As A-League fans wait for the annual barrage of signings in the weeks leading up to the new season, the quality of the playing groups assembled becomes the focus.
Pundits attempt to identify which clubs appear likely to mount a serious tilt towards an A-League title based on recruitment, retention and the overall balance of the squads.
However, it is the men with the clipboards and beads of stress on their forehands who stand to lose the most should the off-season moves made at their respective clubs fail to produce that for which the fans demand.
While some A-League managers appear likely to enjoy yet another productive season, others will be undoubtedly under the pump, either through false expectation or a frustrated fan-base that is fundamentally sick of recent failures.
Some of the men in charge will enjoy a charmed ride, others will crash and burn, while a few will remain in something of a state of limbo as the ups and downs of recently unpredictable A-League seasons continue and their stress levels rise and fall accordingly.
So, where does each A-League manager stand as we head into a 2021-22 season that may still yet begin on October 30, should re-opened borders and continued impressive vaccination rates allow it?
Champions Melbourne City appear to have very little to worry about, with Patrick Kisnorbo still riding the wave after presenting the club with its first championship. Naoki Tsubaki and Craig Noone have departed yet Mathew Leckie’s arrival adds further depth to an already polished squad. It is a safe bet that Kisnorbo will enjoy another successful season in charge.
The same could be said of Steve Corica. It appears to be steady as she goes for Sydney FC; a handful out and a handful in and Max Burgess looming as a terrific signing. It is difficult to see Corica under any pressure at a club assured of finals play in 2022.
Things might be a little more difficult for Nick Montgomery on the Central Coast, with the Mariners appearing as long odds to emulate their brilliant season of 2020-21. Serious talent has departed and after the bar set by Alen Stajcic last season, Montgomery may well have the cards stacked against him, barring a few stunning late signings that might rejuvenate hopes for a repeat performance.
Warren Moon did a ripping job in Brisbane to guide the Roar into the finals last season and with five solid recruits in the form of Nikola Mileusnic, Matti Steinmann, Luke Ivanovic, Jordan Holmes and Juan Lescano, the departing players appear to have been well replaced.
After his impressive first season as an A-League boss, I’d suggest Moon has earned some credits in the bank and should avoid any pressure on his position even with a less than perfect start to the upcoming campaign.
Carl Veart took Adelaide United to within a game of the grand final in his first season, has lost considerable talent during the break and brought George Blackwood and Isaias Sanchez back into the fold. Along with Nick Ansell as key signings, it does look from the outside that the Reds may need a little more to seriously threaten for the title.
Yet Veart has earnt the respect of the supporter base and Adelaide fans could well be forgiving considering his fundamental need for more tools at his disposal.
Macarthur FC made the finals in their first season and were also just a game away from the decider. Ante Milicic exceeded expectations and based on the talent assembled for the Bulls’ second tilt (despite the key losses of a certain two Spaniards), it is possible an even higher position could be achieved this time around.
With Ulises Davila, Daniel De Silva, Tomi Juric and Craig Noone added to an already impressive squad, anything less than top four would be something of a disappointment.
Wellington Phoenix lived life away from home for almost the entire 2020-21 season, played well and missed the finals by a whisker. Ufuk Talay impressed yet will be hoping his departing stars, of which there were many, will be ably replaced by Callan Elliot, Nicholas Pennington and Gary Hooper.
Talay has runs on the board with fans, yet would want nothing less than a solid start to cement the work he did last season.
Many could debate the successes and failures of Carl Robinson’s first year at the helm in Western Sydney. However, it will all matter for nought when the sheer weight of the talent the red and black have assembled for season 2021-22 begins its campaign.
If Robinson cannot steer the Wanderers to a top-six position with a star-studded midfield and new names such as Ramy Najjarine, Tomer Hemed, Terry Antonis and Dimi Petratos, frankly, he will be on the plane back to Wales on the first day of the off-season.
Richard Garcia’s coaching future could well be on the line in Perth this season. A host of talent has been lost and ex-Sydney FC defensive midfielder Brandon O’Neill looks the best and only significant signing thus far. With seven regular starters having left the club, Garcia may well be the coach under the most pressure should things start poorly for his Glory team.
And so John Aloisi returns for a third coaching crack at the A-League, this time with Western United. Frankly, I fear for his chances. The ex-Socceroo has shown little in previous postings and despite the signings of veterans Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Neil Kilkenny and Jamie Young, much of the young blood arriving remains unproven. A few tense press conferences appear certain as Alosi battles to gel his squad.
A change appears to be as valuable as a holiday in Newcastle, with new Jets manager Arthur Papas taking charge of a playing group refreshed and almost unrecognisable. Newcastle set free 15 players, signed 11 new ones and Papas’ will undoubtedly see out the season no matter what happens based on the task he has been set.
Similarly to Papas, Tony Popovic will have something of a free hit at Melbourne Victory. After their worst season ever and massive changes to the playing roster, no pressure could reasonably be lumped on Popovic until deep into the season.
Although, he does have a cracking squad with which to work and with undoubted pedigree as a manager – the Victory fans will still be demanding.
Most likely, someone will be sacked by Christmas, a few more come season’s end and a handful will live glorious seasons on their way to the top four. Knowing who each will be is near impossible and that is something we all love about the A-League.