Luke Brattan dominated Sydney FC’s high-quality draw with Melbourne City on Saturday evening. He was the game’s star, around whom everything orbited, using his gravitational pull to draw the ball towards him on command.
With this abundance of possession Brattan treated Leichhardt Oval to a midfield masterclass, dealing out passes like a fluent croupier. In tight areas he was crisp, inviting Anthony Caceres and Miloš Ninković into rondo-like triangles. But with time and space he was more expansive, switching play with both feet, sending opponents drifting crossfield like flakes in an upturned snowglobe.
During the 20th minute alone Brattan offered outlets in traffic to both Ninković and Paulo Retre before changing the tempo with a dink from the centre circle to Joel King on the left wing. Immediately he pointed to the opposite flank, understanding this initial switch had created space for Rhyan Grant on the right. King obliged, sending the ball back inside to Retre, who found Brattan, squeezed between two City opponents. With the outside of his right boot he turned away from trouble, then with the instep of his left curled a sumptuous pass to the unguarded Grant.
Great chunks of the 90 minutes unfolded like this with passages playing out first in Brattan’s imagination, and later on grass. It was a performance worthy of any of the modern registas, including Paul Scholes, the man on which Brattan modelled his game.
“Scholes is still the one I compare myself to,” the Manchester United fan said. “He was unique, he wasn’t too fast or physical, he would just read the game.” Like Scholes, Brattan is not blessed with athletic gifts, but as the high priest of visionary football, Johan Cruyff, put it: “you play football with your head, your legs are there to help you”. And Brattan used his head to great effect, lifting and turning it to identify options, then lowering it to guarantee technical precision.
The outcome was to the betterment of everyone in sky blue. Brattan’s 93 touches, whether subtle or eye-catching, were unselfish and purposeful. Not only did he shine, but he burnished those around him. At half-time he told Fox Sports his job was simply to get the ball to his team’s playmakers – seemingly discounting himself among their number.
It brought to mind the highlight of the NGV’s ambitious Triennial exhibition, the Salon et Lumière (it closes shortly, so get in quick if you haven’t seen it). The exhibit is a cavernous space stuffed full of gold-framed paintings that appear, at first glance, an indistinguishable jumble. But take a seat and a sophisticated and emotive light and sound show provides direction, drawing the eye to all corners, allowing each object to sparkle.
Brattan has long been an outstanding footballer, but it is probable he is more effective than ever. He has been a regista in training for years but now enjoys the wealth of experience necessary to maximise his very particular set of skills. It is surely no coincidence that Scholes, Andrea Pirlo, Xavi, and other deep-lying metronomes excelled towards the end of their careers.
With this maturity comes confident self-expression, typified by Pirlo’s Panenka or Scholes’s screamers. And to this list we could almost have added Brattan’s audacious seventh-minute chip, but for Tom Glover’s fingertips.
Nonetheless, the absence of a goal does not diminish the artistry. Perhaps the moment is even elevated by such a magical shot being met with a commensurate save, thereby allowing supporters of all stripes something to applaud. Compare the hyperventilation caused by two sharp intakes of breath in quick succession to either VAR-influenced finishes that registered on the scoreboard.
It was not the first near-miss of Brattan’s career. With four championships, three premierships, and an FFA Cup in his locker, he is one of Australia’s finest uncapped players. And while he did try his hand in Europe with Bolton Wanderers (via Manchester City) it is not unrealistic to suggest his career could have progressed much further with a more compatible stepping stone. His time may yet come. At 31 he is still five years younger than Pirlo was when he was last capped by the Azzurri, and seven years younger than Scholes when he made his final appearance for United.
While that might sound far-fetched, what is abundantly clear is that Brattan, and Sydney FC, are once again in the thick of the title race. Following a slow start to the season the addition of Bobô has added some much-needed cutting edge up front, while Andrew Redmayne has recovered form at the other end.
And, after tinkering with his starting XI during the opening rounds, Steve Corica appears to have settled on a preferred line-up. Wisely, it is one built around getting the best out of Luke Brattan.