While the Hyundai A-League season may only just have passed the halfway point, making null and void the efficacy of any sort of prediction about the next six months (particularly from armchair critics like myself), is it worth now asking if the Western Sydney Wanderers, Australian football’s ‘Crown Jewel’ just a few months previous after winning the Asian club championship, may now be on track to recording a full domestic season with no wins?
I know, I know.. almost every season, around this point, we see such premature talk and speculation of a team doing the (near) impossible. We saw it recently with Chelsea and the premature talk surrounding their ‘streak’, and just as surely as night follows day, we are bound to see it in seasons to come.
However the thing that makes this scenario unique, is that we are not talking about a season without loss here, rather a season without win. From a team that just achieved one of the crowning pinnacles of club football.
The juxtaposition is stark, and is doesn’t take a rabid Sky Blue fan to take interest in their new plight.
To be honest, I doubt there would be many Wanderers fans among us who did not foresee some form of slump after the lofty heights of their first two years of the Hyundai A-League. A meteoric rise with two grand final appearances and one competition premiership. The perfect start for a new franchise, and as pragmatics would happily tell us, what goes up, must come down.
As key players found warranted attention from larger clubs and the pilfering began, it was expected that some level of rebuilding would take place, and with this, a sobering period of decline. The initial stages of this was evident in their AFC champions League games leading up to the final, where the loss of playmakers like Ono, Hersi and Mooy meant a simplification of their strategy, and a deviation away from the possession-based football they had played to such acclaim in the previous domestic season.
Indeed, with the inclusion of an injured Santalab, the Wanderers were deprived of the quartet responsible for half their goals in the 2013-14 HAL season. This meant a game plan focused of frugality and no-nonsense defending. Which is in no sense a besmirching of their achievement. Football pragmatics know that this type of earnest play can be just as effective and deserving of silverware as the fancy-pants-football played by the prima donna teams of the world. But it does lay claim to the suggestion that perhaps the Wanderers were riding their luck a little, urging out the last strains of talent and luck from a wearying (yet still standing) horse.
So, while it is all well and good to wax lyrical with the benefit of 20/20, the million dollar question remains: where does that leave us now?
New signings brought in to fill the void, Vitor Saba, Seyi Adeleke and Romeo Castelen have brought with them a new structure in attack, with a slight departure from the flanking-maneuver-heavy play they relished last year. And it has had much success. Indeed, for many games so far this season, the Wanderers have dominated possession and the tempo of the game.
Yet for all this, the Wanderers remain as the least successful team in the HAL in terms of goals scored, with 7 in 12 games (at a miserly rate of 0.58/game). For comparison, the next nearest team is Newcastle (with 12), and the league leaders in this category, Melbourne and Wellington, currently have 28 to their tally.
It might be easy to blame the Wanders offence. After all, strikers Mark Bridge and Tomi Juric have claimed just 4 goals this year so far (against their combined tally for the 2013-14 season of 13. However, by this time last season, they had only bagged 7, and as already mentioned, the Wanderer’s success last year was built somewhat on the ability of players other than the strikers to find the back of the net.
In defence, WSW have conceded 18 goals, which puts them in a more competitive 6th position relative to their A-League brethren. For comparison, their HAL ladder neighbors to the north, Newcastle, have far excelled them, allowing 28 goals past them this season. And while certainly the Wanders’ have allowed more this season than last (at this stage last year they had only registered 11 goals conceded), they can hardly be accused of dropping the ball.
It appears there is no obvious answer.
Yes, perhaps the new look midfield is not up to scratch with its previous incarnation, in that it failing to convert on the advantage it builds in the middle of the park. Also reasonable is the claim of the disruption to its domestic fluidity and performance from the rigors of recent AFC Champions League and FIFA World Club Cup campaigns,
And even perhaps, Tony Popovic has earnt the right to call for more time and understanding while his club adjusts to a new system and players.
What I do know it that as much as it grates a Sky Blue fan to admit, the Wanderers have earnt some reprieve given their recent successes, and for the sake of the competition, I hope this down time is short.