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  • Writer's pictureCaydn Foley

Injuries hurt, but there are alternatives for Melbourne City

In one of the A-League Men's most anticipated games on the season's calendar, fans from both sides of the Melbourne Derby divide left AAMI Park disappointed on Saturday night, as the points were shared after a goalless 90 minutes. With the result meaning Melbourne City are yet to rediscover their premiership form of seasons prior, and amidst a minor injury crisis, Aurelio Vidmar may need to look closer at his team selection.

There was fireworks on and off the pitch at the first Melbourne Derby of the 2023/24 season. (Sebastian Hassett Twitter)


Typical for any derby in world football, the game was frantic, with tensions flaring between Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory multiple times throughout the match.


Victory midfielder Zinedine Machach was lucky to escape a red card in the first half. It seemed only a matter of time before someone would be sent off, but referee Alireza Faghani, as usual, opted to let a lot go as we saw a free-flowing affair.


In their usual fashion, City set out to control possession and dominate the ball in Victory's half. But unlike the Melbourne City of previous seasons, they struggled to convert possession into clear-cut chances, finishing with only two shots on target. The talismanic Jamie Maclaren did find the back of the net in the 89th minute, but it was quickly overruled after Faghani deemed the striker to have committed a foul in the build-up.


Maclaren has struggled to score recently, with his most recent league goal coming in the 2-0 win over the Newcastle Jets on December 3. The 30-year-old has been dealing with a persistent ankle injury throughout the season, which may be resulting in his lacklustre form. However, Melbourne City manager Aurelio Vidmar had a more positive outlook on the poacher's form post-match.


“We have probably got to be a little bit more positive,” Vidmar said in his press conference.


“He's making runs, and we're not actually seeing them; we're not playing them. Especially when we beat that initial press from the opposition, we're going back a lot of times instead of trying to get forward, and then he's making runs, and we're not seeing him, so we've probably got to reward his runs a little bit more.”


Whilst Maclaren is still making his darting runs, he has looked a step off the pace when battling opposing centre-backs in duels, as demonstrated by his total derby touches, a measly 12.


Maclaren is averaging only 18.6 touches per 90 throughout the season, way below the league's average. While it is understandable that Melbourne City is continuing to play Maclaren through this minor ankle injury, as he is such an essential part of their system, now might be the time to put him on ice so he can return fully fit.

City are amidst a minor injury crisis right now. A rest for Maclaren could ensure he is 100% alongside the returning duo of Mathew Leckie and Andrew Nabbout, who should be back as City attempts to further correct their poor start to the 2023/24 season in the second half of the campaign.


Nabbout, who injured his ACL right before the season began, has been exceeding expectations in his rehabilitation and is already participating in non-contact drills with the rest of his teammates.


“He started training a little bit more this week with the group, so he's doing really well. He's in really good shape,” Vidmar said.


“I’m not sure exactly how many weeks, but he’s in our possession drills without any contact, in our passing exercises without any contact.


“So he’s going to get to a point where he can join our competitive exercises with contact. That’ll be his next step over time, and he still needs a little bit more conditioning. Then, obviously, he’s going to be having a lack of match conditioning because he can’t play anywhere.


“I can’t put a date on it, to be honest, but certainly, at some stage, he’ll be involved this season.”

 

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Andrew Nabbout has not appeared for Melbourne City this season after suffering an ACL injury prior to their season opener. (Andrew Nabbout Instagram)


In the meantime, the current injury crisis could provide a good opportunity for Vidmar to give his young attackers an extended run of regular minutes to prove themselves.


Young striker Max Caputo has been stuck behind Maclaren for multiple seasons now, which is understandable but also hinders his development. For the sake of variety for a team struggling to convert in front of goal, Caputo is a different type of striker to Maclaren, offering a physical presence in the box, which may benefit City as they struggle to find Maclaren amongst robust opposition defences. Although Vidmar may have a point in suggesting the service to Maclaren has been inadequate, having a profile akin to a target man up front may also open up City's other attacking outlets in possession.


One of those other outlets could be young Ben Mazzeo, a wide option City would be wise to utilise more often, given his dynamism and ability to offer creativity in the final third, which has been lacking from Brazilian Léo Natel, a foreigner whose status demands greater offensive output.

At times, A-League Men clubs have seemed allergic to giving young players an opportunity, but thankfully, this stance has been changing in recent years, particularly this season. City, for their part, is not a club that avoids giving youngsters a chance, as seen with the young talent they have exported in recent years.

They are one point outside the Finals Series spots; it is not all doom and gloom. We are only nine games into the season, too.


However, a team of their standards needs to meet expectations, which often means senior players may need to pay the price and make way for others eager to impress. City immediately changed their manager when it became clear expectations would not be met under Rado Vidosic. Should experienced senior players not carry out their duties as required, and it cost the club a top-six spot this season, Aurelio Vidmar may regret not using this period to make some bold alterations to his starting XI, putting such personnel on notice and rewarding the next wave of emerging City talent.


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