Formidable Sydney seem primed for another Grand Final berth
Last season’s Premiers and Grand Final runners-up, Sydney FC, are enjoying an almost perfect start to their 2021-22 A-League Women campaign.
They've picked up three wins and a draw in their opening four games, whilst only conceding once in the season opener almost a month ago.
The draw came in the second Sydney Derby of the season at Leichhardt Oval on Monday and could have, and possibly should have, ended in another win for the Sky Blues.
Sydney was dominant and finished the game with 14 shots, despite only one on target.
Losing Teresa Polias and Clare Wheeler in the off-season seems to have not changed the fundamentals of Ante Juric’s troops.
Yet, the coach is hoping to see more complete performances in the remaining ten games.
“We haven’t played super well, and our fluency hasn’t been great,” former Socceroo Juric confessed before Monday’s game.
With Taylor Ray and former Wanderer Sarah Hunter replacing Polias and Wheeler in midfield, things seem to be in good hands, though.
The mantra of the coach, to “be selfless”, is still very much anchored in everything the Sky Blues are doing, defensively and offensively.
Sydney goalkeeper Jada Mathyssen-Whyman makes a crucial save in the Sydney Derby. (Getty Images)
Leading the best defence in the league already, goalkeeper Mathyssen-Whyman has only been beaten once by Lauren Allan of the Newcastle Jets in round one.
The best statistic that shows how impressive the Sky Blues backline has been are the shots on target they have conceded so far, only six in four games.
The next best team is the Western Sydney Wanderers in that metric, with 12 shots on target conceded, twice as many.
The flattering numbers could be down to the individual performances of their defenders.
But they also provide an insight into that selfless culture Juric has instilled into Sydney.
Charlotte McLean has made 13 interceptions in the competition so far.
The players following her closely in that category are her teammates Taylor Ray (11) and Mackenzie Hawkesby (10).
Therefore it's no surprise that Sydney leads the league in interceptions per game with 20.5 after four games.
Centre-back Charlotte McLean has been a rock for Sydney FC this season. (Jason McCawley/Getty Images)
From the organised press in the opponents’ half to disrupt build-up play to the more complex one in their half, Juric’s troops have so far been a tough team to put off-balance.
"It starts with Prinnie (Princess Ibini), Cortnee (Vine) and Remy (Siemsen) up top because they run like nuts,” Juric added.
The workload of the three regular starters up front cannot be understated.
Offensively, despite scoring eight goals in their first three matches, Natalie Tobin’s teammates still look to be ramping up.
Only a third of their attempts have been on target (17/51), the weakest average in the league after Western Sydney (21%).
This inaccuracy is likely to be the only negative critique about the Sky Blues offensive firepower.
Hawkesby was a constant threat in the derby but could not bury her chances. (Getty Images)
They seem dangerous every time they progress the ball from their half.
Ray is finally getting some regular minutes as a starter with Wheeler gone and Polias taking the year off.
She recognised this week that Polias helped her reach the astonishing level she is currently playing at for Sydney.
“She was literally like a second coach to me. She helped me so much with my strengths and weaknesses and made me feel confident about taking over her position,” Ray told AAP.
With Hawkesby and Hunter in the midfield, they relentlessly look to play forward once the ball reaches their feet.
Hawkesby has swerved a mind-blowing 32 crosses into opposition boxes across the first four matches.
The runs of Ally Green and Jessika Nash on the wings help offer more solutions to the midfielders.
But the combination of patience and precision that Sydney's midfielders have showcased, and their ability to use momentum to their advantage, has been sensational.
Remy Siemsen has three goals in three games this season. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Juric also seems to have an unlimited arsenal of goal-scorers located everywhere across the park.
Siemsen has been the most lethal (she was dearly missed during the derby on Monday).
But Vine, Ibini, Charlize Rule, and Hawkesby have already put their names on the scoresheet too this season.
After the derby clash, Hawkesby now leads the team in attempted shots for the season, with a tally of 12, but only a mere three on target.
Ibini and Vine, real speedsters out wide, are a constant threat for their direct opponents.
Vine’s pace is unmatched, and she seems to enjoy making cutting runs into the box more often to face the goalkeeper herself or find a teammate with a cutback.
Ibini’s speed, ease of execution in 1v1s, and ability to be an offensive anchor make her a triple-threat almost impossible to defend.
She has 69% successful dribbles, 65% aerial duels won, and 64% ground duels won this season.
If the Sky Blues can force opposing goalkeepers to work more often, it would be hard for any team to keep them quiet or scoreless throughout the rest of the campaign.
Wellington Phoenix goalkeeper Lily Alfeld is likely to be tested on Wednesday. (Ashley Feder/Getty Images)
One can imagine that they should see off newcomers Wellington for their last game of 2021 if they avoid complacency.
The two teams already met once before this season, a dominant 3-0 victory for the Premiers against the Phoenix.
However, the real test for Juric and his troops is not too far away.
They will face Perth (the only other undefeated side, despite only playing twice), Canberra United, Melbourne City, and Melbourne Victory in January.
The objective is clear for the Sky Blues: reach a fifth consecutive Grand Final.
Coming out of January with a positive record will put them on the right track to battle out a title they lost to each Melbourne team over the past two years.
Last season ended with Wheeler consecrated as one of the best midfielders in the country after her stellar performances.
This time around might not see an individual crowned in such a fashion.
But the collective strength of Sydney is undeniable.
The road to the much-desired second double of the Sydney FC Women, 13 years later, is still long, but Juric’s troops seem as ready as they have ever been.
They continue their path by facing Wellington at 5.05pm AEDT tonight at the Wollongong Showground, live on Paramount +.