Adelaide United celebrating a goal in a thrilling 4-4 draw against Canberra United (Image: Ken Carter)

Adelaide United entered the 2023/24 A-League Women season with multiple question marks. After the first round of the season, The Inner Sanctum takes a look at why there is cause for optimism.

Adrian Stenta’s Adelaide United may not have claimed the three points it desired against Canberra United, but there were enough signs to suggest that the Reds will have their say in the A-League Women’s landscape this campaign.

From a multitude of new faces at the front half of the pitch to the coach’s reaction to two catastrophic errors from one of his players, along with other developments, there is plenty of upside for the Reds as they plot to return to the Finals Series for the second time in the history of the club’s women’s program.

Targetted recruiting leads to attacking depth

During the 2021/22 A-League Women’s season, Adelaide United achieved a significant milestone by qualifying for the Finals Series for the first time in the club’s history.

The standout performers were Fiona Worts (13), who ultimately clinched the Julie Dolan Medal, and Chelsie Dawber (10), their combined efforts leading to an impressive tally of 23 goals out of Adelaide’s total of 33.

The following season, the two only combined for seven goals as the Reds struggled to find the back of the net, only recording 16 goals and missing out on the Finals Series.

Sharing his thoughts in the lead-up to the season, Stenta expressed his desire for a more well-rounded attacking approach from his side after the exit of Worts to Sydney FC and Dawber continuing her career at Swedish club Norrköping.

The Reds bolstered their offensive arsenal by acquiring several attacking talents, including Rosetta Taylor, Mariah Lee, Alana Jancevski, and Hannah Blake, complementing the existing prowess of young star Emilia Murray.

In the opening match of the season, their quality was evident as Jancevski showcased her skill set, contributing with a goal and an assist.

Additionally, notable displays and goals from Blake and Lee added to the team’s promising start, further supported by Emilia Murray’s second crucial late goal in consecutive season openers.

Future Matildas ready for the spotlight

Adelaide United is unapologetic in its approach to providing opportunities for the next generation of players, and in recent times the A-League Women’s program has shown there are multiple talented players, many earmarked to be future Matildas, ready to snatch their opportunities with both hands.

After dealing with a fractured foot for the majority of last season, Ella Tonkin started against Canberra United and anchored a backline lacking experience.

Tonkin’s involvement with the Young Matildas underscores her potential, especially as reinforcements such as Isabel Hodgson, Maruschka Waldus, and Nano Sasaki strengthen the Reds’ defensive unit in the weeks to come. Tonkin is expected to play a pivotal role in what shapes up as a formidable backline at full strength.

Emilia Murray came off the bench to score a late equaliser, once again justifying the hype that surrounds yet another South Australian Young Matilda.

Along with Tonkin and Murray, Adelaide United will be fielding the likes of Katie Bowler, Zoe Tolland, and Annalee Grove, who all have bright futures in Australian football.

Defensive depth returning

Despite conceding four goals in the initial match against Canberra United, coach Adrian Stenta can find solace in the imminent return of his key defenders over the next few weeks.

The Reds faced a potent Canberra United side with defensive stalwarts Isabel Hodgson, Maruschka Waldus, and Nano Sasaki missing due to injury.

This made the job harder for starters Emily Hodgson, who played as a left fullback, and Ella Tonkin, who missed most of last season due to a broken foot against Canberra’s attacking threat.

Once captain Isabel Hodgson and star central defender Maruschka Waldus return, the Reds back three shapes up as formidable, and if the attacking side of the team can continue on the positive note it began on, Adelaide once again looks like a challenging proposition for its A-League Women opponents.

Once she returns from her injury, Nano Sasaki’s versatility and quality may be the key to the balanced side that Stenta desires. Sasaki can play in defence, but she can also be an anchor for this Reds midfield, which can allow her more attacking-minded midfield partners the license to roam forward and impact games.

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The expanded season and Finals Series

For many years the A-League Women has been the home of one of the most punishing Finals Series formats.

With the competition only hosting 10-11 teams for a long time, securing a Finals Series spot has historically been challenging, with only four up for grabs.

As a result, several promising teams often found themselves unable to consistently participate at the pointy end of the season, despite their obvious potential.

Adrian Stenta and Adelaide United are painfully aware of this challenge, having narrowly missed out on the top four by a solitary goal during the coach’s inaugural season with the women’s program in 2021/22.

The re-introduction of the Central Coast Mariners into the competition expanded the team count to 12, finally resulting in a six-team Finals Series. This increase provides an opportunity for a new-look Adelaide United to fight for a chance to secure a spot in the post-season for the second time in the club’s history in the competition.

The 22-round season also allows teams to gel, while competing in a full home and away season. Regardless of how the season is playing out, for Adelaide or any side, the new format will see more teams mentally and physically engaged in a chase for Finals football for longer which will increase the standard of competition and contribute to the development of compelling storylines within the league.

A resilient group with belief in its system

In the lead-up to the A-League Women’s season, Adrian Stenta spoke about his desire for his team to play an attacking style of football, something reflected by his signings.

The mental fortitude of Stenta’s side was tested early in the game against Canberra United when a strong start was deemed meaningless when goalkeeper Annalee Grove cleared the ball into Vesna Milivojević who opened the scoring for the visiting side.

Adelaide levelled the scoring, but yet another misjudgment by the goalkeeper saw Canberra take the lead into the break. Although the Reds found themselves trailing on two more occasions, they demonstrated their resilience by eventually salvaging a draw that showcases the team’s preparedness to battle for points, while also embracing the attacking approach preached by Stenta.

It would be simple to blame his goalkeeper’s two glaring errors for his side dropping points, but Stenta’s diagnosis of Grove’s performances encapsulates why there is a strong belief in the team on his system and in each other.

“In the first half, we had three chances inside the six-yard box to put the ball in but we didn’t, that’s a mistake as well. But if you’re a goalkeeper, everyone talks about it,” shared Stenta.

“No doubt if you asked whether she would like those moments back again, I’m sure she’d probably say yes, but we’ve got full faith in her. And we want her to continue to play with an aggressive mindset. She’s been a fantastic leader for us for a long period of time.”

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