact. He endeared himself to the Vuck populace with strong declarations of love for the city of Melbourne and it was a well-known fact at the time that he wanted a settled family life.

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This is in part, symptomatic of the A-League and the reality of a salary-capped league. The ebbs and flows of the A-League are so frequent that success immediately leads to the value of personnel increasing to the point where it becomes difficult to fend off suitors from other A-League clubs (Konstantinos Barbarouses a case in point), or international parties.

Whilst we’re not in any way panicking about the status quo currently, The Vuck squad balance appears to be severely imbalanced. FBK is one of quite a few attacking players not getting minutes right now. Meanwhile, we’re plugging holes at the back by playing people out of position.

We now have a situation where the Vuck squad does not have single natural left full-back. Scott Galloway was released to make way for the acquisition of Beister. Whilst Georgievski is more than serviceable in this position, he’s naturally a right-back and the cover for his position is limited to playing defensive midfielders like Broxham and Nigro there.

Kevin Muscat is quickly finding out about the rigours of squad management. He’s effectively gone “all in” with attack, leaving us with a defence that is lacking in depth.

An observable fact about the A-League in 2016 is that the foreign signings have improved across the board. Clubs are making less mistakes in this region. A quick perusal of the foreign signings made across the entire league by other clubs proves this to be the case. Compare a 34 year old Khalfallah with other non-marquee foreigners like a 26 year old Fernando Brandán or a 25 year old Sergi Guardiola. Greater due diligence is being invested in ensuring visa players are not just here for a holiday.

One thing is absolutely certain, visa players cannot be the ones warming the pine and playing bit-part roles. It defeats the purpose of having them. There’s already plenty of scrutiny around about the lack of professional opportunities afforded to Australian youth. And rightly so.

FBK’s contract expires at the end of this season.

It’s almost a certainty to suggest he won’t be getting an extension.