With the coronavirus lingering, the salary cap slashed and players heading for the exit, it had been tipped that the 2020-21 A-League season would be different. But few probably expected it to be like this.
Even the most pessimistic of Melbourne Victory fans and sanguine of Central Coast Mariners supporters would likely have dismissed a scenario in late December in which the former was anchored to the bottom of the table and mired in an existential crisis, while the latter soared to its summit.
This unpredictability extends from 2020-21's macro to its micro: The A-League season producing an outsized number of extraordinary, frantic and entertaining fixtures across its opening months.
Yet despite the parity that has engulfed the league, some have found a way to shine. Here is the best of the best so far.
Most Valuable Player
The numbers don't lie, and they spell disaster for A-League defences.
Maclaren has been on a tear in 2020-21: sitting three goals clear in the race for the league's Golden Boot with 13 goals and also chipping in with a further five assists.
Yes, he may fit City's system perfectly, but there's also no player in the league more lethal or more nuanced around the six-yard box than the 27-year-old. Astoundingly, his combined total of 18 score involvements is a greater sum than Brisbane Roar, Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Victory's total offensive output.
2. Oliver Bozanic -- Central Coast Mariners
Central Coast has had a number of important pieces step up during their unlikely run to the top of the A-League, and one could easily construct a compelling case that Daniel De Silva, Matt Simon or Ruon Tongyik has been the club's most impactful player.
But, returning to Gosford for the first time in nearly a decade, 32-year-old Bozanic has operated as a rock in the heart of his club's midfield and clearly serves as an important leader for it both on and off the field, so he gets the nod as the Mariner collective's representative on this list.
Wellington Phoenix may not be having the best of seasons results-wise, but that's not for lack of trying on the part of their Mexican star Davila, who has scored six goals and provided two assists this season while playing 93% of available minutes.
Though the Nix's ability to consistently perform as a collective has slipped compared to last season -- Matti Steinmann flying under the radar as one of the league's biggest losses -- Davila's ability to find dangerous areas and work to create chances for himself and his teammates has still shone through.
Best Young Player
3. Alou Kuol -- Central Coast Mariners
The reportedly Bundesliga-bound Kuol may not have seen the field as much as other youngsters -- averaging just over 30 minutes across the opening 16 games of the campaign -- but there have been few players period that have done more with their opportunities. The 19-year-old is averaging 1.51 goals+assists per 90 minutes so far in 2020-21 and his seven goals ranking outright fourth on the A-League's Golden Boot race.
Kuol has shown signs of slowing down as of late -- something to be expected as oppositions force him to turn to less-developed tools in his belt -- but the teenager nonetheless oozes raw potential that the Mariners, and potentially VfB Stuttgart, look set to make the most of in the years to come.
Very quietly, Parisian-born Genreau has become a vital cog in the Macarthur machine in 2020-21: Starting 14 out of 15 games, playing the second-most minutes of any outfielder at the club and adding two goals.
Deployed in a variety of roles throughout the second-placed Bulls' midfield, he doesn't just make an impact on the field, but his flexibility and fitness has allowed Milicic to consistently rotate his squad.
1. Adelaide United
Under the command of Vaert, young Adelaide locals such as Mohamed Toure, Louis D'Arrigo and Kusini Yengi (among many others) have played important roles for the Reds in 2020-21, as have reclamation projects from other clubs such as James Delianov, Joe Caletti and Josh Cavallo.
In a season that has been celebrated for giving the kids a go, Adelaide has the youngest average age of players used and, though that figure will likely rise as Craig Goodwin and new-signing Juande become further integrated, that the club is in a position to add them to a strong foundation is a testament to the youngsters work thus far.
3. Patrick Kisnorbo -- Melbourne City
Largely retaining the core of the squad that reached the 2019-20 Grand Final and even adding a few key pieces, Kisnorbo was given the keys to a Maclaren when Erick Mombaerts departed and told not to wreck it. And he hasn't.
There is no team in the A-League more lethal when they're able to get out into space and run than City -- a problem if you fall behind and need to chase the game -- and sitting second on the A-League table with two games in hand, Kisnorbo's side are well placed to pursue a first Premiership in Heart/City history.
2. Carl Veart -- Adelaide United
Unlike Kisnorbo, Veart's place on this list hasn't been earned by meeting the high expectations set of him but, instead, surpassing the modest ones assigned to him by the zeitgeist back in December.
Losing swathes of experience in a league where, traditionally, veterancy correlates with success, Adelaide reloaded with youth and now sit fourth on the A-League table at the season's midway point, have added a red-hot Goodwin and possess a game in hand -- a testament to the job Vaert has done.
1. Alen Stajcic -- Central Coast Mariners
It can't be anyone else.
Placed up for sale during the offseason, "winners" of four of the last five wooden spoons and averaging nearly 60 goals conceded a season during that run, the Mariners had become Australian football's punchline heading into 2020-21.
But somehow, the little club that could now sit atop the A-League -- and they deserve it.
With a roster full of youngsters, the unheralded, cast-offs, reclamation projects, and broken toys, Stajcic's group has consistently found a way to defy expectations, play effective football, work for each other, find a way to win from losing positions and, most of all, bring a sense of joy and family back to a club that for so long has suffered in the doldrums of mediocrity.
Honorable Mentions: Ante Milicic
Late drama is the best kind of drama.
Holding a 3-1 lead on the hour mark, Western United looked in complete control at Marvel Stadium, only for Jacob Butterfield's 62nd-minute goal and Tomislav Uskok's 64th-minute dismissal to turn the game on its head.
When Rudy Gestede netted in the 82nd minute to make it 3-3, all bets were off.
But with what was almost the last kick of the game, Victor Sanchez struck to win his side the game, with even Western coach Mark Rudan unable to contain his excitement in the aftermath.
The A-League has consistently produced back-and-forth, wide open and high-scoring games this season; the result of a combination of factors that has many calling the 2020-21 campaign one of its best ever. And no match typified this madness more than the meeting between Wanderers and the Phoenix back in March.
To ape Bill Hader's Saturday Night Live character Stefon, this game had everything: Wondrous goals, sublime skill, Mexican and Israeli active support, Ufuk Talay losing his mind on the touchline, multiple comebacks, a disallowed goal, VAR controversy ... and Mitch Duke!
If there was one fixture that perfectly encapsulated the magic that is the A-League this season, it's this game.
After being forced to stage a courageous fightback to defeat Melbourne City 3-2 just days prior, the Mariners found themselves with their backs to the wall against Western United entering the final 15 minutes of the contest at Gosford Stadium -- down 2-1 and staring down the barrel of a third defeat in five games.
With the Gosford crowd urging the teenager and his side on, and seemingly every neutral fan at home cheering him, Kuol -- who the Victorians had passed on signing the season prior -- nodded home in the 77th minute to bring his side level before laying out with a picture-perfect diving header to give his side the lead, and win, in the 81st minute.
It was dramatic, it was unlikely, and it was amazing.
Cameron Devlin vs. Western Sydney Wanderers
Who Wins it From Here?
All things being equal, Melbourne City would shape as the favourite for this year's title, with Central Coast, Macarthur and Sydney FC looming behind.
However, the news that Graham Arnold will likely call up a number of A-League players to his next Socceroos squad just as finals begin means that the winner of the 2020-21 A-League won't be the most talented team at its halfway point but, instead, the one that proves most capable of adjusting to rapidly changing circumstances come finals.