Melbourne's problem is the head not the heart

Not for the first time this season, John Aloisi has accused his players of giving up. But can his public criticism galvanise the fragile Heart?

You wouldn-t have wanted to be the poor chap occupying the seat next to John Aloisi on the flight home back to Melbourne from Sydney on Monday.

His steely post-match gaze would-ve had Quade Cooper reconsidering his boxing bout if the Melbourne Heart coach was the opponent, such was the stench of anger and frustration emanating from the brooding manager after his men yet again demonstrated their mental fragility by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

If there hasn-t been already, serious questions will be asked of Heart-s mental toughness, particularly during the latter stages of a match.

Heart-s loss to Sydney FC was the fourth such match Aloisi-s men have thrown away despite having three points firmly clutched under their arms. How and why must surely be the buzzwords around Latrobe University this week.

Not for the first time this season, Aloisi has accused his players of giving up. “We stopped playing,” was his response to the first question put his way as to what exactly happened at Allianz Stadium.

Aloisi isn-t one to shy away from speaking his mind, and in a sense, it-s refreshing to hear a coach speak with raw emotion and truth. What-s said behind closed doors, however, carries far more weight with the players than what-s fed to the media. Those quietly ushered words on the training track will, ultimately, galvanise the squad or exacerbate the issue.

Airing some dirty laundry in public is a tactic used by coaches to try and generate a response from players. “He-s obviously doing that as a strategy to challenge the players,” says Anthony Klarica, one of Australia-s leading sports psychologists.

“A lot of it depends on what is said behind closed doors and I-d say that is the most important thing compared to what-s said to the media. He can say different things to the media and be a bit more flippant but what he says to the players behind closed doors, that becomes more important as you experience more pressure. And there-s obviously a bit of pressure because of this now.”

Aloisi has acknowledged anxiety could be the reason behind Heart-s self-capitulation during the final 30 minutes of matches. Whatever the cause, he needs to find a panacea. Fast.

Heart has conceded 24 goals this season — 19 of which have been scored in the second half. What-s alarming is that 13 of the 19 have been scored in the final half hour of the match — seven inside the last 15 minutes.

Of particular concern for Aloisi is the manner in which his side has managed to find a way to lose games they-ve largely controlled. Often, Heart has been in a position to put teams to the sword, however in the final third, the construction of play has been sloppy, careless and bereft of any ingenuity and direction.

It-s human nature to be complacent when things are going your way, and according to Klarica, perhaps that-s a clue to unraveling the Heart mystery.

“Human nature is to relax or take your foot off the pedal when things are going well,” he explains. “As a group, they have to look at overcoming what the natural tendency probably is.”

Interestingly, the issue could also be cultural. It-s in Australia-s make-up to relish being the underdog.

“Australians really like, in our sporting community as well, they like having their backs to the wall — that-s- when they perform best,” he adds. In sport, this has a double effect. “If the opposition lifts and Melbourne Heart drops, there-s a double effect and that-s probably why so many goals have been leaked in the second half. The opposition gets a chance to regroup, they know that they-re one goal behind and of course they-re going to try harder.”

The onus is therefore on the leaders of the team — Simon Colosimo, Matt Thompson, Richard Garcia and Fred — to identify the warning signs and prevent the team from slipping into the recurring mental lapses.

“What leadership does is it helps people not to fall into that natural tendency,” explains Klarica. “It helps people to overcome the natural tendency and deal with the situation that-s existing.

“When you-re aware of statistics as a player, it can have two effects: one is obviously the negative effect because it plays on your mind, or two, some people prefer not to discuss it because they don-t want to make an issue of it if they think it-s not an issue themselves.

“The worst thing [Aloisi] could do is probably make a big deal of it to the players without giving them a good strategy. The best thing he could do is reassure the players that he-s not worried about it to ease their mind.”

Aloisi has certainly had his fair share of challenges in his debut season as coach, however combatting this seemingly critical issue looms as his greatest test yet. While he may lack experience as a coach in dealing with such a delicate situation, he has the luxury of drawing on his vast experience as a player to restore balance and equilibrium within the squad.

“He-s also got the counter-balance where his coaching has enabled [Heart] to make a lot of really good starts and be in the lead,” adds Klarica.

“Hopefully the players take responsibility for it and don-t just point the finger at the coach... Ultimately, the players have to take responsibility as well as the coach. When it-s a collective responsibility, that-s when you deal with it well.”

Only time will tell whether that-s the case or not.