But that’s no longer enough. As a team, they still lack a clear identity. It is a problem that has existed since the moment Tony Popovic took his talents to Turkey and the time has come for Babbel to find a solution if they are to become legitimate title challengers this season.
The next three weeks are huge for the Wanderers. It’s a tough period on the road that begins with a trip to Newcastle, then long-haul flights across the Tasman and the Nullarbor to face Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory.
They’re all winnable games, and yet there’s a sense that Western Sydney’s campaign could be about to go off the rails. The buzz of Bankwest Stadium has worn off and the reality is their position on the ladder tells a lie about the kind of football they’ve been playing.
Consecutive victories against Central Coast, Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC gave the Wanderers their best start to a season in their short history. But only against Victory, who have since revealed themselves as a rabble, were Western Sydney clearly the better side.
The derby, on any other day, would have been a bloodbath, and their last two games – defeats to Western United and Melbourne City – have felt like a natural regression.
The team’s problems have been obvious and consistent: a dearth of genuine chances, a dysfunctional midfield that cannot retain the ball for long periods, and a tendency to lose focus in vital moments in defence.
Statistics bear this out. No team in the A-League has a lower average of completed passes per match this season than the Wanderers at 361. Their passing accuracy (74.6 per cent) is also the worst in the competition. Not once this term have they had 50 per cent or more of the ball. And with 47 shots through their first six matches, only the Central Coast Mariners had fewer attempts on goal.
Some fans have speculated that Babbel is pursuing a counter-attacking style, but that’s not what he’s asking of his players. “It’s quite frustrating – we are turning over the ball quite a lot in all areas of the pitch and we’re not having a clear possession-style game at the moment, which we’re trying to fix. It’s been a bit chaotic,” captain Mitchell Duke said.
“But we’ve had players chopping and changing… Nicolai Mueller came really late and he’s been thrown in at number 10, we had Alex Meier who also came in late. We’ve had a real turnover of players, we haven’t really played our best 11 yet I don’t think. We’ve also changed the formation a few times in the last six weeks.
“We’re really just trying to find that identity for ourselves. Babbel’s been showing us but we’re not reciprocating that on the pitch and it’s just about confidence with the ball.”
History has proved the most successful teams in the A-League pick a shape and stick with it. As Duke suggests, that’s not Babbel’s style – the Wanderers have changed formation so many times it almost feels like a tribute to Miron Bleiberg, the inventor of the famous ‘lizard system’.
There’s still plenty of time – it is, after all, folly to write anyone off after seven rounds in the A-League when even a top-six berth gives teams a shot at the ultimate prize. But the warning signs are there.
Babbel, for his part, remains supremely confident things will turn, describing last Friday night’s 3-2 defeat to Melbourne City as a “fantastic” performance despite the end result.
“We want to stop the negative run, definitely,” Babbel said on Thursday. “The performance against Melbourne City was much better than against [Western United] or Brisbane. Many positive things are coming back.
“If we keep going like last Friday, trust me, we will more games than we lose.”
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.