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As the faint outlines of patterns and trends in the competition slowly began to come into view, ESPN’s Joey Lynch breaks down four things that impressed and three things that didn’t across the second week of the 2022-23 A-League Men season.
Round two results: Brisbane Roar 0-2 Melbourne City | Newcastle Jets 2-1 Perth Glory | Melbourne Victory 0-1 Western Sydney Wanderers | Wellington Phoenix 2-2 Central Coast Mariners | Macarthur FC 2-0 Adelaide United | Western United 1-3 Sydney FC
The mercurial Arzani scored Macarthur’s first and set up their second in their 2-0 win over Adelaide, as well as thundered in a long range free kick that clattered off the bar in a man-of-the-match performance.
Serving as the Bulls’ primary attacking outlet following Ulises Davila‘s 12th minute exit with a hamstring injury, the attacker responded by putting in a performance demonstrating both the positivity on the ball and willingness to take on his opponent that sets him apart from a significant number of his Australian peers and the statistical output — goals and assists — he needs to add to his game.
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His performance wasn’t of the level that will suddenly force a complete reassessment of Socceroos coach Graham Arnold’s plans, especially after his tepid performance in round one. But after being on the standby list for the New Zealand series, Arzani is almost certain to be on the list of 55 potential World Cup Socceroos that Arnold submits to FIFA on Tuesday and, certainly, he’s closer than he was last week to that 26th and final spot on the plane.
Born in Iran, Arzani also used his first ALM goal since 2018 to express solidarity with women’s rights protesters in his birth-place, holding up top with #MahsaAmini written on tape across it. Mahsa Amini was the name of the 22-year-old that died in custody after being arrested by Iran’s morality police for improperly wearing a hijab, sparking nationwide demonstrations.
Daniel Arzani’s message after scoring. #MahsaAmini pic.twitter.com/JbRNrlagpO
Jamie Maclaren, Jason Cummings, and Beka Mikeltadze will all play oversized roles in their side’s fates this season and all three fired across the second round of the campaign.
Neither of Maclaren’s two goals in City’s 2-0 win over Brisbane — his 100th game for the club — will likely make his highlight reel, one being a fortunate deflection and the other a penalty, but they did bring his total for this still-young season to three. The 29-year-old has struggled to replicate his domestic goal-scoring antics at an international level, but his form means he should get a chance to try to alter that perception in Qatar.
Mikeltadze, meanwhile, didn’t play to the level he is capable of playing in Newcastle’s 2-1 win over Perth Glory, but the Georgian’s class nonetheless shone through when it mattered the most as he found a 94th-minute winner. Still just 24, Mikeltadze is only going to get better as the season goes on, an ominous prospect for opponents.
Cummings, meanwhile, quickly got to work in his efforts to force his way into the World Cup squad: scoring a goal, having a bicycle kick strike disallowed, and playing a major role in facilitating his side’s attacking play while he was on the park in their 2-2 draw with Wellington.
Western Sydney’s defensive bona fides
Two games, two wins, and two clean sheets. Just how Wanderers boss Marko Rudan drew it up. Well, probably not exactly, given that his side has had to rely on two rather fortunate goals to eke out 1-0 wins over Perth Glory and Melbourne Victory — Tomislav Mrcela marauding forward in transition is not exactly a sustainable attacking strategy — but he’s not likely going to look a red and black gift horse in the mouth.
Against Victory’s vaunted attack, the Wanderers backed themselves to sit back and surrender both possession and territory with the belief that they could deny their foes high-quality looks on goal and grab something on the counter. And that’s exactly what they did; limiting an opposition backed by a large and partisan home crowd to just a lone shot on target, which arrived in second-half injury time.
Too many questions still exist to declare that the Wanderers are on pace to return to the finals but, as Western United showed last year, having a defence that can prey on ALM side’s foibles in possession can be a ticket to good things.
Young Talent Time
At this point, hearing the phrase “Here comes the future” might create an almost pavlovian dive for the mute button among some A-Leagues fans. And while there are early signs that league-wide trends towards playing youngsters are slowly waning as the impact of COVID recedes, some young players stood out in week two.
Both Calem Nieuwenhof and Kusini Yengi shone for the Wanderers in their win over Victory, while Ben Waine grabbed his second goal of the campaign with a sweetly taken chip and had another one ruled out in Phoenix’s 2-2 draw with the Mariners. Opposite Waine, Sam Silvera responded by scything through the Phoenix defence and making it 1-1 with a lovely strike.
Though somewhat overshadowed by the drama surrounding another youngster on City’s books, Callum Talbot has also had a promising start to the season for the defending premiers while Patrick Yazbek looks like he’s going to get an extended run at things for Steve Corica at Sydney FC. Imagine what might have happened if the Sky Blues had been able to keep Nieuwenhof.
Ugarkovic ➡️ Waine 🚂
What a ball from Steven Ugarkovic to set up Ben Waine for his second of the season! 🤩
Two from two for Waine! 💪#UNMISSABLE https://t.co/SAVRs4rhYc | 💛🖤 pic.twitter.com/2Xd6v3uojq
The inherent and unavoidable dissonance between club and country
Thrown on with just seconds remaining in City’s win over Brisbane, Marco Tilio‘s World Cup hopes are hanging by a thread. Quite simply, with less than 20 minutes played over two games, the 21-year-old isn’t seeing enough of the pitch to justify a place on the plane to Qatar.
However, as he himself observed on Friday evening, coach Patrick Kisnorbo is employed to coach Melbourne City, not the national team, and the game state — City down a man and defending a lead — forced a necessary reassessment of Tilio’s role.
Heading into the Melbourne Derby, starters Maclaren, Andrew Nabbout, Mat Leckie and Valon Berisha have delivered Kisnorbo two straight wins and, as veteran performers that have earned his trust, the coach has little reason to change things up. He’s doing what he thinks is best for his team to win games — seemingly City Football Group’s main KPI — and his approach to matters of selection and mid-game adjustment over his coaching career mean it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the season has started the way it has. Tilio had the world’s longest off-season to find a move.
A good argument can be made that Tilio should be starting anyway, such is his talent, but it’s a situation that ultimately speaks to the inherent conflict that will always exist when the interests of club and country collide. What’s good for one party might not be the best for the other but, with their divergent interests in mind, neither are necessarily wrong in their positions. Arnold as Sydney FC coach was right when he observed that “the A-League isn’t a developmental league” but, at the same time, he was also correct when he lamented as Socceroos boss that young players weren’t seeing the field enough.
Both are valid contentions born of the widely divergent incentives that the frequently siloed systems and structure of Australian football impose.
Western United’s defence
Much as the “wins 1-0” narrative began to irk coach John Aloisi as the season progressed, United’s defence was key in their unlikely run to the title last season, which should make their surrender of a one goal lead and subsequent 3-1 defeat to Sydney on Sunday so concerning.
Following up on his horror showing in week one, Leo Lacroix was caught out by a long ball from Andrew Redmayne and subsequently gave away a penalty against the Sky Blues in the first half. And while that one wasn’t converted, the subsequent spot kick that Nikolai Topor-Stanley conceded was sent home. Wing-backs Ben Garuccio and Josh Risdon, meanwhile, struggled to keep containment as Robert Mak and Joe Lolley continued to cut inside from the wing and shoot, and both were forced to watch as the duo found the net for their new side.
Things will need to improve, soon, if United harbours ambitions of going back-to-back.
After earning a point against Macarthur in round one, Brisbane’s 2-0 capitulation against Melbourne City on Friday night felt like a dispiriting step back for the Roar. Seeking to absorb pressure and break quickly up the other end, the Queenslanders had a bit of success with the former in the opening 20 minutes of the contest — all of City’s shots in this period came off set pieces — but Maclaren’s opening goal served to break the backs of their resistance.
Even when playing the second half with a one-player advantage after Taras Gomulka saw red, the hosts still didn’t look like they were ever going to be capable of breaking down their opponents and Charlie Austin cut an increasingly frustrated and lonely figure as he toiled looking for service and support up front. Two games, and zero goals for the Roar.