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  • Writer's pictureCaydn Foley

A comprehensive preview of Melbourne City's off-season

The 2023/24 A-League Men's season has been one to forget for Melbourne City. A club synonymous with dominating the regular season and consistently finishing in the top four has had its worst season since the City Football Group took control of Melbourne Heart in 2014. The troubles began last season when Melbourne City was on the receiving end of a 6-1 thumping by the Central Coast Mariners in the Grand Final. Ahead of a massive off-season, Front Page Football takes a closer look at how the club may revitalise its squad heading into the 2024/25 campaign.

Aurelio Vidmar took over the reins at Melbourne City early into the season. (Image: Melbourne City)


Melbourne City struggled in the season's opening, losing their first two games, the second of which was an embarrassing 6-0 loss to Adelaide United. The club's hierarchy quickly decided that it needed a change, so they sacked head coach Rado Vidosic immediately after the heavy defeat and replaced him with former Socceroo and Adelaide United boss Aurelio Vidmar until the end of the season.


Despite the change in leadership, Melbourne City have not been able to turn their season around, and with four games to play, they are dangerously close to missing out on the Finals Series, which would be the first time since the 2013/14 season.


Admittedly, City have had some injury issues throughout the season, most notably with Socceroo Mathew Leckie, who has been dealing with a persistent leg injury, meaning he has had very little game time. Andrew Nabbout suffered an Achilles tear, which forced him to miss the first half of the season.


But Melbourne City's most significant issue hampering their performances has been the drop in output from star striker Jamie Maclaren. The league's greatest-ever goal scorer is experiencing his worst season since signing with the club during the 2018/19 season. Maclaren has been the talisman of City's attack since joining the club. As a result, their managers have focused on developing a style of play to benefit Maclaren more than any other player. But when he is out of sorts, as he currently is, the team struggles to score consistently and win games.


Regardless of how Melbourne City's season ends, the club's management is in for a mammoth task of rebuilding the squad, as 13 players are on contracts that will expire at the end of the season.

Director of Football Michael Petrillo has reportedly been hard at work trying to recruit players for next season. The rumours currently being discussed are that Brisbane Roar centre-back Kai Trewin has been offered a contract to potentially replace long-time City stalwart Curtis Good, one of the 13 players with an expiring contract this season. City has also reportedly offered a massive contract to star Central Coast Mariners midfielder Josh Nisbet to lure him from the Gosford club. Nisbet publicly denied he had signed an agreement with City when asked a few weeks ago, and is looking more towards an overseas move. But these situations can quickly change.

Josh Nisbet has been heavily rumoured to be joining Melbourne City next season. (Image: Will Zhao)


For this piece's sake, we will assume that Melbourne City will sign both Nisbet and Trewin. That still leaves 11 spots that must be filled on the roster, should they feel each player needs to be replaced. The players that are off contract at the end of this season are: Jamie Young (38), Jamie Maclaren (30), Nuno Reis (33), Terry Antonis (30), Mathew Leckie (33), Curtis Good (31), Andrew Nabbout (31), Marin Jakolis (27), Leo Natel (27), Vicente Fernandez (25), Jordan Hall (26), Harry Politidis (21), and Marco Tilio (22).


Tilio, Jakolis, Natel, and Fernandez are all at Melbourne City on loan, so they will most likely return to their parent clubs at season's end, with little chance of staying an extra season.


At 38 years old, Jamie Young will likely not play another season for City. The club would surely want to look for a long-term option in goal, potentially with one of their two young goalkeepers already on their books: James Nieuwenhuizen or Patrick Beach, both 20 years old and looking ready for more first-team football.

Out of all the off contract players, Harry Politidis is the most likely to receive a contract extension, as this season he has started to feature more in the first team and has shown some glimpses of quality in the little time he has featured at left-back. Terry Antonis has outperformed expectations this season after joining the club on a one-year deal, tallying five goals and two assists in the A-League Men. If Antonis is happy to continue as a backup option, he is another player who could extend.


Since joining Melbourne City at the beginning of the 2021/22 season, 26-year-old Jordan Hall has been considered surplus to requirements. After three years at the club, he has only tallied ten appearances, so he will most likely want to move somewhere where he is likely to get more game time at this point in his career.


The three big decisions City will have to face this off-season concern the futures of Jamie Maclaren, Mathew Leckie, and Andrew Nabbout. As mentioned, 2023/24 has been Maclaren's worst season since he returned to the A-League, having only scored eight goals in 21 games, a measly tally by his lofty standards.


Despite Maclaren's performances, there will be competition for his signature this off-season, and it is heavily rumoured that expansion side Auckland FC are keen to bring him in as a marquee signing for their first season in the competition. However, this season Maclaren also experienced the birth of his first child, so he may not want to relocate his young family to New Zealand, preferring to stay in his home state. Still, if the right financial package is on the table elsewhere, it might be too good of a deal to turn down.

It is up in the air whether Jamie Maclaren will remain at Melbourne City at the end of this season. (Image: Thomas Pombart)


Meanwhile, when fit, Leckie is one of the best players in the league and has been vital in Melbourne City's success since joining the club in 2021. However, this season he has been plagued by injuries and has only seen the pitch six times. As Leckie's output is so high when he is fit and firing, Petrillo might take what could be a risk on his injury history and give him another contract, which would most likely see the Socceroo finish his career with the club.


Melbourne City will also likely want to re-sign Andrew Nabbout on a new deal, as there are not many Australian wingers available right now who would meet their lofty expectations. But with Nabbout now on the wrong side of 30 and having recently suffered that aforementioned Achilles injury, the club may look to instead provide more minutes to their academy prospects who can replicate Nabbout's output long-term.

Young Ben Mazzeo made his debut this season as a replacement for the injured Nabbout and showed promise in the sparse amount of minutes he saw – a positive sign for the club's future. Two other prospects in the City academy pipeline are Emin Durakovic and Arion Sulemani, both highly rated internally, and have committed themselves to three-year contracts prior to this season. Unfortunately, both were struck down by injuries at inopportune times which hampered their ability to see the pitch this season, but by all accounts, their recoveries have been going well, and they have been slowly reintroduced to action in City's NPL setup. Expect both to potentially break into the first team next season.

Finally, Nuno Reis has progressively fallen out of favour at Melbourne City since joining at the beginning of the 2020/21 season, culminating with him only playing 12 league games this season. With Trewin potentially joining next season, this move could further jeopardise Reis' chances of seeing more game time in the future. The 32-year-old will likely want to move on so he can play regular first-team football.


Arguably the most important off-season decision Petrillo needs to make is who will coach Melbourne City in the future. Aurelio Vidmar has done a serviceable job as interim manager after the departure of Rado Vidosic. Still, due to City's underperformance in the league, it is hard to imagine the club views him as a long-term solution.


One of the best available options for the future is former Newcastle Jets boss Arthur Papas. Papas, who has recently departed Thai side Buriram United with them leading the Thai League 1, would be a perfect fit for Melbourne City.


The 44-year-old manager has experience coaching within the City Football Group system from his time in Japan, where he worked as an assistant under Ange Postecoglou at Yokohama F. Marinos. During his time in Newcastle, he got the Jets to play some expansive, free-flowing football, culminating in a ninth-place finish in the 2021/22 season. While a ninth-place finish may not sound too exciting for Melbourne City fans, it must be remembered that Papas was essentially managing with one hand tied behind his back due to the financial constraints he was hampered by.

In the upcoming off-season, Melbourne City will need to make multiple signings all over the pitch as they aim to refresh an aging squad that has underperformed this season. With Maclaren potentially making a move away from City at the end of the season, a potential replacement could be recent Socceroos debutant John Iredale. Iredale, who plays for SV Wehen Wiesbaden in the German second division, will be a free agent at the end of this season. Melbourne City may be able to lure him back to Australia with the promise of consistent minutes for a historically dominant club looking to return to winning ways.


The 24-year-old has been predominantly used as a late substitute and occasional starter in Germany this season. He may want to look for a team where he can consistently start to cement himself as a permanent member of the Socceroos squad. Iredale is a tall striker who possesses enough pace to be a threat running in behind defensive lines, but he could still be used as an aerial threat when needed, potentially adding an extra dimension to Melbourne City's game, one they have not been able to showcase while Maclaren has been apart of the setup.

 

READ MORE A-LEAGUES COVERAGE ON FPF

John Iredale is a potential option Melbourne City could look towards should Maclaren depart. (Image: Aleksandar Jason/Subway Socceroos)


Another potential attacking option City could consider is current Newcastle Jet Reno Piscopo. Once a highly touted prospect, Piscopo has had issues with injuries in recent years and has struggled to get consistent minutes under his belt in the last couple of seasons. Despite this frustration, he is still only 25, and when he is fit and firing, Piscopo can light up the competition. A move back to his home state may be just what he needs to regain his confidence on the pitch.


If Piscopo were to join Melbourne City, he would most likely be an understudy for Tolgay Arslan. But joining a new team where he will have less pressure on him to perform week in and week out may revitalise his career. As a bonus, if Papas were to become the head coach next season, Piscopo would already have experience working under the 44-year-old from their time together at Newcastle.


Ultimately, Melbourne City is about to begin a massive rebuild of their squad after a few disappointing seasons, so it would be naive to expect the club to immediately return to the previous elite form they had under Patrick Kisnorbo.

But off the pitch, City has been making big strides in developing its academy facilities to consistently develop high-quality players that can slot straight into the first team. This work can contribute to alleviating the issues we have seen on the pitch this season, most noticeably helping to revive an aging, injury-prone squad.


The City Football Group is synonymous with success at all its clubs worldwide, so it will be eager to turn the tide in Melbourne as quickly as possible. With a bit of planning alongside its continual investment, it should not be long before Melbourne City returns to its best.


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