We are just over two weeks away from a new A-League Men season that will begin on November 19.
The A-League’s top six has been finalised following Western United’s win against Sydney FC, making it mathematically impossible for Adelaide United to reach the finals series with one A-League game left.
But since the restart from the COVID-19 hiatus, the A-League has looked different. Sydney FC – who lifted the Premier’s Plate for the fourth time after the game against Western United – haven’t looked the same post lockdown.
Their results have been worrying, with the Sky Blues just picking up five points out of an available eighteen in their last five games.
They seem to have lost their clinical edge at the moment.
Sydney has overperformed their expected goals from this season. Their XG from this season is 42.7, whereas they have scored 48 goals (not including the game against Western United), showing that they make the most of the chances they are given.
However, they haven’t done so in recent weeks, putting a greater doubt on their status heading into the finals.
While Sydney were clear favourites to lift the A-League trophy during isolation, their poor form since the restart has got fans questioning how credible and dangerous they look going into the knockout stages.
But are they still the favourites heading into the finals series?
Melbourne City showed their quality with a 2-0 win against Sydney FC; playing some beautiful football and utilising two mistakes from Paulo Retre and Ryan McGowan respectively to allow them to cruise to the victory.
However, City only took one point away from Adelaide United despite leading 2-0 at halftime.
Melbourne City has been criticised all season for their ‘lack of mentality’ on the field. In their biggest games of the season, they often haven’t shown up, like in their FFA Cup final against Adelaide United where they lost 4-0.
Other times this season, when everything has been in their favour, they have put in lacklustre performances, as shown in their first meeting with Sydney FC, where they were a goal and man up in the 25th minute but lost 2-1.
However, I feel that when combining Melbourne City’s quality with Erick Mombaerts’ tactical nous, they will be hard to beat heading into the finals. Wednesday’s game against Western United will be a strong test.
Wellington Phoenix is another team that has struggled for form post isolation.
While Wellington has dominated their last five games, they have struggled to convert their chances.
Ulises Davila has been off form recently, while Gary Hooper and Tim Payne will not be playing in the finals series after suffering injuries.
Hooper, in particular, is a big loss for the Nix. While he has only scored eight goals in this season’s A-League, he has brilliant positioning and adds a different element to their attack.
Interestingly, Wellington and Sydney, who play a very similar brand of football seem to have stuttered since the A-League has been moved to winter.
Brisbane Roar lost their coach Robbie Fowler over the COVID-19 break, but they have returned just as strong under Warren Moon.
Moon has made an interesting tactical change; moving Scott McDonald into a central striking position with Brad Inman and Dylan Wenzel-Halls on either side of him, whereas before it was McDonald occupying one of the channels with Wenzel-Halls or Mirza Muratovic upfront.
While Brisbane often attacks in long periods, moving the ball from side to side across the pitch, they now have a more direct option in a straight ball through the midfield line into McDonald.
The former Socceroo is great at controlling the ball under pressure and has an extreme surprise element which makes it very hard to contain him.
His positioning is almost that of a false nine; he drifts looking for the ball and moves into channels effectively, allowing Wenzel-Halls to just focus on getting in behind.
Brisbane looks a well-oiled side ahead of finals, and their deep defence is always a challenge to break down.
With a win on Wednesday, Western United could finish third on the table, a remarkable achievement in their first season of A-League football.
With Besart Berisha pouncing the penalty area, Max Burgess on form and Alessandro Diamanti being Alessandro Diamanti, Western United have a prominent, creative attack who is a danger to any defence in the league, as shown by their latest win against Sydney FC.
If mid-season signings Steven Lustica can keep feeding Burgess and Diamanti in pockets of space and Tomoki Imai can continue his form at the back alongside Andrew Durante, Western United may be the dark horses of the A-League finals.
Perth Glory has struggled to replicate their premiers plate winning success of last season and will go into finals in sixth place.
Without Diego Castro pulling the strings, Perth has struggled to make clear cut chances which have shown in their latest results since the return.
Since the break, they have lost four times, including a 4-0 thumping by Melbourne Victory.
But it’s more than the results. They look flat on the ball and have been leaking goals at the back, conceding fourteen in their last six games.
They don’t look like the classic Tony Popovic side that we’ve come to know and may struggle in the finals series against either Wellington Phoenix or Western United, with Perth losing to the latter 2-0 in their last game.
With Sydney stalling, Western United winning and Brisbane roaring, the A-League finals series is set to be as good as ever, even without a crowd for games that don’t include Sydney FC.
But who really is the favourite heading into the finals series?