We are five rounds into the season, and the wheat is slowly starting to separate itself from the chaff, going into six talking points from Round 5.
Are City the real deal?
They say that first impressions last the longest, and when it comes to season 2019-20, for some reason, the impression that lasted the longest from Round 1 was that Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory were not going to be particularly good this season.
The jury is still out on the Melbourne Victory, but perhaps one team that the jury can at least consider leaning towards a ‘not guilty’ verdict, is Melbourne City, who to my own surprise sit atop the A-League ladder and are the remaining undefeated team in the competition.
I was stunned to recall that since that opening round draw, City have won four on the trot since that drab start to the campaign.
Perhaps as well that 4-nil drubbing they copped in the FFA Cup final was also playing on my mind.
And to be sure, until Friday night’s comfortable win over the Mariners, City had managed three one-goal wins on the trot, were perhaps lucky in particular against Western United, and given that in two of those wins they relied so heavily on Jamie Maclaren, when the front man went down with a hamstring injury, you simply assumed everything would catch up with City.
Everything may well catch up with City, yet here they sit atop the ladder after five rounds, and I am a big fan of reminding all and sundry that the A-League has a habit of setting the trend very, very early in its seasons.
Last season, Perth, Sydney, and Melbourne were the top three sides after five rounds, and that was essentially the way it stayed for the rest of the year.
Season before that, same thing, Sydney, Newcastle, and Melbourne again were the top three sides after five rounds, and so it finished.
So when it comes to all things A-League, you can never really say it’s too early to tell, because this league likes to get nice and comfy as early on as possibly and coast through to the finish line.
Of course, the added wrinkle this season is the addition of the bye round, so finishing Round 5, Sydney FC have only played four games, and you would be mad to write them off for a distinct run at the premier’s plate yet, but you already have to wonder how much that loss to Western Sydney may come back to haunt them.
However, for the time being, four wins, one draw, and an undefeated record, it is Melbourne City under the guidance of Erick Mombaerts who are making exactly the right noises.
There is a lot to like about the way City are going about their business, in particular the 23 shots, 16 of them on target, against the Mariners.
The Mariners were no easy-beats either, coming off a huge win over in Perth, and perhaps the travel had caught up with weary legs, but either way, three goals against Central Coast, you still had to make it happen.
So perhaps one of the reasons Maclaren enjoyed a strong purple patch for those two games was that he is an attacking weapon in an attacking set-up that wants to take the game on.
As we pointed out last weekend, those who dare, win, and for City, ten goals to the good, a rock solid defence, perhaps this is finally the season, their tenth in the competition, where they deliver with a great finals run and grand final showing.
Central Coast Mariners still on the right path
I am willing to give the Mariners the benefit of the doubt after their loss on Friday night.
It is hard enough going to Perth, let alone getting a result, but then backing up from a Sunday evening Western Australian fixture, to then play the Friday night in Melbourne, yeah, that cannot be easy.
Again, the pieces are all there for the Central Coast outfit, and the Jordan Murray finish with seconds to go in regulation time showed that the class is there if Central Coast want to make something of it.
It emerged during the week that Graham Arnold, it turns out, is a good bloke, who loves his players, who mentioned that he was paying rent for some of his players during his time at the Mariners.
Now noble as that is of Arnie, and it really is, one picture it does not pain is a particularly pleasant one of the Mariners resourcing.
Alen Stajcic is for all intents and purposes a good coach, and a solid if not spectacular start to this season suggests just that, but as the Arnold example shows, he is working for a club that is running on a shoe-string budget, so what rewards he is going to be able to reap on the limitations that he is operating, only time will tell.
The Mariners were very unfortunate to find themselves up against an opponent in good form, celebrating an anniversary, on a Friday night after a Perth win.
Here is hoping that they can shake off Friday night’s result, head home next Saturday, and get the job done against Adelaide to kick-start their season again.
Merrick is sitting uncomfortably
It feels harsh to put the blowtorch on a genuinely nice individual who took a rabble of a club to hosting a grand final in his first season in charge.
But after missing the finals last season and sitting down the bottom after five rounds, the Ledman Group must surely be doing up their own spreadsheet of viable candidates should things get much worse.
It was curious watching the Jets against Perth on Saturday.
In that successful run to the grand final, Merrick highlighted playing a forward-thinking, direct style of fluid football that just ran at the goal at all costs.
For some reason, he has determined to play a much more indirect style that now values holding up the ball more, or else, just blasting it long and hoping that Arroyo gets a piece of that contested action.
The Jets looked disciplined against Perth, and against a Tony Popovic coached team, you have to be, but discipline is all good and well and ultimately meaningless if you are not going to do all that much in front of the goal.
After four games, the Jets have four goals, and remember, in that season en route to a grand final, the Jets averaged over two goals a game.
The Jets are lacking a lot in creativity, a fact that is explained by the unfortunate loss of Irish Messi Wes Hoolahan to an ankle injury, but they still have Dimitri Pertratos, who just does not look comfortable in whatever style Ernie is trying to implement.
Long gone seem the days when Petratos was pushing for national selection.
Now, had the Jets held on for a point on Saturday, maybe this talking point would be about the pragmatism of Ernie paying off and giving them a push, but the thing is that a draw ultimately seemed lucky for the Jets in the end, with his defence troubled by the maestro Diego Castro, and the visitors hitting the woodwork twice.
And the problem for the Jets is that they needed a win desperately, because it does not get any easier with a trip down south to face Western United.
Ernie has been coaching for a long time, so he will know exactly the pressure he is under.
The Western battle is won by the journeyman
Gee, I am so glad that I made a vow at season’s beginning not to talk about assistant referees that utilise videos.
Moving on, it is curious how two teams have been compared to each other so regularly, simply because they share the word “Western” in their names, yet there is a lot that is quite similar about the two entities, nothing more so than both clubs managing to make strong starts to their inaugural campaigns.
For all the talk about KPIs, demographics, and market shares, you just cannot tell me that if you start successfully, the foundations are set to create a strong following over time.
In that regard, United are to be commended for the so far brilliant recruitment of Mark Rudan, Andrew Durante, and Scott McDonald.
Of course, the winner was ultimately scored by Kwabena Appiah-Kubi, the 27-year-old New Zealand born Australian who finds himself at his fifth A-League club.
His touch, his turn, and his finish in the box for a goal was all class, entirely worthy of winning a tight contest.
And it was refreshing to see him celebrate his spectacular goal with his new-found club.
Appiah played several years with the Wanderers, and rather than do the now fashionable thing of not celebrating as a show of respect for a former club, Appiah celebrated with his new team, in front of his new fans, because he is now a United player.
It was always going to be a touch of class from an individual’s brilliance that would decide this contest, after United had earlier felt they should have had the lead but for the VAR to rule in the Wanderers’ favour.
The Wanderers had their chances too, and when Mitch Duke opened the scoring early through his own class finish, United needed to step up and respond, something they have managed to do with regular resilience so early in their existence.
But for Appiah, this game was decided by his goal, and for a young player that has had his fair share of clubs, not only must it have been a moment to savour, but rightfully, a moment to celebrate.
Class always shines through
Yeah, it is very difficult to maintain the pledge at the season’s beginning to not talk about refereeing that is assisted off-field by video replay, but we are going to do our best.
Football is a funny game though, in particular when you consider that unlike the other more fancied codes in Australia of the oval ball nature, where it is the exchange of points that determines the winner, rather than football where you are relying on one or two moments to score a goal that determines the contest.
The art, or science, of scoring goals is just so highly underrated, because sometimes you can have a tendency to think that if you play the game well enough, the scoring of goals will look after itself.
For Ola Toivonen, especially being responsible for giving away the penalty that gave Wellington the lead, he was playing hard to score for his team, and after multiple chances, he was becoming more and more frustrated with each missed opportunity.
But come the 65th minute, the big Swedish captain took matters into his own hands (again I suppose) when the ball landed at his feet in the area.
The thing about being a striker is that scoring requires skill, and also, it requires calm.
Toivonen, with his back to goal and ball at feet, didn’t rush things, he composed himself and worked towards goal.
And work towards goal he did, as he weaved around defenders, and released the shot, but rather than just blast away and hope, he clipped the ball with the outside of the right boot, not just a chip, not quite a blast, and simply guided the ball past the keeper and goal-line defender.
That goal was all class, class you should always appreciate watching, and as he ran to the crowd in celebration, the net still ruffling, it was that moment that was worth the entry fee alone.
Cohesion is key
Oh boy, the frustration of cohesion.
How do you make a team gel, because it is a legitimate question that no doubt both Robbie Fowler and Gertjan Verbeek would have been asking themselves repeatedly in the lead up to half time of the game out at Coopers Stadium.
Take Adelaide in the first instance, a team that had cut Melbourne City to ribbons in the FFA Cup final, as they pounded away at the Brisbane defence, and could just could not get the ball into the net except for one from offside.
As for Brisbane, sure they were playing backs to the wall type of stuff in a difficult fixture, and looking for their first win, they still had their chances, but couldn’t make their endeavour count.
Adelaide and Brisbane both have the pieces to make good teams, yet going into this game the teams were eighth and ninth respectively, and Adelaide only one point ahead of the Queenslanders thanks to some classy work by Riley McGree in Newcastle.
For all the run of Nikola Mileusnic and Ben Halloran on the flanks, that final product just was not happening for the Reds.
Riley McGree looked lively if not necessarily likely, while Al Hassan Toure for all the promise is still coming to terms with being a consistent first-grade frontman.
As for the Roar, Fowler must be re-thinking his career choice, chasing that first win, and going into his half time talk thinking that yet again, not losing will be critical.
This competition is so close, it is just so very very close, with very few games being decided by more than a goal here or there, that cohesion of your key players and stars is vital, and finding that final ingredient can be the different between a coach winning a championship, or looking for work elsewhere.