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  • Writer's pictureJake Holub

A-League Men 2023/24: FPF's U21 Team of the Season

An emphasis on youth development and giving youngsters a go was evident throughout the 2023/24 A-League Men regular season. When looking at the top two teams, the Central Coast Mariners and Wellington Phoenix, sides with lower budgets who have embraced and trusted younger players to play significant roles, it is only a matter of time before more clubs start to implement similar models. Front Page Football has assembled a Team of the Season for the best performing U21 players in the league, celebrating the number of young talents that have burst onto the scene this season.


Goalkeeper - Alex Paulsen


Age: 21


Club: Wellington Phoenix

Alex Paulsen has arguably been the best goalkeeper in the A-League Men this season. (Image: Adrianne Armida)


Arguably deserving to make the best team across the entirety of the league, let alone an U21 team, Paulsen is undoubtedly one of the most obvious inclusions in the side. Playing every minute for the Phoenix and helping his side to the strongest defensive record in the league, Paulsen's 2023/24 season has been unbelievable.


Paulsen possesses everything that is needed and expected from the modern goalkeeper. He has displayed an excellent shot-stopping ability (110 saves made at a percentage of 80.9%, the best in the league), a great command of his area (in the 90th percentile for high claims), good ball-playing ability, composure to build up from the back, and the ability to sweep up and nullify chances before they arise (12.9 goals prevented, the best in the league).


While Paulsen has made a few costly errors over the course of the season, the way in which he has led this Phoenix side and single-handedly won his team points in tightly contested games has been utterly remarkable, particularly with three penalty saves from five taken against him this season. It is uncommon to come across such a young and confident goalkeeper who can successfully inspire and rally a team to success, making him a unique talent who can come into a side and make an immediate impact.

After pushing his way into New Zealand's senior squad and competing with Wellington for a first-ever A-League Men championship, it is almost a matter of time before a huge overseas club tries to sign one of the most talented and promising U21 goalkeepers worldwide.


Left-back - Jacob Farrell


Age: 21


Club: Central Coast Mariners

Jacob Farrell has taken his game to another level in 2023/24. (Image: Will Zhao)


Another youngster who would make a strong case to be in the A-League Men's best team this season across all players is Jacob Farrell. The Mariner has certainly taken the leap in becoming the league's premier left-back this season. Despite missing a few games through suspension and national team commitments, and juggling midweek continental games with Central Coast competing in the AFC Cup, Farrell has proven how consistent and reliable he is.


Breaking through two seasons ago, Farrell has always been considered a solid fullback, particularly on the defensive end. This season, he has maintained this excellent defensive output, finishing amongst the top players in the league for recoveries, tackles, and duels won, while leading the competition in interceptions.


However, what has been particularly interesting are the significant improvements Farrell has shown in his offensive game. Having picked up four goals and eight assists across all competitions so far this season, Farrell has displayed an extra willingness and ability to get involved in the final third with his excellent work rate, intelligence, and craftiness. This improvement to his game has made Farrell a complete player who can impact both sides of the game, which is crucial for a fullback in the modern game.

Having established himself as a key player for the Mariners, who will be looking to win back-to-back championships and complete an illustrious treble this season, it would not be surprising to see Farrell called up to the Socceroos and potentially make an overseas move in the coming months.


Honourable mentions should be made to Sydney FC's Jordan Courtney-Perkins (21) and Wellington's Lukas Kelly-Heald (19), two players who have also become important contributors to their respective sides, both challenging for the championship.


Left centre-back - Mark Natta


Age: 21


Club: Newcastle Jets

Mark Natta joined the Newcastle Jets ahead of the 2022/23 A-League Men season. (Image: Thomas Pombart)


While his club has struggled this season without owners and a lack of resources, Mark Natta has stepped up and established himself as a key player for the Newcastle Jets. Joining the Jets last season, Natta's first season in the Steel City showed glimmers of promise and potential. However, he struggled to keep a consistent starting role in a poor Newcastle defence.


Matthew Jurman's departure in the off-season presented an excellent opportunity for Natta to make the left centre-back role his own this season, something he succeeded in doing. Making 24 appearances and starting in each one, Natta has consistently grown and improved over the season, gaining more experience as a consistent starter at the heart of a young, inexperienced defence.


He possesses good speed and agility, is capable of dealing with quick attackers, and displays the technical ability to carry or pass the ball through the opposition's press. These attributes make Natta an exciting prospect for teams adopting a highly aggressive style of play, requiring defenders who can take risks playing out from the back and have the speed to enforce a high defensive line.

While Natta still has areas to improve, notably on the physical side to deal with stronger and more physically imposing strikers, it is no surprise that there has been rumoured interest in his services overseas and from other A-League Men sides.


Narrowly missing out on this spot was Sydney FC's Jake Girdwood-Reich (20), who deserves an honourable mention after stepping into a new position at centre-back and displaying excellent potential as a physically dominant and aggressive defender.


Right centre-back - Finn Surman


Age: 20


Club: Wellington Phoenix

Finn Surman has played every minute of Wellington's 2023/24 A-League Men season. (Image sourced from Wellington Phoenix FC Facebook)


Arguably an unsung hero for the Phoenix this season, Finn Surman has been pivotal in maintaining their excellent defensive record. 


Initially breaking out for the Nix in early 2022, Surman looked certain to be a key figure at the back for what was then Ufuk Talay's side. However, his 2022/23 season did not go as planned, only featuring four times with just one start.


Then stepped in new head coach, Giancarlo Italiano, who decided to back Surman right from the very start this season. Like Paulsen, Surman has played every single minute for Wellington in the league and has seamlessly made the transition into a regular first-team player.


A towering player standing at 6'3", Surman is not just the stereotypical physically and aerially dominant defender. He also possesses the traits needed in any modern centre-back, finishing in the 90th percentile for successful passes and pass accuracy among others in his position.

At just 20, Surman is arguably up there with some of the top performing centre-backs in the entire league. He has had an excellent season for the Nix and has also impressed with his leadership and mentality as a young player stepping into the professional game. Surman's next step will be fighting to become a starter for the All Whites, with only one cap to his name for the national team.


One player who was rather unfortunate to miss out, due to how impressive Surman has been, is Sydney FC's Hayden Matthews (19), who deserves recognition for not only stepping into but revolutionising the Sky Blues' defence this season. Another towering defender who has been able to play in their high line, Matthews has quickly become a name that must be considered when discussing the most promising young Australian defenders.


Right-back - Giuseppe Bovalina


Age: 19


Club: Adelaide United (now Vancouver Whitecaps)

Giuseppe Bovalina recently joined Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS. (Image: Courtney Pedlar)


While technically no longer an A-League Men player, Giuseppe Bovalina deserves this honour for his season, which resulted in a recent move to Major League Soccer side the Vancouver Whitecaps.


Coming into the 2023/24 season, it appeared that the teenager would struggle to find a spot in Adelaide United's first team, with Javi Lopez and Panashe Madanha seemingly preferred at right-back. However, Bovalina earned the starting role early on and did not look back.


In his first professional season, Bovalina did not look out of place for the Reds. He made 18 starts in all competitions, putting in some top performances for a side that ultimately struggled defensively.


Bovalina is a very active defender, ranking high amongst other fullbacks in the league for tackles, duels, possessions won, interceptions, and recoveries. While he defends with great energy and intensity, it also results in him being caught out of position and beaten by opposing wingers with more ease, ranking him amongst the lower end of fullbacks who were dribbled past this season.

However, Bovalina particularly excels with his ability to get forward, presenting a unique goal threat from fullback. While you can criticise the significant underperformance of his 3.75 expected goals (xG), as he only netted once this season, it also reflects his ability to get into great goalscoring positions with his intelligence and athletic ability. Bovalina is particularly good at latching onto crosses with his ariel ability. This part of his game was something he became well known for at NPL level with the Young Reds, and he has already carried it into the professional game.

Bovalina also ranked high for successful dribbles, dribble success rate, and chance creation; a complete offensive player who looks perfectly suited to a team that invites their fullbacks to get forward and attack. Currently deploying a three-at-the-back system, Bovalina could be a perfect right wing-back for the Whitecaps, who reportedly signed him for over A$200,000.


As for the honourable mentions, Aidan Simmons (20) earned 16 starts this season for the Western Sydney Wanderers, impressing and displaying a lot of potential for a side that had a relatively disappointing campaign in missing the top six. Joshua Rawlins (20) also reminded us of his ability after returning on a mid-season loan to Perth Glory, despite the side finishing bottom.


Central defensive midfielder - Oscar Priestman


Age: 21


Club: Western Sydney Wanderers

Oscar Priestman (right) made 25 league appearances this season. (Image: Harley Appezzato)


Oscar Priestman, brought to Western Sydney from Sydney FC to replace Calem Nieuwenhof, a player who made the same move, appears to be yet another who fits into the Sky Blues' growing 'one that got away' list of departures.


Priestman displayed excellent perseverance and fought hard to earn a spot in Marko Rudan's starting lineup during his first season for Western Sydney. Starting the season as a backup to the experienced midfield pairing of Jorrit Hendrix and Joshua Brillante, Priestman had to bide his time before proving he was a worthy starter.


Capable of playing in a double pivot or even more advanced as an eight, Priestman is a versatile and well-rounded midfielder. He is an aggressive ball winner who likes to break up play, ranking amongst the best midfielders in the league for tackles and duels won. Priestman has also displayed an ability to go on penetrating and mazy runs through the middle of the pitch, and creates chances for his teammates with his passing.

One would hope that Priestman will be given the chance to build upon this season and continue to start for the Red and Black next season, as he is an exceptionally talented young midfielder who should certainly be in strong contention for the next Olyroos squad.


Adelaide United's Ethan Alagich (20) certainly deserves an honourable mention in this position, earning a consistent starting role for the Reds during the latter half of the season. Alagich is another player who could contend for a spot in the Olyroos, showing significant improvements in his ball winning and ability to win duels.


Central midfielder - Corey Hollman


Age: 20


Club: Sydney FC

Corey Hollman has made 24 league appearances for Sydney FC this season. (Image: Harley Appezzato)


While the number of top young talents, such as Priestman, who have slipped through Sydney FC's grasp is enough to bring any of their fans to tears when they see what they missed out on, the club is seemingly taking steps to prevent this trend from continuing in the future.


After battling injuries that delayed his first-team breakout, Corey Hollman has shown everyone why the club persisted with the youngster and handed him a contract extension heading into this season, after he started each game throughout Sydney's victorious Australia Cup campaign.


Hollman started to show what he was all about after the arrival of Ufuk Talay and the subsequent implementation of a high-pressing system. Although Sydney possess a squad full of quality and experienced players, their lack of youthful energy and exuberance made Hollman a perfect midfield option for this new system.


Ranking amongst some of the best midfielders in the competition for possessions won in the final third, Hollman's pressing has been vital to how Talay has moulded his side's style of play. His athleticism and work rate make him a force in the middle of the pitch, while Hollman also has excellent technical quality and is more than capable of dribbling through traffic in tight areas.

With his older brother, Jake, winning Macarthur's Player of the Season award, and younger sister, Shay, playing an integral part in Sydney FC's A-League Women's championship-winning side, the Hollman family has three players likely to dominate the middle of the pitch for their clubs over the next decade.


Despite a campaign that finished in underwhelming fashion, Jonny Yull (19) deserves a mention, starting the season in Adelaide United's midfield and showing glimpses of why he has attracted interest from the likes of English giants Chelsea. However, Yull is still very young and can certainly learn and grow from the experience of his first season into a more consistent first-team player.


Centre attacking midfielder - Matthew Grimaldi


Age: 20


Club: Western United

Matthew Grimaldi in action against the Brisbane Roar this season. (Image: Tanner Coad)


Quite an unknown heading into the 2023/24 A-League Men season, at least compared to some of the other names on this list, Matthew Grimaldi has quickly established himself as one of the top talents in the league this season.


After making brief substitute appearances in the earlier stage of the season, Grimaldi had to wait until the new year to start picking up more consistent minutes for John Aloisi's Western United side. Despite playing just under 1,000 minutes for a Western side that struggled to find the back of the net, Grimaldi scored five goals and grabbed an assist in what was his first professional season.


An attack-minded midfielder, Grimaldi ranks amongst the best in his position for shooting and goalscoring ability. He has displayed good positioning in and around the box, with the ability to finish the chances that come his way. Grimaldi also ranks in the 87th percentile for touches in the opposition box, with his excellent close control and dribbling ability making it difficult for opposing defenders to stop him.

While Western United's season was majorly disappointing, finishing second to bottom with the least goals scored in the league, by providing a platform for graduates of the Western United Academy, like Grimaldi, to prove themselves in the A-League Men could prove a long-term benefit for the club. Notably, the 20-year-old recently signed an extension until 2027 with the Green and Black.


Returning to the A-League Men on loan during the January transfer window, Keegan Jelacic (21) is an honourable mention for his brief stint with the Brisbane Roar, where he was reunited with former Perth Glory manager Ruben Zadkovich. After a far-from-ideal loan in Norway during the first half of the season, Jelacic's 11-game stint with the Roar has given him the platform to prove himself again as he heads back to Belgium with KAA Gent.


Left winger - Ben Old


Age: 21


Club: Wellington Phoenix

Ben Old has enjoyed a breakout season for Wellington in 2023/24. (Image: Adrianne Armida)


A highly touted New Zealand prospect who received All Whites caps in 2022, Ben Old has undoubtedly justified the hype around him this season. Despite being a relatively consistent first-team player for the Phoenix across the two previous seasons, Old has elevated his game to new heights under Giancarlo Italiano.


As many players have done this season for the Nix, Old has featured in various roles, usually based on whatever is required for the opponent. From left wing-back, number six, and playing out wide, Old has shown excellent versatility wherever he has been deployed.


Skillset-wise, Old seemingly has everything a player needs. Among some of the best in the league for successful dribbles and ball carries, Old combines electrifying speed with excellent ball control and an ability to deceive opponents with a faint or fake.

Only grabbing a combined four goal contributions over 1,500 minutes across his previous two seasons, Old has shown significant improvement in his output, notching five goals and four assists this season in just over 1,600 minutes (while also occassionally playing in a deeper role). Old has added an end product to his game that is ultimately crucial in modern football for players deployed in advanced areas.

Finding his way back into the All Whites set-up during the season, where he earned two more caps, Old is yet another top young talent who has thrived throughout Wellington's best-ever league season. Time will ultimately tell as to how much longer he, and the aforementioned Paulsen and Surman, will stick around in a league where all three are quickly becoming some of the best in their respective positions, despite still being in their early 20s.


In a position with much competition, honourable mentions include the Macarthur trio of Raphael Borges Rodrigues (20), Jed Drew (20), and Bernardo Oliveira (20), who all impressed on the wing for the Bulls this season. Clayton Taylor (20) also enjoyed a breakout season with the Newcastle Jets, picking up seven goals and three assists in his first professional season after joining from Sydney FC's academy (yep, another one).


Striker - Thomas Waddingham


Age: 19


Club: Brisbane Roar

Thomas Waddingham celebrates a goal against Melbourne Victory this season. (Image: Michael Glass/Odyssey Images)


Entering the season as an 18-year-old who has never kicked the ball at the professional level, it was a very bold decision for the Brisbane Roar to back Thomas Waddingham as their starting striker. A position that is rarely offered to young players, it was evident that the Roar saw something special in Waddingham, something that is clear now with the young striker reportedly attracting interest from none other than Ange Postecoglou's Tottenham Hotspur.


After a stellar Australia Cup campaign where Waddingham helped his side reach the final, the hype around him was high heading into the 2023/24 A-League Men season. He had a relatively slow start adjusting to playing week in and week out at the top level, but Waddingham progressively improved and finished the season with 11 goals and one assist across all competitions, averaging a goal contribution every 148 minutes for the Roar.


Combining excellent physical attributes with great anticipation to pounce on opportunities in the box, Waddingham appears to be a goalscoring machine in the making. Grabbing goals against the Netherlands and Denmark with the Young Socceroos and then receiving an Olyroos call-up for the WAFF U23 Championship, Australian football fans are already pointing towards the 19-year-old as the future number nine for the Socceroos, a position that has lacked a true out-and-out goalscorer for a long time.


While the sky seems the limit for Waddingham, ensuring he continues his trajectory and development as a clinical centre-forward is crucial, which involves him picking up consistent game time at a reasonable level. While the links to Spurs are exciting, it is essential that wherever Waddingham does end up for next season, there is a clear pathway to regular minutes. It is becoming an all too common trend that talented young Australians move abroad too early and ultimately return a few years later, right back in the same spot they were before.

Being the equal second-highest goalscoring teenager in the league this season with seven goals, Waddingham has undoubtedly earned his spot in the team. But he had competition marching right behind. Michael Ruhs (21) had his first season as a consistent starter with Western United and showed glimpses of becoming a solid striker. Meanwhile, Adelaide United's Luka Jovanovic (18) and Melbourne City's Max Caputo (18) are two excellent young attackers who could potentially earn starting roles for their respective clubs next season.

 

READ MORE A-LEAGUES CONTENT ON FPF

 

Right winger - Nestory Irankunda


Age: 18


Club: Adelaide United (now Bayern Munich)

Nestory Irankunda enjoyed a terrific end to the 2023/24 season. (Image: Ben Blaess/BDb.media)


The youngest in this list and the one that has captivated all Australian football fans this season, Nestory Irankunda was undoubtedly one of the easiest picks.


A cracking start to the season with a high-flying Adelaide United side scoring for fun was topped off by a long-anticipated move to Bayern Munich. It would be easy to assume everything was smooth sailing for the teenager. But Irankunda later admitted to the struggles he has experienced, with an immense amount of pressure and expectation on his shoulders at such a young age.


When in previous seasons experienced head Craig Goodwin was able to lead the side, both on the pitch and as the face of the club off the pitch, his departure left a big void that Irankunda felt a responsibility to fill. Irankunda's mentality and commitment were called into question, with the strong emotions he shows during and after games being notably weaponised by critics.


However, Irankunda buckled down and continued to persist, as he refound his form late in the season, spearheading an almost unthinkable late-season top six challenge for the Reds. He became the league's youngest-ever player to score a hat-trick after an unbelievable performance against Western United, which was immediately followed by another top performance away in Perth, where the winger picked up two assists. 


Although Adelaide ultimately fell short of making the Finals Series, Irankunda's efforts throughout this period were remarkable. While he has impressed in previous seasons with his other-worldly speed and power, Irankunda displayed a much more complete version of himself this season.


Not only did he finish with eight goals (the most ever scored in an A-League Men season by a teenager), six assists, and 2.5 successful dribbles per game (fourth highest in the league), Irankunda has also proven that he is capable of starting games, making 18 starts in 2023/24 after not doing so at all across his previous two campaigns. He has also improved on the defensive end, consistently ranking relatively high for defensive actions among other wingers in the league.

At just 18, Irankunda is still far from a finished product and has more in his game to polish, particularly if he is to play for a Champions League contender like Bayern. This rawness should not be looked at with concern but rather something that should be expected at such a young age.


More importantly, what should be noted are the attributes he already possesses and has begun to harness and utilise more consistently this season. Irankunda's potential is about as sky-high as you can go, but the transition to Europe's elite can be challenging and ruthless for many young footballers. Ultimately, Irankunda is one of, if not, the biggest talent to come out of the league, and we should all be excited to see what the future holds for him.

Along with the hope that Irankunda's Bayern move is successful is the uncertainty surrounding his international allegiance, after he was initially snubbed for the Olyroos' Asian Cup squad by Tony Vidmar, before Irankunda was reportedly not responsive to the possibility of being a late injury replacement for the tournament. Irankunda's next six to 12 months will be interesting to follow, to say the least, as we see Bayern's plans for his development and what the future holds regarding his national team commitments.


Despite Irankunda being the clear starter in this position, honourable mentions go out to his former Joeys teammate, Daniel Bennie (18), who finished with the fourth-highest minutes played for Perth Glory in his first season of A-League Men football, and Marcus Younis (18) of the Western Sydney Wanderers, with the team narrowly missing out on the Finals Series despite some inspiring performances from the teenager off the bench. He is a player who is more than ready to step up and play consistent minutes next season.


Statistics sourced from SofaScore and FotMob.


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