Who’ll Wear the A-League’s Sweet 16th Crown?
When Covid first announced itself in Australia, the A-League was just six weeks out from finals. For a competition already experiencing one of its routine existential crises, packing up tools was one of the last things it needed.
The season resumed in mid-July, as did a large slice of familiarity with Sydney FC claiming its 4th minor premiership, before converting that triumph into yet another golden toilet seat-winning a record-breaking 5th A-League championship.
As A-league season 16 kicks off tonight at Kardinia Park, Covid is once again insisting on providing the background music. The recent outbreak in Sydney’s northern beaches has struck a blow into the heart of the competition’s epicentre, with New South Wales housing half the competition, in addition to the Wellington Phoenix who’ll this season be based in Wollongong.
Despite the uncertainty, we can at least rely on the exceptional number crunchers at Stats Insider. Not only will they be providing their famed projections for each and every game this season, but, as always, will be forecasting the entire campaign as it weaves it way through the pandemic’s murky waters.
Speaking of which, let’s check in on those futures projections right now ahead of the new season.
To Win The Grand Final: 26%
Since the National Soccer League was established in 1977, through to the dawn of the A-League in 2005, no Australian soccer club has gobbled up 4 championship crowns in 5 seasons. That’s the kind of history the Sky Blues will be reckoning with this season as they strive for sporting immortality. While Graham Arnold parlayed his success as manager into the Socceroos job, current maestro Steve Corica has arguably performed even better on the sidelines, joining only the legendary Ange Postecoglou in winning back-to-back A-League championships as manager.
KEY STAT- Last season, Sydney FC averaged just 12.2 shots per game which was actually the second-lowest figure in the entire league. They were however absolutely ruthless when they did shoot, blasting a league-high 49 goals.
To Win The Grand Final: 18.2%
Last season represented City’s breakthrough campaign, finally nabbing a top-2 spot while more importantly, storming through to its inaugural Grand Final. In one season, Erick Mombaerts completely changed the tenor of the club, perhaps ushering in a period of unbridled optimism in the process. While the reigning A-League Coach Of The Year has returned to France, the reigns have been handed over to Patrick Kisnorbno who’s worked at the club the last few years, winning a championship with the club’s women’s team, as well as working as Mombaert’s assistant last season.
KEY STAT- Jamie Maclaren’s return to the A-League couldn’t have been more explosive, with the Sunbury raised, Socceroo frontman banging in 22 goals and collecting his second Golden Boot. He’s now up to 79 total A-League goals which places him fourth all-time behind Besart Berisha (135), Shane Smeltz (92) and Archie Thompson (90). At just 27 years of age, the next few years will define whether Maclaren can become a legitimate Australian soccer megastar.
To Win The Grand Final: 9.9%
As far as maiden seasons go, Western United’s was a rollocking success. They occupied a finals spot for all but 4 of the competition’s 23 rounds, indeed ultimately qualifying for the post-season. Not only did star Alessandro Diamanti charm the league off the field, but he mesmerised on it, winning the Johnny Warren medal. The club will hope to go a step or two beyond last season’s semi-final, adding in Victor Sanchez who played nearly 300 games in Spain’s La Liga.
KEY STAT- Western Untied produced a 48.2% possession rate figure in their debut season which ranked 9th in the league. They were a club quite comfortable without the ball, winning both their bouts against Melbourne Victory despite being out-possessed, while using the same formula to oust the Brisbane Roar in last season’s Elimination Final.
To Win The Grand Final: 8.1%
It was also going to be a tough cameo act for Perth Glory following their incredible 2019 minor premiership and heartbreaking Grand Final loss. While Perth did make Finals in 2020, they were soundly beaten by Melbourne City in the semi, while their mastermind manager Tony Popovic left weeks later, taking his talents to Xanthi in the Greek second division. Like Patrick Kisnorbo at City, Perth will turn to an assistant and former Socceroo in Richie Garcia who’ll be charged with keeping the Glory relevant, and at minimum, qualifying for Finals for a third straight year- a feat this proud club has never achieved at A-League level.
KEY STAT- In Perth’s stunning 2018/19 campaign it won 10 of its 14 matches at home and boasted a +18 goal differential. Last season it won only 5 games in Perth, producing just a +1 GD.
To Win The Grand Final: 6%
Here’s a fun, kind of depressing fact regarding the 4-time champions. Currently, Stats Insider’s future model is suggesting the Victory have more of a chance to claim the wooden spoon than it does another championship, speaking to just how far this great club has fallen. New coach and former club champion Grant Brebner takes over a club coming off its worst-ever season, finishing tenth and missing out on the post-season for the first time in 8 years. Club leading goalscorer Ola Toivonen has left, returning to Sweden, while the club’s only other multiple goalscorer from last season, Andrew Nabbout, has teamed up with cross-town rivals, City.
KEY STAT- The Victory led the league in fouls last season giving away 14.1 per game, while they also collected 55 yellow cards- a number only the two other Victorian clubs faired worse in.
To Win The Grand Final: 5.9%
The Reds consistently sent out the league’s youngest squads last season with an average age of 25.7. Despite the inexperience, Adelaide only narrowly missed out on Finals, finishing 7th, just a single point adrift of Perth. At just 22 years of age, Riley McGree absolutely shone, scoring 10 goals and contributing 5 assists while claiming Young Footballer of the Year honours. While McGree can now be found plying his trade for Birmingham City in England’s Championship, the Reds have bought in Javi Lopez, who becomes the sixth Spaniard to play at Cooper’s Stadium, bringing with him 11 years and 286 games of La Liga experience.
KEY STAT- Adelaide were one of the sloppiest teams last season completing just 78.4% of their passes which was a number only the Western Sydney Wanderers faired worse in. That sloppiness extended to when they didn’t have the ball, conceding 49 goals-the league’s second worst figure behind the Central Coast Mariners.
To Win The Grand Final: 5.2%
The season prior to last saw Wellington return to the finals for the first time in 4 years, yet a sense of doom immediately engulfed the club as head coach Mark Rudan, captain Andrew Durante and goalkeeper Filip Kurto all left to join Western United. As if things couldn’t get any worse for the Kiwis, reigning Golden Boot winner Roy Krishna also skipped town, with many projecting a disastrous season for the Nix. However, incredibly, Wellington were able to soar above all the negativity, actually producing the club’s best ever season, finishing 3rd, electrified largely by a jaw-dropping Ulises Davila campaign. The Mexican fired home 12 goals and finished top-5 in Johnny Warren medal voting ensuring the Phoenix didn't fade into insignificance. Former Sydney FC assistant Ufak Talay weaved utter magic in his first season in New Zealand, while it’s hoped he can continue to keep the fire burning in Wollongong which is where his club will be based this season.
KEY STAT- The Phoenix will sorely miss their cross-Tasman Home ground advantage. Last season, only Sydney FC performed better as a home club. In fact, over the last couple of seasons, Wellington have produced an accumulative, and extremely impressive +17 goal differential at home. In the same time period, that number has fallen drastically to -9 when they’ve been on the road.
To Win The Grand Final: 4.9%
Brisbane ended their exceptional decade with a return to the Finals which is now something they’ve achieved in 11 of their past 12 seasons. It’s hoped Warren Moon can bring the kind of stability and relevance the club enjoyed under Ange Postecoglou and Mike Mulvey, and which has slipped significantly since their departures, with John Aloisi and Robbie Fowler presiding over a rather precipitous fall from grace.
KEY STAT- Outride of Sydney FC, the Roar sported the league’s premier defence last season conceding just 28 goals. Jamie Young was seen as one of the primary reasons, with the brilliant goalkeeper qualifying for his 2nd Team of the Year spot from the last 3 seasons. Since joining Brisbane in 2014, Young has kept a clean sheet in 22.8% of his starts which places him 10th all-time for any player with at least 100 appearances in the league.
To Win The Grand Final: 4.9%
The competition newbies will have a tough act to follow considering how spectacular Western United’s debut campaign was. Like United, the Bulls have opted to make experience a priority, with the likes of Mark Milligan and Adam Federicijoining the expansion club, along with some seasoned International talent in the form of Spaniards Beñat Etxebarria and Market Susaeta, and Frenchmen, Loic Puyo. If former Socceroos assistant manager Ante Milicic can get his squad to gel, there’s no reason why their debut season can’t also be celebrated with a trip to the post-season.
KEY STAT- The Bulls enter Sunday’s opener against Western Sydney off the back of a 3-game unbeaten streak in the pre-season, most recently hammering Adelaide United 3-1.
To Win The Grand Final: 4.5%
Just 1 Finals appearance from the last 10 seasons for the Jets speaks to a club going through some seriously hard times. Just days out from the new season the club still doesn’t have an owner, while their manager, Craig Deans, is still listed as ‘interim’. Unfortunately nothing screams classic A-League quite like the situation playing out in the Hunter right now, with this rich soccer cradle being cruelly undermined by gross corporate neglect. On the field, the Jets have waived goodbye to last season’s top scorer, Dimi Pertartos, who’s now playing (and scoring) in Saudi Arabia with Al-Wehda, The Petratos name does however carry on in Newcastle, with Dimi’s younger brothers Kosta and Maki signing contract extensions, and with Panagiota representing the clubs women’s team.
KEY STAT- Of all active teams, only their fierce rival, the Central Coast Mariners (1.2) have averaged less points per contest than Newcastle’s 1.23.
WESTERN SYDNEY WANDERERS
To Win The Grand Final: 4.5%
It seems like it was only yesterday when the Wanderers appeared to be holding the the future of the A-League in its grip: A-League Minor Premiers in their inaugural season, Asian Champions League winners in their second, while the club made 3Grand Finals in their first 4 seasons. Parramatta was absolutely rocking to the tune of the Wanderers beat, and then all of sudden somebody turned the music off. That somebody might have been Tony Popovic, who’s departure has ushered in a grim few seasons under Josep Gombau and Markus Babbel, with the club failing to return to the Finals and losing so much of the positive hysteria which accompanied the club’s first few seasons. The club has now thrown all of its eggs into the Carl Robinson basket, with the Welshman replacing the rather short, extremely bizarre Jean Paul de Marigny tenure.
KEY STAT- Not only did the Wanderers complete the least amount of passes per game last season (412), but their passes were also the competition's least accurate, finding their target on just 76.8% of their attempts.
CENTRAL COAST MARINERS
To Win The Grand Final: 1.7%
If any professional sporting club in Australia needs a big hug it’s the Central Coast Mariners who’ve claimed 4 of the league’s past 5 wooden spoons, and who seem to have to defend their presence in the league almost daily. While the Mariners do have a new owner, their long-term status in Gosford remains unclear which is both a shame, and makes for tremendously difficult circumstances to be playing under.
KEY STAT- Since making the finals in 2014, the Mariners have lost 77 more games than they’ve won, dialling up a truly hideous -171 goal differential in the process.
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