A personal challenge from ex-Victory coach Ange Postecoglou has seen former captain Adrian Leijer start the season brilliantly as he aims for 'a big year'.
A personal challenge from ex-Melbourne Victory head coach Ange Postecoglou has seen the club's former captain Adrian Leijer start the 2013/14 Hyundai A-League season brilliantly as he aims for 'a big year'.
Stripped of the captaincy and with Melbourne Victory having signed a marquee defender in Pablo Contreras, Adrian Leijer's future with the Big V looked in doubt before the start of the season.
Leijer generally looked uncomfortable in Ange Postecoglou's possession-based system in the 2012/13 A-League campaign and with the 27-year-old central defender having lost the captain's armband to Mark Milligan, Victory's head coach was seemingly preparing to dump the club stalwart.
Contreras, a 67-cap veteran with Chile's national team, looked perfectly suited to play the ball out from defence, while 19-year-old Nick Ansell had shown enough potential in his eight games wearing the Big V last season that he seemed primed to replace Leijer if the former skipper slipped up early in the 2013/14 campaign.
But four games into the new A-League season and Leijer has arguably been Victory's most-consistent player, playing alongside both Contreras and Ansell after the former was suspended following an off-the-ball incident in the Melbourne derby in round one.
Speaking in the lead-up to Victory's round five Big Blue clash with Sydney FC, Leijer believes a full pre-season has been critical to his strong start after shoulder surgery curtailed his preparation prior to last season.
"I feel confident in my body, which I haven't for a while," Leijer said.
"So I suppose I'm in a good space at the moment and just trying to forget the added pressure of worrying about the rest of the team and just really concentrating on good performances for myself."
That focus on his own performance has been easier since Milligan took over as captain.
"It was disappointing initially," Leijer conceded. "But I think I've responded in a positive way to that and, if I'm honest, it's been good for my football."
While Leijer can understand why some people thought his position with Victory was under threat, he denies he was shown anything other than support by Postecoglou before the 48-year-old left the club to become head coach of the Socceroos.
"A lot of people look into things a lot more than they should and I think, for me, I know Nick Ansell's a very good player, I know Pablo's a very good player, but Ange set me challenges at the start of the pre-season and for me it was all about getting my body right and really focusing on those things," Leijer said.
Postecoglou challenged Leijer to take himself to 'the next level' and the 186-centimetre defender has responded with strong performances in Melbourne's two wins and two draws so far.
Now Leijer must satisfy a new boss with his former skipper Kevin Muscat taking over as Victory head coach following Postecoglou's departure.
Leijer is convinced Postecoglou has prepared Muscat perfectly for the top job.
"The way he's developed over the years has been fantastic and especially over the last 18 months, he really has gone to a new level and Ange has taught him what's required and what's expected," Leijer explained.
"He's really taken that on board, and he's always been a good motivator and a very passionate person but now he's got a really good understanding of the coaching side of things.
"As players, we're more than confident that he's ready to step up and do a good job."
Muscat's first challenge as head coach was coming up against his, and Leijer's, former manager Ernie Merrick, when Victory hosted the Phoenix at Etihad Stadium last Monday night.
"It was nice to have both Ernie and (former Victory midfielder) Carlos (Hernandez) back at the club," Leijer said.
"I mean Ernie, for me, has probably been the person who's impacted my career the most. He coached me since I was 14 at the VIS (Victorian Institute of Sport) and took me through the best part of 10 years into the Victory.
"So, I owe a lot of my career to Ernie and, I suppose, the fans never really got to thank him for his time at the club, so it was a good opportunity for them to do that."