Marco Tilio came off the bench against Adelaide United in the second leg of the semi-final and changed the complexion of the match (Image: Melbourne City)

Marco Tilio is one of the hottest commodities in the A Leagues, but after being subbed on and playing Melbourne City into a third consecutive grand final appearance, his role and starting position are anything but a guarantee.

Marco Tilio is one of the hottest commodities in the A Leagues, but after being subbed on and playing Melbourne City into a third consecutive grand final appearance, his role and starting position are anything but a guarantee.

Every crisis presents an opportunity, and that was exactly the story of Melbourne City’s 2020/21 maiden grand final victory. With Melbourne City missing Jamie Maclaren, Curtis Good, and Connor Metcalfe due to Socceroos duty and Andrew Nabbout and Craig Noone under injury clouds, Marco Tilio started the grand final on the pitch in his first full season of regular, professional football.

Despite not impacting the scoresheet, Tilio did not look out of place and was an important cog in the City machine, causing problems for the opposition going forward by creating multiple chances and even being fouled three times. On the other side of the ball, Tilio intercepted the ball twice and completed four tackles, proving to be adequate defensive cover on the left side for captain Scott Jamieson who found the back of the net.

Tilio was that impressive in his first A-League Men grand final in a well-rounded team performance that he found himself in the conversation for the Joe Marston Medal as the best player on the field before it was awarded to teammate Nathaniel Atkinson. Efforts like his lung-busting sprint and flexibility to keep a City attack alive despite a poor first touch attempt received plenty of plaudits.

Fast forward a year later and Melbourne City is mostly healthy and not missing their Socceroos, if anything it has bolstered its ranks. With Tilio usually deployed in the front three, the Socceroo trio of Andrew Nabbout, Jamie Maclaren, and Matthew Leckie has been a roadblock for the rising star’s starting XI hopes.

Despite a healthy ten-goal contributions in Season 2021/22, Tilio has only started 13 of the 23 games he has featured in, only averaging 59 minutes per game. Even though he usually features in cameos, a good amount of his appearances have been game-changing.

The most recent example was Tilio’s introduction to the semi-final second leg against Adelaide United. His unpredictability and movement unsettled the Reds, and when he lost his marker and popped up at the back post to score City’s equaliser, there was only going to be one result from there.

Despite being in and out of the starting XI, Season 2021/22 has seen Tilio adding a different, more central side to his game which he has been effective in. When you look at a heatmap of Tilio’s first season at City, his “hotspots” were almost exclusively on the left side of the pitch.

Marco Tilio’s heatmap in Season 2020/21 (Source: SofaScore)

A year of development and experience later has seen Tilio balance his game, often being deployed centrally, in a midfield role, when required.

Marco Tilio’s heatmap in Season 2021/22 (Source: SofaScore)

The move has been effective, most notably against the Western Sydney Wanderers when Tilio got subbed on for Florin Berenguer and managed to make his presence felt in the middle of the park. Tilio only played about a third of the game but was a crucial reason City did not drop all three points at home.

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Tilio may have to play a role in the midfield on the biggest night of the season and if he is called upon, he would be well equipped to do so with a strong supporting cast surrounding him.

City’s star-studded front three may be fit, available, and firing on all cylinders this week, but the same cannot be for one of the most improved players in A League Men in Season 2021/22. Florin Berenguer has been one of the outstanding players in the competition this campaign but has recently been under an injury cloud.

The classy midfielder returned to action against Adelaide United for the first time in over a month but was ineffective, understandable for a player that has missed so much football but who at his best dictates the tempo of games. He was subbed off, for Tilio nonetheless, with Patrick Kisnorbo keen to protect one of his most valuable assets.

Kisnorbo must now make another decision on the Frenchman. Does he back his experienced player, even if not at 100%, on the biggest stage or will Tilio receive the nod and start in consecutive grand finals? Historically, Kisnorbo is a real stickle for hierarchy, so it will be to no one’s surprise if he is to reward Berenguer for his strong season with a start.

Regardless of if he starts on the bench or the pitch, on the left or in the middle of the park, Marco Tilio is an X-Factor that cannot be ignored. Against a stingy Western United side, a player like Tilio will undoubtedly be required at some stage of the match.

Kisnorbo is blessed with a selection headache that most A Leagues coaches would love to have. If he plays his cards correctly, it may be time City started talking dynasty and Marco Tilio started thinking Europe.

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