The longer the A-League season runs and the further behind us the pandemic appears, the more distant excuses and extenuating circumstances drift from the collective thinking around the performances of the 12 teams.
The action from this weekend’s play once again delivered, and it delivered in spades on the goals front, as we look at six talking points from Round 4.
Never underestimate the value of goal-scoring
Jamie Maclaren was cracking in bangers for the first three rounds as Melbourne City opened the season during that run without losing a game, and City could not find the net in the opening game of the season with Maclaren on international duty.
Sydney FC took out their frustrations after firing blanks against the Wanderers by smacking in four against a hapless Newcastle Jets on Friday night.
Western United, with a strong attacking line-up with the likes of Besart Berisha and journeyman Scott McDonald, fired in two and enjoyed a Victory own goal for a come-from-behind win over Melbourne Victory.
Meanwhile, Brisbane Roar, yet to register a win this season, have managed a solitary goal in three games, while the Newcastle Jets sit second from bottom with just three goals in three games, made up of a wonder strike from Abdiel Arroyo, a re-taken penalty, and a defender.
For all the talk about tactics, strategy, possession-based philosophies versus direct methods, whatever you do in football, you have to score goals.
It has been interesting watching Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, particularly in his interim days as Manchester United coach, talking about how he wanted to bring back the Manchester United way to the Red Devils playing style.
The Manchester United way, whatever that means, also involved winning.
Sir Alex Ferguson was a lot of things, and the longer time goes by after his retirement, the greater his achievements become, but his philosophy was simple: winning titles.
Fergie was a shrewd operator, and when it came to the United way, if he had to go somewhere to jag a 1-nil win to get three points, then that was what he would do.
The point is that in order to win, you need to score. And it is telling already that this early into the season, the teams that can score freely are already up at the top of the table, while the teams that may well play solid football but can’t score might already be looking down the barrel of a lengthy season.
The concerns in Newcastle are already apparent.
Ernie Merrick lamented that his team simply cannot convert, and aside from eight goals against an atrocious Central Coast Mariners team in the early part of 2018, the Jets have had distinct trouble scoring regularly since the loss of Andrew Nabbout, who took his talents to Melbourne via Japan.
Merrick voiced concerns that he is not sure if his team will be able to return to the days of having some firepower up front, and that is a big problem for the Scotsman, because as he’s trying to figure out how to score, he also has the added wrinkle of figuring out how to stop opponents scoring, with the Jets already having the worst defence in the league despite playing fewer games than most.
But Ernie is right to be worried about scoring, because the beauty of football, nay of any sport, is that as good as you can make your team defensively, you still have to know how to attack if you want to win anything.
The recent Sydney derby is a great case in point.
For a game that ultimately finished 1-nil, the tension in that game was in the relentless attack by the Sky Blues as the Wanderers held on for dear life, and in the end, Sydney’s profligacy was their downfall, not their defence, which was immaculate but for one glaring error.
When Sydney came out like a team possessed on Friday night and put Newcastle to the sword, they looked like the attacking team that is more than capable of retaining their championship.
Western United, going down 2-nil inside the first ten minutes, attacked like their lives depended on it. And while they enjoyed some luck with an own goal, the winner by McDonald for their third and winning goal showed that if you make your attack count, you will reap rewards.
And the good thing about following a league where attack is going to earn you reward is that attacking football is what people want to see.
Nil-all draws are fine, but 3-2 thrillers are fantastic.
So here’s hoping that the trend continues as the season progresses.
Beware the wounded Sky Blues
While you could understand Steve Corica’s fury last weekend as his team just could not manage to score against Western Sydney, come this weekend, watching Sydney carve up a poor Newcastle team showed exactly why Corica would have been so perplexed in the derby.
Watching Sydney put four past an impotent Newcastle Jets side at Leichhardt truly was men-versus-boys stuff.
In fact, much like the Jets the round before, Sydney should have had the first goal of the game after 20 seconds through a Nigel Boogard error that Adam Le Fondre only just failed to capitalise on.
But through the calm, calculating, classy finish by Milos Ninkovic minutes later, and Sydney then finishing off the job in the second half, it was clear that this Sydney team is excited about the challenge of defending their championship.
The final goal from Kosta Barbarouses was as easy as they come and was a moment to enjoy his class, and perhaps again curiously wonder what had happened against the Wanderers.
As impressive as the four-goals win was for Sydney, the most impressive part was bouncing back after an emotionally draining loss to the Wanderers in a huge marquee clash the week before. You could have forgiven the Sky Blues for going to Leichhardt a little bit flat, and faltering once again.
Not at all.
Instead, beware the wounded champion, because they showed on Friday that if you are facing them after a loss or a disappointing result the weekend before, be prepared to have that frustration taken out on you.
That’s the stuff of champions.
Good keepers are pretty handy as well
Perhaps flying in the face of the first talking point, you cannot undervalue the contribution of a world-class goalkeeper.
And perhaps also flying in the face of the first talking point, the nil-all draw at Bankwest Stadium was still enthralling and exciting viewing, despite lacking in goals.
If Daniel Lopar was not playing for the Wanderers this season, forget being in a share of topping the table unbeaten after four rounds – they’re likely struggling to be in the top six this early on.
Robbie Fowler and his Brisbane Roar team deserve some sympathy. They deserved at least a goal on Saturday, although whether or not they deserved a win is arguable, as the scoreboard rarely lies.
The Roar go into Round 5 still winless, and just that lonely strike to their name from Round 1.
The Wanderers have ridden their luck the last two rounds, but ultimately, they are unbeaten and jointly leading the premiership race thus far.
And while you get the impression that Markus Babbel is still building his team, he is managing to get the results with the help of the Swiss between the sticks.
Just ask Ernie Merrick – you need to perform at both ends of the park, and the Wanderers over the last two weeks might not have performed as well as they’d like up front, but with two clean sheets thanks to their in-form keeper and disciplined defence, at least the Wanderers are managing to do it properly at the back.
More of the same please
Five goals and a comeback win? More of the same please, preferably week in, week out.
Western United have done well for themselves over the last fortnight, coming up against their fellow Victorian teams for the first time in back-to-back matches, for one win and one loss.
Not a bad return for the newcomers.
It’s an even better return when you consider that United were down 2-nil after six and a half minutes, and Mark Rudan perhaps momentarily wondered what he had gotten himself into.
But being down 2-nil when the clock hasn’t even reached double digits can present just as much of an opportunity, if you approach it the proper way.
Western United struck back ten minutes later. It was a surprise that the second goal was in fact not scored by Besart Berisha, though it remains unclear from the footage if he was trying to claim James Donachie’s unfortunate own goal.
Once scores were level, it was absolutely game on, so when Scott McDonald stepped up – hitting the bar in the first half, and imposing himself on the game – it was no surprise that he scored the game-winning goal, despite his goal taking a wicked deflection.
The result for United will have a fair few ramifications.
At 2-nil down, Western United were looking down the barrel of an embarrassing first-up clash against Victory that would hover over their existence, and doing so while wearing that third away kit had the potential to be the stuff of nightmares.
Instead, it is Victory that will lose sleep, letting a 2-goal lead disintegrate, and losing their first ever game against the latest upstarts.
As the ladder stands, United are chasing the top, Victory are clinging to the six, and for Rudan, this is the type of game that can instill a culture for seasons to come.
Of course, within the single context of the game itself, what a game it was.
Once again, the A-League delivered the drama where it mattered.
No Maclaren, no worries
This was a huge result for Melbourne City. The Melbourne outfit navigated the first of a few to come without the main man Jamie Maclaren up front.
Given that they drew a blank in Round 1 against the Victory without their striker, nobody knew what to expect against Wellington. And when the home side went down early against the Phoenix, things looked murky.
The go-ahead goal from Scott Galloway was stunning, running again with the theme of the season which appears to be who dares wins, as the City player darted in from the right, went to the edge, and pulled the trigger.
No better commentator was on hand than Brenton Speed to call the ball into the net.
When Craig Noone sealed the win in the second half, City were flying on the park and flying into a share of top spot on the ladder.
While some games will be easier than others in the A-League, there aren’t necessarily going to be any easy games. So City needed to be on their best behaviour coming up against a Wellington side playing well but playing without luck, as evidenced by the harsh second-half penalty.
You have to feel for Ufuk Talay at the moment, filling in for a successful first-season coach and having to find a new captain. While he has the Phoenix playing well at times, that consistency needed to be a top-six finalist is just lacking.
Yet another tale of two cities this one, with City taking the win and sitting on top of the league, while Wellington fly back home, rooted to the bottom of the table.
If only Melbourne could start getting some people to attend their games to watch.
De Silva is all gold
Alen Stajcic may end up looking like the coaching appointment of the season, having turned around the performances of the Central Coast Mariners since his arrival, if not quite yet the ladder position.
They were unlucky not to get something in their Round 1 game, unlucky not to get everything against the Jets, then after a third round bye, the Mariners found themselves travelling to Perth without a win and taking on the reigning minor premier.
Perth has historically been a hard trip, and with a Diego Castro-led team being guided by Tony Popovic, the trip is one of the hardest in league football.
Yet Central Coast came out firing, and they were unlucky not to be two goals up in side 20 minutes.
Milan Duric is causing havoc up front for all opponents thus far this season, and the bye seemed to have allowed the big front man to come into this clash well rested, as he started with spark.
However, the opening goal honours fell to Danny De Silva, the young 22-year-old former Perth native.
His finish was all class: low, accurate, and impossible for Liam Reddy to even consider trying to save.
The last few months under Stajcic have seen a Mariners outfit re-born. Coming into this game they were without a win, but the way that they are playing, you can tell they are a team with purpose, and that purpose was on show leading up to De Sila’s opener.
Perhaps the Mariners won’t be winning a title this season, but going to Perth, they stretched the Glory early and caused enough trouble to take a lead.
All the signs are there that good times are not far away for the Mariners, and importantly, for the Mariners’ suffering fans. The emergence of De Silva as a genuine star is just one of those signs for fans to start getting excited.