A-League Men 2021/22: The half-season review

Half Season ALM review.
Images: Newcastle Jets; Melbourne City FC; Western United

Though games played are uneven for most, we’ve reached the halfway point of the A-League Men season. Plenty of clubs have defined expectations whereas others have fallen by the wayside. The Inner Sanctum looks at each club and dissects their season so far.

Adelaide United

Season so far: 

The Reds have rightfully been dubbed the comeback kids of season 2021/22. Making a habit out of digging holes for themselves before pulling a Houdini act is leaving fans questioning how it can keep happening.

Halfway through the season, the Reds have an extensive list of victims who they have been able to snatch points from despite finding themselves in losing positions.

The teams that can attest to Carl Veart’s Reds never say die attitude include Melbourne Victory, Brisbane Roar, Newcastle Jets, Wellington Phoenix, Central Coast Mariners and champions Melbourne City.

City have remarkably dropped points to Adelaide after holding a lead in all three of their encounters this season.

The Reds have assembled a squad that mixes experience with a plethora of young South Australian talent. United finds itself positioned in the finals conversation, but have played more games than the teams below them because of COVID-19 cancellations. 

Key area of improvement:

To find success this season, Veart must find a balanced, functioning midfield combination. With Stefan Mauk making the move to Japanese football and Zach Clough arriving, it may be an opportunity to reshuffle.

Along with the attacking midfielder spot, Veart must decide if a double pivot of Isaias and Juande is viable and where Louis D’Arrigo and Josh Cavallo fit into his engine room plans.

Adelaide will be hoping that its midfield starts to settle and take control of games early so the constant comebacks are no longer consistently required.

Game to watch:

Melbourne Victory at home is always a huge occasion in the City of Churches, and on April 2, it will be no different. With the Reds yet to defeat Tony Popovic’s rejuvenated Victory side this season, they will have an opportunity to showcase that they are viable finals candidates against a strong side.

Ladder Prediction: 4th-7th

Antonis Pagonis

Brisbane Roar

Season so far:

Having finished in the top four for the last two seasons, the 2021/22 campaign has been a fall from grace for the Queensland outfit. The Roar sit last with just 11 points from 13 games.

While many fans expected a drop off this season after the mass exodus that occurred during the offseason, the fact that they have plummeted to the bottom and shown little attacking threat is a major cause for concern.

Brisbane has yet to win a game away from home, with just the one point coming from its eight away games this season. The Roar’s decline from being one of the A-League Men’s superpowers has never been more evident than this season.

After years of attempted rebuilds, this season the Roar look like a shadow of their former selves.

Key area of improvement: 

Brisbane boasts the worst goal-scoring record in the league, with just 12 goals to date. The Roar were left with a major hole in their squad when they lost their two main attacking outlets, Riku Danzaki and Dylan Wenzel-Halls at the end of last season.

Their replacements have yet to shine, with Argentine import, Juan Lescano failing to fill the boots of Wenzel-Halls. 

Game to watch:

While there isn’t much to look forward to for Brisbane supporters this season, its Round 19 clash will be one to watch. Former Roar manager, John Aloisi will make his return as Brisbane host Western United on March 26.

Aloisi won’t be the only familiar face at Moreton Daily Stadium, with Wenzel-Halls and Jamie Young returning to the Den for the first time since departing last season.

While they’ve struggled away from home, the Roar have picked up 10 points from five games at Redcliffe and will go into this fixture believing they can pick up a result.

Ladder Prediction: 10th-12th

Lachlan Onions

Central Coast Mariners

Season so far:

Finishing third at the end of last season seems like a lifetime ago for the Central Coast Mariners. With new coach Nick Montgomery, there has been a massive amount of turnover within the team, bringing in Nicolai Müller, Noah Smith, Cy Goddard, Bèni Nkololo, Storm Roux and Yaren Sözer.

They have really struggled this season, currently sitting in 10th position. Before the 2-1 win against the Brisbane Roar, the Mariners lost the last three games, with their last win prior coming last year against the Western Sydney Wanderers. 

They have looked good in parts this season with many losses and draws coming late in games, with the scores sometimes not telling the full story.

Key area of improvement:

The key area of improvement for the Mariners is their ability to close out a game. On many occasions, they have blown a lead and handed the points to another team by the end of the 90 minutes.

The main component of this is conceding late goals, one example being the game against Adelaide United. They were 1-1 until Nestory Irankunda’s 92nd minute winner handed them a loss.

Similarly in their loss against Melbourne Victory, a 94th minute goal handed another win over to their opposition.

They need to close out games or they will not graduate to the band of teams above them on the ladder in the second half of the season. This has been a trend happening in five out of the last six games.

Game to watch:

The Mariners’ next game against the Glory will be played at NIB Stadium in Perth on March 13. It will be the current 10th and 11th placed sides playing for pride more than anything else.

Should they look to take the opportunities to win games against the lower-ranked sides, they may build some confidence and momentum going into the second half of the season.

While it would be an unlikely win against the Melbourne Victory on Wednesday, notching up a three-game winning streak could be a sign of improvement to come.

Ladder prediction: 7th-10th

Madeline Irwin

Macarthur FC

Synopsis of the season thus far:

Having made the finals in their inaugural A-League Men season last season, the Bulls have been just as competitive in their second season. They currently sit comfortably inside of the top six at the halfway point of the season. 

They started the season hot, going undefeated in their opening five A-League Men fixtures. Macarthur would soon have its momentum halted with COVID running rampant inside the Bulls camp. Postponed fixtures meant they missed more than a month of action.

Off the pitch from Boxing Day till February 1, Macarthur is yet to fully get back into the thick of things, having struggled for consistency, winning just two games in 2022. This saw it dropping points to the Mariners in a 3-3 draw and going down 3-1 to an out of form Melbourne Victory in the process.

Key area of improvement:

Having conceded the second-most goals in the league this season thus far, Macarthur needs to tighten up at the back, conceding just as many goals as it has scored this season. 

In the Bulls’ 14 games, they’ve kept a clean sheet on just four occasions, and boast one of the worst goal differences of top six sides this season Only Sydney FC is currently worse defensively.

Though veteran English defender Adrian Mariappa has been impressive in his maiden A-League Men season, the Bulls have found themselves exposed at the back more times this season than they would have liked.

Game to watch:

The upcoming March 9 fixture against the Melbourne City at AAMI Park will be a game that the Bulls will be wanting to come away with three points from.

Having started the season hot and cooled down, City has done the opposite, having started the season slow and seemingly found their groove in recent weeks. 

A victory over Melbourne City on the road would go a long way to prove they are amongst the top sides in the league.

Ladder prediction: 3rd-5th

Giacomo Bruno

Melbourne City

Synopsis of the season thus far: 

After a fairly slow start to their campaign, the champions have picked up form since the turn of the year and are once again looking like the team to beat in the A-League Men.

Halfway through the season, Patrick Kisnorbo’s men are sitting at the top of the table, with two games in hand. They are once again considered one of the favourites for both the championship trophy and the premiers plate. 

The Socceroo front-three of Jamie Maclaren, Mathew Leckie, and Andrew Nabbout has flourished, while the likes of Florin Berenguer and Marco Tilio have elevated their game to new heights following the departure of Adrian Luna.

Key area of improvement:

City’s Achilles heel has been no secret to anyone. Despite being the best attacking team in the league, and scoring the most goals (33), last season’s premiers have really struggled defensively. They have conceded 23 times in 16 games, which makes them the worst defensive unit in the competition.

There have been a couple of reasons behind their leaky defence. The first is the lack of consistency in the backline.

Since the arrival of Carl Jenkinson, due to various factors (injuries, COVID, and suspension), Kisnorbo has had his preferred back four (Jenkinson – Nuno Reis – Curtis Good – Scott Jamieson) available for only one game. 

The second reason is the shaky form of Tom Glover. The Olyroos keeper has been unconvincing between the sticks, as his 23 goals conceded from only 19.5 xG against is one of the worst ratios in the league.

Game to watch:

Obviously, the Melbourne Derby, set for March 19. This is the first game that would pop into the head of every City supporter. But the battle for the top against Western United the week prior could turn out to be even more important.

At the time of writing, both sides are joint leaders with 29 points each. However, City has two games in hand, which could make this direct clash a season-defining one.

Ladder Prediction: 1st-3rd

Petar Petrov

Melbourne Victory 

Season so far:

It has been the year of the ‘Popa-lution’, as some fans have coined it. Melbourne Victory, from the depths of despair over the previous 24 months, has turned it around in a major way for season 2021/22. It started from game one, beating a very resilient Western United away from home to start the season. 

After a thrilling start to the season, that culminated in their second FFA Cup title, Victory fell to a string of three losses in a row. They needed a circuit breaker and needed it quick. Up steps Nishan Velupillay. He popped up at the back post to nod home and secure three points that Victory desperately needed. 

This massive show of character and resilience from Tony Popovic’s outfit is a clear indicator of how much of an impact the new regime is having. They’ve very rarely been blown out in any game this season, and most of their losses have come in one-goal deficits 

Perhaps the biggest asset of Melbourne Victory so far is its depth, especially in attack. The likes of Robbie Kruse, Ben Folami, Marco Rojas, Chris Ikonomidis, Francesco Margiotta and Nick D’Agostino have all played crucial roles throughout the season.

The young talent of Velupillay, Lleyton Brooks and Birkan Kidar have similarly all had valuable cameos throughout the year.

Key area of improvement: 

Despite the seemingly near-perfect season for Victory so far, they only sit in fifth place, 11 points away from Melbourne City in first.

Despite having four games in hand, this drastic difference in points between the two sides is a clear indication of the weakness that Victory has. The key area of improvement for Melbourne Victory this season is control. 

Every Victory game this season has gone either one or two ways. Either they dominates proceedings but struggle to make it count on the scoreboard, leading to tight and nervy finishes to some games, or they can’t get control of the game at any point.

This leads to a frantic affair that often relies on individual brilliance or a lapse in concentration to either win or lose the match.

Once Victory learns how to control games and make their domination count by scoring goals, then the full form of Melbourne Victory will be released, and the league will be under notice once again. 

Game to watch:

Of course, every Melbourne Derby is a must-win game. However, the next one holds extra weight considering where both sides could be on the table. Melbourne City could potentially hold its spot at the top of the table, and a surging Victory side would be roaring to knock them off its perch. 

Ladder Prediction: 2nd-4th 

Ari Stamatakos

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Newcastle Jets 

Season so far: 

Coming into the 2021/22 A-League Men season, it was expected that the Newcastle Jets would be comfortably sitting in the bottom rungs of the table come the halfway point. 

Having languished near the bottom of the table in recent years with no real direction, Jets coach Arthur Papas looked to have a massive road ahead of him. Instead, he has had an immediate impact in his first season in charge.

The new-look side with a new and exciting football identity, currently sit eighth on the table, three points outside the top six. Having surpassed expectations, the Jets find themselves in a position to push for finals spot having had a largely encouraging opening half of the season.

Having narrowly lost the opening game of the season to rivals Central Coast Mariners, the Jets would then go the next three games unbeaten. They’d give the Wanderers and Sydney FC a good run for their money before demolishing the Wellington Phoenix 4-0 in round four.

It would set the tone for the season. Having been one of the whipping boys of the competition, the Jets have become a competitive outfit this year.

Though their attacking style of football has resulted in them at times being exposed on the counterattack, it’s clear the club has an identity and a plan going forward, which was something that has been lacking post their grand final appearance in 2018.

Key area of improvement:

Though there’s been a range of areas which the club has improved on massively in the 2021/22 season, the Jets need to improve their defence, having kept just the one clean sheet all season.

While not boasting the worst goal difference record this season due to their attacking style, the Jets have still conceded 21 goals in their 12 games this season. Only Melbourne City has conceded more goals this season, though have played an extra four more games than Newcastle.

Though it’s been a season of positivity for Papas’ men, the side needs to tighten up at the back.

Game to watch:

Sitting narrowly outside of the top six with games in hand, their two fixtures coming up against the Wellington Phoenix will be crucial for the team to make up points.

With the Phoenix currently above them, the sides will face each other on March 9 and March 18. Newcastle need to take three points in both games if they are to keep their finals hopes alive heading into the business end of the season.

Ladder prediction: 5th-7th

Giacomo Bruno

Perth Glory 

Season so far:

Once again having to spend a lot of this campaign on the road due to border restrictions and being out of action with a COVID outbreak running rampant within the squad, the Perth Glory have had a tough season.

Currently sitting second last on the A-League Men table, the Glory have held onto hope they can make a run at the finals in the second half of the season with games in hand over teams above them.

Coming into the season, there was a lot of optimism around the Glory with Daniel Sturridge joining the club. The former Liverpool striker has been marred with stints on the sidelines however, with a combination of injuries and COVID keeping him out of action for a large chunk of the season.

The season started bright enough for Perth who fielded a lot of youngsters, who have looked at home at A-League Men level. The Glory are currently going through a form slump, winning just one fixture since the start of January.

Key area of improvement: 

Though difficult to do when constantly on the road, the Glory have struggled to find any consistency this season, spotty in their form throughout.

The Glory have taken away points six times in the 13 games they’ve played this season, winning just three.

Game to watch: 

Though there’s still plenty of football to be played this season, there’s a real possibility the Glory could finish as wooden spooners for the first time in the club’s history.

Their meeting coming up against the current bottom of the ladder side, Brisbane Roar, is an important fixture, with a win distancing them from last place.

Ladder Prediction: 7th-10th 

Giacomo Bruno

Sydney FC

Season so far: 

Sydney FC has struggled so far in the 2021/22 A-League Men season, only posting four wins through their first 15 games, while drawing six games for 18 points. If Sydney is to turn this form around and find success this season, it will have to do it through an unfamiliar route.

Having automatically qualified for the semis in the last five finals series, a potential date with an elimination final could throw up some curveballs.

The Sky Blues could be forgiven for their poor form, however. The likes of Adam Le Fondre, Kosta Barbarouses, Calem Nieuwenhof, and Luke Brattan have all missed significant time due to injury. Adding onto this has been the sudden overseas departure of Joel King.

But that’s not the Sydney way. There is more than enough talent in that line-up to overcome some of these injuries. The likes of Milos Ninkovic, Rhyan Grant, Andrew Redmayne, Anthony Caceres, and Elvis Kamsoba are all still in the squad most weeks.

It will take a lot for Sydney to turn this season around, and with three more games played than its nearest on the ladder competitors, it is running out of time to do so.

Key area of improvement: 

Consistency and form. One week Sydney FC look like the team we’ve all come to expect it to be over the last five seasons. And then the next, it looks like the 2015/16 squad that missed the finals (the last time it did so).

If they can consistently maintain their form week in and week out, the Sky Blues should be able to make a good run in the finals and get back to the semi-finals, even if they have to go the long way to do so.

Game to watch:

The game to watch for Sydney has to be ‘The Big Blue’ against Melbourne Victory, which has been set for March 19 before Victory’s fixture changes. This is a fixture Sydney has to get three points from if it wants to stay in and around the hunt for the top six, given the current make-up of the ladder.

If Sydney was to lose this fixture, it would be giving up a crucial point or three not only to a rival, but to a team it is directly competing against for a finals spot.

Ladder Prediction: 5th-6th 

Steven Poletti

Wellington Phoenix

Season so far:

The Wellington Phoenix have done it tough with life on the road again in 2021/22. Unlike last season, there seems to be no hope on the horizon of returning to Sky Stadium, with borders between Australia and New Zealand staying closed until at least July.

It was a promising start to the season after a strong finish last year, drawing with Macarthur and beating Central Coast to continue their unbeaten streak. But a flip seemed to switch, and the Nix lost their next four games straight.

This included 4-0 losses against both Newcastle and Adelaide United. With COVID interrupting their January, the Nix didn’t play for 20 days. They’ve got their season back on track since the break though, currently on a six-game lossless streak.

With three games in hand, Wellington sits on equal points with Sydney FC on the edge of the top six. Win two of the next three – very doable against Brisbane and Newcastle – and the Nix are still mounting a case for finals.

Key area of improvement:

Keeping the back four solid. The Nix have shown at their best, they can take a stranglehold on even the best offensive teams. 

Facing off against the likes of Francesco Margiotta, Chris Ikonomidis, Ben Folami, Nick D’Agostino and Marco Rojas, they didn’t let a single Melbourne Victory shot into the back of the net. When it goes wrong, however, it really goes wrong, as seen in those 4-0 losses.

The addition of Scott Wootton as a starting centre back has fortified this defence accordingly. The next step is finding consistency in the front end, only having scored 15 goals in their 12 games.

Their highest scorers, all equal on three goals apiece, are Reno Piscopo, Gary Hooper, and Gael Sandoval. Hooper has had an interrupted season through injury, but Sandoval has added a new level of dynamism to the top end.

Game to watch:

‘Home’ and away fixtures against table leaders Melbourne City await the Phoenix. With many of their remaining games against teams below them, these matches could prove vital to their final placement.

Sunday in particular will be a big test, with the Phoenix once again returning from rescheduled games to take on the inform City blues.

Despite being the highest-scoring side in the league, averaging nearly two goals a game, City have also let in the most.

If the Nix front end can fire, and the defence can hold firm against the firepower of Jamie Maclaren, Andrew Nabbout, Florin Berenguer and Marco Tilio, Ufuk Talay’s men could come away with some extra points on their road to finals.

Ladder prediction: 4th-6th

Alex Catalano

Western Sydney Wanderers 

Synopsis of the season thus far:

It’s been an eventful season for the Western Sydney Wanderers in the 2021/22 season both on and off the field, and not for the right reasons. Having gone on a recruiting spree over the offseason, the Wanderers looked to have built a premiership-contending side but have been largely underwhelming.

After going unbeaten in the first three rounds, they lost their next two before COVID hit and they only played one game between late December and late January. That one game came in early January, where they came from behind and drew with defending champions Melbourne City.

Since they’ve come back from COVID, they’ve changed managers and have shown glimpses of how good they are, but have still lost five and won three.

However, their most recent win came in their last game against Sydney, which could give Mark Rudan and his side confidence heading into the second half of 2022.

Key area of improvement:

The Wanderers have had plenty of problems so far this season, however, their focus this second half is their shooting figures.

They have no problem controlling the ball and getting shots in, with the Wanderers averaging 55.8 per cent possession per match (second highest) and 14.6 shots per game. Yet despite having all that possession and getting all those shots they average the third least shots on target (4.3).

Those numbers did improve against Sydney in the most recent derby (15 shots, eight on target) and if they are to climb the table, they need to keep putting those numbers up each game.

Game to watch:

Western Sydney has plenty of crucial matches these next few weeks, but their match against Sydney FC in just over a month could have massive implications for the top six.

The Sky Blues have also had a very inconsistent 2021/22 season. After a brief period before and after the COVID break which saw them get back into touch, they’ve started to cool down and haven’t won in five matches.

Every Sydney Derby is always filled with passion and big stakes, but this one at Nestrata Jubilee Stadium could be one of the biggest derbies in the regular season.

Ladder Prediction: 5th-8th

Josh Ward

Western United FC

Synopsis of the season thus far:

After parting ways with inaugural coach Mark Rudan and slumping to 10th on the table in their second season, Western United have started like a house on fire under John Aloisi, taking nine wins, two draws, and three losses from their opening 14 matches. This has them on 29 points, one more than they accumulated throughout the whole of last season.

Seven of United’s nine victories have finished with a 1-0 scoreline. What seemed to be a lucky string of results inside their first month has become a pillar of their game style; score a goal and pack up shop.

Although in the last couple of weeks some of United’s games have seen more goals, this way of winning looks like it could be sustainable, taking two 1-0 wins over Melbourne City, and another over Sydney FC.

There is still a long way yet to go in this season, but Aloisi’s men are in pole position to take their first premiers plate.

Key area of improvement:

Although Western United have been able to defend leads and keep a clean sheet eight times this season, they have dropped four points from winning positions, drawing with Macarthur after a 2-0 start, and Sydney FC after a 1-0 start.

With the likes of Leo Lacroix and Josh Risdon in defence, United have the quality to defend their leads but just need to maintain focus for the full 90 minutes.

It is yet to affect them terribly, but failure to hold onto leads becoming a habit could cost them later on in the season and they need to get on top of it now.

Game to watch:

Western United has only lost three league matches this season, two of which have come against Tony Popovic’s Victory.

United have done everything else right to show themselves to be a real contender this season, but if they are going to go all the way this season, they likely will have to face the Victory at some stage in the finals, making the March 23 match up crucial for their self-belief.

Ladder Prediction: 1st-3rd

Gerald Lynch

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