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  • Writer's pictureJake Holub

Giving the kids a go: Western United's increased reliance on their academy

Despite a torrid season for Western United, who sit rock bottom with 11 losses just 16 games into their 2023/24 A-League Men campaign, a particular bright side has been an increasing faith shown in their young players. Criticised for fielding ageing sides over promising young players in the past, manager John Aloisi has undoubtedly looked to turn this trend around, providing nine academy graduates with first-team debuts so far this season.

Nine academy graduates have debuted for the Western United first-team so far this season. (Image: Western United)


While much can be said about Western United regarding identity, location, and on-field performances in the past two seasons, it seems the club is entering more optimistic territory now. News of the club opening their training ground in Tarneit as soon as March, which will host both A-League Men's and Women's fixtures, while working to construct their proposed purpose-built 15,000-seat Wyndham City Stadium, was met with undoubted positivity.


While Western looks to settle and find a permanent home, the club has really emphasised their youth academy. Formed in 2021, the academy has already shown great promise in its brief history. Western United's reserves have been particularly impressive since their inception, securing promotion from Victoria's NPL 3 in 2022 and finishing second in NPL 2 last season.

According to Aloisi, the strength of Western's academy played a part in how the club decided to build their squad heading into this season.

Aloisi is currently overseeing his third season as Western United's manager. (Image: Western United FC Instagram)


"As a club, we decided to go with a squad that's a little bit thinner than what we had in the past," Aloisi said following their 2-0 win over the Newcastle Jets on Friday night.


"We said to our NPL coaches in our academy that we're going to have to rely on our players...I spent a bit of time with the NPL side in the off-season to see how the players were in their environment, to see how they trained.


"I've got total faith in our coaches; Diogo Ferreira and (Andrew) Durante were there along with Frosty (Anthony Frost). I know what they're trying to do and how, as a club, what we're trying to do, so this exposure is going to help them."

A player who has particularly taken a notable leap from academy to first-team football this season is 20-year-old Matthew Grimaldi.

Starring in the NPL side last season, Grimaldi has transitioned seamlessly to the senior level, displaying fantastic versatility and a spark for Western. Naturally more of a central midfielder, Grimaldi has featured on the left wing for most of his 14 senior appearances so far this season.


However, he looks more than comfortable in this role, able to drift inside and operate in the left half-space exceptionally well. With his ability to receive the ball between the lines and turn to make positive forward runs with the ball, Grimaldi displays a technical excellence that can sometimes be hard to find in modern-day Australian midfielders.

Grimaldi made his second start of the season against the Jets and showed great intent and threat for the Green and Black, completing two dribbles, 21 passes (88% successful), taking five shots inside the box, and providing a key pass.


"I thought he looked dangerous when he went forward, created some chances, had some chances; normally, he puts a lot of those away. The more games he plays, he will start to score more goals," Aloisi said on Grimaldi's performance, displaying a lot of optimism and confidence in the youngster.


However, this confidence in young players reaches beyond Grimaldi, with Aloisi giving five academy players debuts in the past four rounds. Giving starts to Young Socceroo Zach Lisolajski and Iraq U20 representative Charbel Shamoon and substitute appearances to James York, Jordan Lauton, and Luke Vickery, Aloisi has opted to trial his youngsters following Western's terrible start to the season.


Alongside Aloisi's faith in the club's academy, it can often be forgotten how young some of the more established players in the squad are. Key players such as Noah Botic, Michael Ruhs, Daniel Penha, Angus Thurgate, and Sebastian Pasquali are in their early to mid-20s, respectively, and they are still at a prime age to continue their improvement and development with consistent first-team football.

 

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Further opportunities should naturally arise for other young players to receive more minutes. Following James Donachie's straight red card late against the Jets, a spot in central defence should open up for 19-year-old Kane Vidmar in the next few games to attempt to stake a claim for the position more regularly.


Rhys Bozinovski is another player who could gain more minutes as the season progresses following his return from injury. Aloisi praised his substitute appearance for the energy he provided in midfield—Bozinovski's excellent skill featured in Australia's U20 AFC Asian Cup campaign last year.

While Western United do hover far behind the pack a touch over halfway into the A-League Men's season, Aloisi has an excellent opportunity to continue to provide opportunities that could help develop a lot of exceptionally talented young players he has at his disposal.


Western is already in a position where they have 'nothing to lose' this season, at least on the pitch—creating a culture where fans can watch some of the finest young talents in Victoria, if not Australia-wide, can be a great move to garner excitement and hype that may attract a strong fanbase in the Wyndham region before they move into a permanent home ground.


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