Sydney FC before the 2020/21 A-League Grand Final. (Photo: Sydney FC/Twitter)

Sydney FC finished runners up in the A-League regular season, and the Grand Final, this campaign. We review the season that was for the Sky Blues.

Finishing position: 2nd (47 points, 13 wins, eight draws, five losses), runners up in Grand Final

The highs

After a disappointing 1-1 draw against the Newcastle Jets, Sydney went on a run of five consecutive wins ahead of the finals series.

A much needed 1-0 win against Western United earmarked new hope in the return of Adam Le Fondre, while they followed it up with a relatively routine 2-0 victory over rivals Melbourne Victory.

Sydney broke the derby drought, winning 1-0 against the Wanderers while a 4-1 routing of Adelaide United demonstrated their fluid football at its finest.

A 2-0 victory over Brisbane Roar showed a different side of the Sky Blues – one that could soak up pressure and go on the counter, with a little bit of luck. Brisbane had an expected goals of 2.11 compared to Sydney’s 0.96.

Had they brought their form from the last five regular season games earlier in the campaign, the A-League table could have looked quite different.

The lows

After 3-0 and 1-0 wins over Melbourne Victory and Perth Glory respectively, Sydney looked to be coming into form at the right time.

Its next three fixtures were perhaps the most important of their season – Melbourne City, Adelaide United and Central Coast Mariners.

The Sky Blues put on a good showing against City, going a goal up and sitting deep to absorb pressure following the 54th minute strike.

But their game management cost them; After they conceded a penalty in injury time, Jamie Maclaren converted to take two costly points off them.

In their next game against Adelaide United, they found themselves 2-0 up thanks to a brace from Bobo.

In the 75th minute, Jordan Elsey scored a tap in from a set piece. Four minutes later, Tomi Juric found the equaliser, stunning Sydney with a low freekick from distance. 

Adelaide almost found a winner in the 93rd minute of play, but Rhyan Grant took one for the team, earning himself a red card for bringing down Craig Goodwin who was in behind in prime goalscoring position. 

Against the Mariners the following week, Sydney let in two goals in the first half. 

While it completed a good comeback to make it 2-2, its second half performance seemingly promised more. The Sky Blues can look back on it as another two points lost.

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Luke Brattan’s season ended in disarray – being ejected early from the A-League Grand Final in a moment that cost Sydney its third successive championship.

But we mustn’t let that overshadow the amazing season Brattan had.

Playing as the deep lying playmaker in Sydney’s classic double pivot, he had to adjust consistently to different partners. Calem Nieuwenhof, Paulo Retre and Anthony Caceres all started alongside him, with vastly different playing styles. 

Brattan showcased his passing range and playmaking ability throughout the season, creating 49 chances for his side with a pass accuracy of 87 per cent. 

He is versatile in his passing ability – able to shift the ball horizontally with short passing, playing long balls out to the wings and pick out the likes of Milos Ninkovic and Kosta Barbarouses in pockets of space with passes in between the lines.

While he let the team down in the grand final, his absence showed how Sydney struggle without him – his teammates couldn’t progress the ball forwards from defence, albeit with one less man.

While he let down his teammates in the final game, Sydney wouldn’t have been in the top two without him. 

Breakout player

If Joel King was an adept selection, he would have been top of the list.

The A-League young player of the year showed his quality and consistency throughout the season, making Sydney’s left-back role his own.

King was in the starting eleven for every game this season and played 98% of the minutes, while amazingly not picking up a yellow card all campaign.

But King played 26 matches last campaign, and doesn’t necessarily qualify for this category.

Meanwhile, Calem Nieuwenhof is who we’ve chosen as the breakout player. He only played nine matches this season (523 minutes), his season cut short early due to a stress fracture in his back.

Nieuwenhof is a talented, calm defensive midfielder, and worked well early on with Brattan in midfield. 

He is tidy and agile on the ball, mainly playing ball retaining short passes to circulate possession throughout the pitch. 

Nieuwenhof broke through in the Asian Champions League, playing every minute in all four games before marking his debut in the A-League with a stunning long range strike.

Further analysis on Nieuwenhof can be found here, while The Inner Sanctum also has an exclusive interview available for readers from January.

Final word/verdict

Overall, it was a weird season for Sydney FC.

Many expected the Sky Blues to finish at the top of the ladder. They struggled without a recognised number 9 until Bobo’s arrival, and massively underperformed their expected goals total.

Melbourne City stormed to the title, while Sydney seemingly couldn’t find the right kind of run of form to get going until the backend of the campaign.

Game management often cost them in matches in the regular season.

While it could be a very different conversation had they won the grand final and had Brattan not been sent off, it’s hard to judge a Sydney season with no major silverware as a success.

Finishing second in the grand final and regular season seems too harsh to deem it a failure.

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