Five weeks into the biggest season in A-League Men (ALM) history since the last one, and already it's a campaign that has thrown up its fair share of surprises and talking points.
Of course, Australian football is nothing if not unpredictable, with chaos and meme-ery, at times, sometimes feeling like it is in fact the sport's default state and that's reflected in the up and down nature of some of the game's biggest talking points.
So, whether you're coming to the ALM party late, looking for a new summer sport in the wake of England's Ashes collapse, or just looking for a refresher, here's what you need to know about ALM heading into 2022.
Alas, it's impossible to properly reflect on ALM's opening weeks without touching on the threat that the Omicron wave of COVID presents; all but two fixtures postponed for the second time in as many weeks heading into the New Year slate of games.
Like a supermarket worker spying a maskless customer with their phone out and smirk plastered across their face, the mood surrounding the competition had become one of grim anticipation: the next piece of news to ruin one's day seemingly a matter of when not if.
At the time of writing, the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) find themselves trying to figure out how to stage as many games as possible in the face of rising numbers of players and staff testing positive and the ever-present chance that governments will re-introduce restrictions that make travel or staging games impossible. The major priority is minimizing spread and keeping players and staff safe, but economic factors invariably are not far away in such circumstances.
It's a thankless task and no matter how many armchair epidemiologists suggest, it's an almost impossible challenge. There probably is a right way to do things but in the face of Omicron, that correct course of action feels like it's changing every 15 minutes.
Having said all that, reducing the length of a season that's already too short doesn't feel like the right solution -- especially if pushing into June is an option.
But anyway, enough of depressing COVID talk.
One of the major surprises across the opening month of the ALM season was the two sides that sat atop the table at its conclusion: Macarthur FC and Western United. Possessing what appeared to be near impervious defences, the competition's two newest sides were belying preseason predictions and throwing down a gauntlet to the established order.
That was, at least, until the empires struck back and Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory put them to the sword in round five.
Was it a case of reality bites?
According to Fotmob, no side in ALM this season has a greater expected goals conceded figure than the Bulls 9.3; compared to an actual goals conceded figure of five. In their games against Wellington Phoenix, Central Coast Mariners and the Newcastle Jets, coach Ante Milicic's side took seven of nine possible points while conceding just two goals -- compared to an expected total of 6.06.
Western's disparity isn't quite as great as their fellow expansion side, recording an expected figure of 7.1 compared to an actual figure of four, but coach John Aloisi's side has also benefited from coming up against ALM's three worst-performing sides by xG -- Brisbane Roar, Perth Glory, and Adelaide United -- across their opening five weeks of the season.
So are the two expansion side's bubbles about to burst? Maybe, maybe not. As ESPN's Ante Jukic observed, a deeper dive into the intricacies of the Bulls' and Western's early-season form suggests they are simply at the vanguard of a "penny dropping" when it comes to ALM sides in possession. Short of a hitherto unprecedented shift in approach across the league, their fates will be tied to their ability to manipulate game state: better to score first, sit back and hit on the counter.
In illustration, the pair's round five defeats arrived after Patrick Wood and Jason Geria opened the scoring for Sydney and Victory respectively within the game's opening 20 minutes. Chasing their game, Western would end up having more than 50% of the game's possession for just the second time this season -- the other occasion when they conceded first and eventually lost to Victory in round one.
And on the subject of Victory...
Fresh off that 3-1 win over Western and top of the table heading into 2022, the navy blue portion of Melbourne is loving their start to the 2021-22 campaign.
Under the guidance of Tony Popovic, Victory's ALM side has staged a rapid turnaround from wooden-spooners and, based on a combination of their own form and what we've seen from their potential rivals, their ability to grind their way to silverware come the end of this season can't be discounted.
Boosting the positive vibes around the club, fan engagement and communication has also improved -- an important step after the fanbase almost devolved into outright revolt during the 2020-21 season.
These on- and off-field factors converged in the traditional Christmas Derby, in which a vocal and partisan crowd of Victory and City fans served to magnify the spectacle of a game in which Victory might have been second best, but still managed to come away with a point from -- a far cry from the 6-0 and 7-0 thrashings they received a season ago.
Of course, a quick turnaround under Popovic was to be expected: as seen at Western Sydney Wanderers and Perth Glory, that's simply what he does. Instead, heading forward the biggest long-term question facing the club's aspirations may lie with the kind of foundation is being laid for when their gaffer invariably moves on so that it doesn't experience the same kind of downturn in results that have previously accompanied his exit at ALM level.
Early signs are that new director of football John Didulica is taking steps to ensure it is a strong one; the arrival of Joe Palatsides to head the club's youth department, in particular, a shrewd move that should pay off for years to come when we eventually figure out what youth development will look like at ALM level. Given that the former PFA CEO has two anti-role models demonstrating what not to do, however, that should be an expectation.
Melbourne City's embarrassment of riches
Is it really possible to have too much of a good thing? The reigning ALM champions are trying to find out.
Despite creating significant hype during the preseason, across the first five weeks of the 2021-22 campaign coach Patrick Kisnorbo's vaunted Socceroos front three of Jamie Maclaren, Andrew Nabbout and Mathew Leckie have combined for just four goals. It's hardly a disastrous strike rate but when you consider the standards the club set in 2020-21, in which Maclaren outscored the Newcastle Jets on his own, and the resumes assembled, it's a talking point.
Nonetheless, as they did a season ago, one would expect the club to click into gear and start blasting clubs onto their heels at some point, and Maclaren and Nabbout did get on the scoresheet in the aforementioned Christmas Derby. That game did come, however, with Marco Tilio starting on the wing in place of Leckie: the 20-year-old Olympian was on-hand to provide the assist for Nabbout's goal.
Tilio's early season form suggests that he is best suited to playing on the wing but, when you're already trying to get as many minutes as possible into Nabbout and Leckie, figuring out how to deploy him there becomes a real challenge. A more central move remains another option but runs into a logjam of Florin Berenguer, who has been an early-season standout, and new Italian signing Manuel Pucciarelli. A drop into a deeper-lying midfield role is another option but would clash with young incumbent Connor Metcalfe.
And on the subject of neglected talent, another of the shining lights in City's run to the championship in 2020-21, Stefan Colakovski, has played a grand total of three minutes for City so far. Invariably, those outside the City sanctum can never properly see what's happening on the training track or the reasoning behind his benching but, needing minutes to continue his development, the 21-year-old would ostensibly shape as an obvious loan target for ALM clubs seeking attacking reinforcement in the January window.
What's eating Western Sydney Wanderers?
The scriptwriters may have been denied the spectacle of Newcastle Jets -- the club he left at the altar -- ending Carl Robinson's tenure at Western Sydney Wanderers but, short of a miracle turnaround, it's difficult to see how the Welshman's time in Parramatta lasts long into 2022.
Despite using his significant control of the club's ALM football department to assemble what is, on "Name Recognition Index™" one of the strongest teams in ALM, the Wanderers have shown little signs of improvement, or even clarity in approach, after a second preseason under the charge of Robinson; outplayed in every game this season and their only win delivered by refereeing error.
Making matters worse, former players and coaches such as Robbie Cornthwaite, Dean Heffernan, and Patrick Zwaanswijk have all rounded on the club, with the former calling for a change in the dugout and the latter two condemning a "toxic environment" overseen by CEO John Tsatsimas and general manager of football operations Gavin Costello.
I can tell you Carl. It's because JT and Gavin Costello have created the most toxic environment I've seen in 20 years of football. Paul Lederer wouldnt be aware of what goes on. How can 60 odd players and 4 coaches over 5 years be wrong. I rejected a 3rd year due to the above. https://t.co/tAII86tvm9— Dean Heffernan (@deanheffernan8) December 19, 2021
With it increasingly looking like the Wanderers are set to extend their run of seasons without a finals appearance to five, it's apparent that whatever is ailing the club cannot simply be fixed by another change in the manager's chair. Instead, a deeper examination of how the club is attempting to achieve its goals and what type of club it wants to be are needed -- a focus on process instead of outcomes. Moves then need to be taken to ensure that such a process is resilient and supported enough to survive the departure, or arrival, of any individual at the club -- be it player, coach, or administrator.
To put it in a more hackneyed manner, the Wanderers need to find their soul.