Every side has now played at least once since the A-League returned from its coronavirus-enforced suspension, with movers and shakers, contenders and pretenders, and buyers and sellers all beginning to appear. A perfect time for another A-League recap!
JUMP TO: How to beat Sydney FC | The best player in the A-League | City no longer 'Hearting it' | Old McDonald has some pull | West Ham's Beard keen on Matildas post | Parties keen on buying CCM | South Melbourne wants NSD, not Mariners
Take a break
After escaping with a late win over Wellington Phoenix in the A-League's first post-pandemic fixture, Sydney FC was outplayed and defeated 2-1 by the Newcastle Jets in their next hit out with Steven Ugarkovic and Angus Thurgate doing a masterful job of dictating the terms that empowered Carl Robinson's side to seize the three points.
It was a performance noted by Melbourne City boss Erick Mombaerts.
"We know we need to dominate the midfield," he said. "Sydney, with their specific system, they try also to have large numbers in the middle, so we have to challenge on this, and we also have to create some overload and dominate in the middle."
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While Melbourne City doesn't have the type of midfielder that will embrace risk and progress play in the same way that Newcastle can -- ESPN's Ante Jukic profiled both Ugarkovic and City's Josh Brillante earlier this season -- you could nonetheless see the Frenchman's thinking in action as City went on to down the Sky Blues 2-0.
Starting Curtis Good and Richard Windbichler in the middle and moving Harrison Delbridge to the right of his back four, Mombaerts, in turn, gave left-back Scott Jamieson instruction to tuck into the midfield whenever City moved into possession -- effectively meaning they were playing with three at the back when they had the ball and giving them an extra man in the midfield to give them greater scope to outrun Sydney on the way to a relatively comfortable three points.
Against Adelaide United, some level of the bleeding was stopped as the Harboursiders woke themselves up from a Reds' sucker punch to secure a 1-1 draw with the A-League's premier pace-and-power team. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Sydney has now lost two of their last three games and have done so against two teams that play very different styles.
"It's hard for the boys just after clinching the premiership to remain motivated but I thought it was a good response tonight; a very good second half," Sydney coach Steve Corica said following the Adelaide game.
Potentially, it could indeed be nothing more than a squad taking their foot off the gas and Corica's veteran and well-drilled squad may be very well placed to flick the switch come finals time and blow everyone away. Or maybe, with opposing coaches gifted nearly four months to plot their downfall, there is something else afoot.
Blow us all away
Milos Ninkovic. That is all.
History has its eyes on you
Melbourne City's win over Sydney was important not merely because it moved them back into second place, but also due to its potential psychological implications. In a league without many long standing traditions, City's ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory stands as a rare exception -- the latest episode of the club "Hearting it" seemingly never too far away.
Narratives, if sustained for long enough, can often prove self-fulfilling, and the constant questioning of their mentality in big games could have played havoc with Mombaerts' side heading into finals. It may feel like a lifetime ago, but it can't be forgotten that this is the same team that went to pieces as Adelaide United heaped pressure upon them in the FFA Cup Final.
City's performance against Sydney was by no means flawless, particularly with the air of hesitation they displayed when moving forward. Yet, with finals football secured and a win over the league's premiers, the club has a narrative of being ready to perform they can now internalise.
Ten duel commandments
The concept of gravity is an important, if underrated, aspect in football. Impossible to definitively quantify, an apt description would be the ability of an individual to draw attention from opponents to a greater degree than a replacement-level player and, as a result, attract closer scrutiny from defenders
In an A-League context, Brisbane Roar attacker Scott McDonald is such a player and, playing for a side that is frequently stagnant in possession, his ability to drag opposition defenders out of place has been an important addition.
With the Phoenix attempting to weather a sustained period of deep pressure in the 28th minute of their 1-1 draw with Brisbane Roar, the 26-time Socceroo moved towards the left flank to receive a pass from Macaulay Gillesphey, his momentum taking him towards the touchline and Callan Elliot at his back. Turning Elliot, McDonald then brought the ball back towards the centre of the pitch and drew Cameron Devlin and David Ball towards him -- freeing up Gillesphey to make an overlapping run into free space down the left flank. McDonald ignored that run and instead drove a pass into the feet of Dylan Wenzel-Halls, who had moved into the pocket of space left by Devlin and eventually forced a strong save from Stefan Marinovic.
It must be said that not every moment of convergence is necessarily down to a player representing an irresistible force. Sometimes it can simply be a defensive error or a deliberate tactical choice by opposing coaches. But it happens too often with players like McDonald for it to simply be a coincidence. And if he keeps proving capable of scoring goals like he did to ensure his Roar took a point from a game Phoenix controlled, he'll continue to exert that pull.
What comes next?
Despite conversations around the post focusing on high-profile candidates Jill Ellis and Joe Montemurro, the vacant Matildas post -- with an Olympic Games, Asian Cup and home World Cup on the horizon -- represents one of the most inviting in all of women's football.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that coaches from around the world are keeping tabs on the job -- one of whom, according to ESPN sources, is West Ham's WSL coach Matt Beard. A former manager of Chelsea, Liverpool and the Boston Breakers -- where he coached Kyah Simon -- plus Mackenzie Arnold and Jacynta Galabadaarachchi now under his charge at Rush Green, Beard already has some level of Australian connection.
Though currently preparing the Hammers for the 2020-21 FA Women's Super League season, where they will be looking to improve on their eighth-place finish last campaign, it is understood that the 42-year-old would welcome an approach from the FFA for a chance to interview for the Matildas' post.
Beard, ESPN is told, keeps a constant watch on the W-League, is familiar with the ins and outs of the workings of the Australian footballing landscape, and would embrace the challenge of leading the Tillies into the defining years ahead.
The room where it happens
It's been an open secret in A-League circles that the Central Coast Mariners have been on the market for several years, but Tuesday's announcement by owner Mike Charlesworth that his club is up for grabs, as first revealed by ESPN, marks the first time the U.K.-based businessman has openly slapped a for sale sign on the club.
While a potential fan ownership model has been floated as an avenue to keep the club on the Central Coast, Wollongong Wolves head coach Luke Wilkshire has already declared to the Illawarra Mercury that the reigning NPL National champions and two-time NSL champions would be ready to take on the Mariners licence.
Any potential relocation of the Mariners would require FFA approval and the acquiescence of a supermajority of other A-League owners and deal a significant reputational blow to football in the region. However, Charlesworth, as a popular figure amongst A-League circles, likely wouldn't face much resistance should a potential relocation-based sale not adversely affect other existing licence holders.
The reported recalcitrance of local council to work with the club to develop Central Coast Stadium will also do Gosford no favours should a decision need to be made on the region.
Nonetheless, in good news for advocates of keeping the club in Gosford, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Thursday afternoon that part Rayo Vallecano owner Abdul Helou is leading a consortium negotiating with Charlesworth over a purchase of the Mariners that would keep the club where they are.
You'll be back
One entity that won't be investigating the possibility of relocating the Mariners licence is South Melbourne.
The former NSL powerhouses have previously been linked with moves to acquire the licenses of both the Mariners and Melbourne Heart and were recently an unsuccessful bidder for one of two expansion slots that were eventually awarded to Western United and Macarthur FC. This time around, however, things are different.
"We've had a few meetings at South regarding [CCM] as late as last week," South Melbourne President Nicholas Maikousis told ESPN.
"Quite frankly, [we're] not even that interested in [CCM's licence]. With all due respect, you don't know what you're buying anymore. We would contemplate if it was given to us and relocated to Melbourne, but our focus is on a National Second Division -- getting that up off the ground. We're throwing all our resources towards it.
"I don't think the A-League understands we can breathe life into the A-League by having a NSD. The only way to unite the game is by the creation of a NSD. That will bring everyone back into the fold because after 16 years of the Lowy experiment that simply hasn't worked either.
"So, for us, I think a more traditional tiered approach to football is the right way and the club's focus is purely on a NSD."
Though still very much active and still enthusiastic about exploring future opportunities to enter either the A-League or a proposed National Second Division, former expansion bidders Team 11 are also understood to not be considering pursuing the Mariners' licence.