The winners and losers of the World Cup break
The conclusion of 2022 will always be remembered in Australian football for the Socceroos' historic World Cup run. Between the on-field performances Graham Arnold's team produced and the vibrant scenes fans across the country displayed to show their support, the sporting heads of the nation were focused entirely on football.
But while the national team was turning heads and making a country proud, Australia's local game, aside from those busy creating history, were hard at work preparing for the return of the A-League Men.
A three-week break was scheduled into the fixture list to ensure clubs were affected as little as possible by players being called up for football's biggest show. So, teams were allowed to recoup and assess where they were after six rounds.
However, a break like that could be a blessing or a curse, and across the league, we’ve seen both at play. Some teams managed to turn their season around, while others saw some fine form before the break abruptly halted.
So, who were the biggest winners and losers of the World Cup break? Front Page Football looks at the teams with the most significant turnarounds since round six.
Western Sydney Wanderers
The team with arguably the most surprising drop-off in form would be the Western Sydney Wanderers. The club won four of its six games before the break, with their only loss coming to the Central Coast Mariners.
Round six also saw an emphatic and inspiring win away to fierce rivals Sydney FC in the Sydney Derby, ensuring the best possible send-off heading into the break.
But since returning, the Wanderers have only managed one win, on New Year’s Day against Macarthur. Five draws from eight games in this period is the biggest issue. The Wanderers' ability to see out games has slowly diminished since their Allianz Stadium triumph.
While Western Sydney has the second-best defensive record in the league, their efforts up the other end have yet to produce the desired outcomes. The lack of a regular goal scorer has been telling, with winger Brandon Borrello having to shoulder this responsibility alongside his more natural creative duties.
Brandon Borrello (centre) has covered as a makeshift striker for the Wanderers this season. (The West Australian)
The fact that Borrello has managed four goals in these circumstances is quite impressive.
And according to Western Advocate journalist Bradley Jurd, a figurehead up top is all that’s missing for the Wanderers to be a top team.
“[Not having] a clinical striker is holding us back,” Jurd said.
“If we can find a consistent goal threat, I think the Wanderers will be transformed into a serious, genuine title challenger.”
It’s an issue the Wanderers tried to rectify in the off-season, with two strikers being brought in. Adelaide United youngster Kusini Yengi has shown glimpses of quality. However, he has been hampered by injury. Meanwhile, visa signing from Bosnia Sulejman Krpic has already left the club after an underwhelming period.
After scoring on his league debut, Bosnian striker Krpic struggled to find his feet in Parramatta. (Twitter: @wswanderersfc)
However, despite the lack of wins, the Wanderers have still only slipped to third place from second before the break. But they did have a six-point buffer to seventh at this stage, which has now been reduced to three.
It may only take a small run of wins to solidify their top-four spot and push back into the top two. With rumours circling that the club is actively looking for a new striker, this minor blip in form could remain precisely that.
“Our midfield is class – Nieuwenhof has arguably been the pickup of the season, [and] our backline is a brick wall. If we sort out the striker position, we’ll be the finished unit,” Jurd added.
Central Coast Mariners
The Central Coast Mariners have been the feel-good story of the competition over the last two seasons. After being dealt four wooden spoons in the five seasons preceding the 2020/21 season, they have made the finals series in both campaigns since, coming third two seasons ago.
However, at the start of this season, it looked as though this period had run its course. The Mariners started with a draw and a loss to Wellington and Perth Glory, respectively. They found themselves 2-0 down at halftime to Western United. But a comeback in this game was something to build on as the season progressed.
Despite a win in their next game against the Wanderers, they sat fifth after round six, albeit with a game in hand with two wins, two losses and a draw.
While this position isn’t the worst to be in, what they’ve been able to do since returning to action has been remarkable.
They’ve won five games from eight and climbed from fifth to second on the ladder. All while still offering the highest percentage of minutes to U23 Australians than any other A-League Men side.
The Mariners have the league's best attack, with 29 goals scored. Even with the lack of results during the early stage of the season, the club's attacking threat has always been on display.
The Mariners have scored 29 goals this season, more than any other A-League Men side. (Central Coast Mariners)
Mariners fan Martin Rayner, the host of the MartyMariner show, always had faith the side would come good.
“I’ve said it from the start, the Mariners will only get stronger as the season progresses,” Rayner said.
“The buzz around the club this season has been there from day one. This group are there for each other, and there is a real belief they can do great things.”
The World Cup break came at the right time for the club, giving themselves a chance to reset and push on to those heights they believed they could.
“For the Mariners, the break was a godsend,” Rayner said.
“The break allowed [Head Coach] Montgomery to work with the younger squad members and review how their season has gone so far.”
A draw in their last match against the Wanderers could have been better. But they still have a two-point buffer in second place. Confidence is high, and reinforcements have been acquired to improve an already firing attack.
However, their next run of matches will be telling. They only play at Industree Group Stadium twice between now and April. They’ve picked up seven points from five games this season on the road, so their away record will need to improve if they want to maintain a top-two spot.
But having five wins in eight matches is the ideal form to be in before travelling away from home.
“I think the momentum will hold them in good stead, and there’s not a team they fear, home or away,” Rayner added.
Adelaide United have a reputation for starting seasons slowly, more often than not. So, when they managed to win three on the trot before the World Cup break, fans could be forgiven for holding high hopes about this season.
A resounding 3-0 win against rivals Melbourne Victory, in front of a pumping Coopers Stadium, was how they ended their pre-World Cup run. With star man Craig Goodwin not only lighting up the league during this period but carrying his form onto the biggest stage in football, there was a belief Adelaide could push beyond aiming for the top four this season.
Craig Goodwin continued his excellent A-League Men form in Qatar. (TalkSport)
But Goodwin’s success in Qatar has proven to be as much a curse as it was a blessing. Opposing teams have started to focus their efforts on shutting him down, first and foremost, when playing Adelaide.
“Prior to his stunning Socceroos performances, players knew the level of skill he [Craig Goodwin] had, but since then, he’s the opposition's number one target,” Red Army secretary Robbie Anderson said.
“He’s still playing well, but it's hard to feed him or give him space when he’s being marked by two or three players.”
However, along with the increased attention on Goodwin, disciplinary issues have plagued the side. The Reds have received four red cards in their last seven games and more than any other club this season.
The red cards have forced them to adopt a conservative approach to see out matches, unable to play on the front foot in losing situations.
Isaias (not visible above) has received two of Adelaide's four red cards since the league returned from the World Cup break. (The West Australian)
Anderson believes the instability of line-ups is one of many contributing factors to Adelaide’s dip in form since the World Cup break.
“A constantly changing backline is leaving us open and stopping our ability to put away games,” Anderson said.
“Between injuries, a lack of transfers in the January window, and what can be considered having no ‘Plan B’ in our tactics would be the major factors.”
They’re currently undefeated in their last three matches, but only two wins since the break have seen them slip from third to fifth on the ladder.
But the ladder in its current state is still tight. They are only one point off the top four but two points away from dropping out of the top six altogether.
Getting the best out of key players will be crucial moving forward, along with being able to put out a consistent line-up every week.
Juande was the latest injury blow for Adelaide, suffering a fracture on his right tibia and fibula in distressing scenes on Sunday. However, it does allow Louis D’Arrigo, Ethan Alagich, or Jonny Yull to come into the starting eleven regularly.
There is still undoubted quality in this Adelaide team. There's a feeling that if the issues plaguing the first team are rectified, they could still be looking at a successful season.
“We still have a lot of games, and it’s a tight season. Our home games are crucial for a win, and we know Coopers is our fortress,” Anderson said.
With seven of their 12 upcoming matches at home, Adelaide fans will be hoping these words come to fruition.
However, the most surprising turnaround since the break, at least to everyone bar their fans, comes from the Wellington Phoenix. Wellington was eighth before the World Cup, with only six points from six games.
Since then, they’ve won four of their eight matches, only losing once. They’ve climbed from eighth to fourth and are making a solid case for a home final. Such an occasion would mean so much to their fans after spending most of the last two seasons outside of New Zealand.
Defensive changes and the return of key personnel have been instrumental in this shift in form, with defensive solidity making up for a slight reduction in goals.
Alex Rufer's return from injury has been crucial for Wellington Phoenix. (NewsHub)
“We’ve lowered the goals conceded from twelve in six [games] to nine in eight, so maintaining a similar goal-scoring record isn’t a problem at all,” Wellington Phoenix fan Ethan Fransen said.
“The squad has the quality and depth in the attacking half of the pitch, with many yet to hit full stride. This side can score goals, just not penalties.”
Wellington has scored 24 goals in 14 games this season. While they had a better goals per games ratio before the break, their performances have vastly improved.
Oskar Zawada (centre right) has been crucial to Wellington's attack this season. (NZ Herald)
But this attacking quality showed the Phoenix had the potential to be a finals challenger from the start. While they only won once in their first six games, they also had three draws in this period. Their loss to Western United at home, their final match before the break, was also lost in the game's dying embers.
“Easy points were lost due to things like the red card for a slip vs Adelaide and blowing a 2-0 lead vs Western,” Fransen said.
“Historically, the Phoenix are at their worst in the first five to seven games; this time, we played better than our results, but simple things let the side down.”
However, the Phoenix now play most of their games away, including their next four. They have eight points from 15 possible on the road this season, which they hope to rectify in this period.
But they've found their best defensive unit since the World Cup break, with Callan Elliot coming into the side and Tim Payne shifting into his natural centre-back position. Meanwhile, visa signings Zawada and Bozhidar Kraev are building form, and the Phoenix will go into this period in good stride.
Whether positive or negative, a winter World Cup, or summer for Australians, has undoubtedly had its impact on sides across the A-League Men. While other factors will always be at play in football, it’s hard to argue that a three-week break at any point in the season will affect teams, particularly those in good form.
However, the 2022/23 season has only just crossed the halfway point. With plenty more football to be played, there’s certainly time for clubs like Adelaide United and the Western Sydney Wanderers to find their pre-World Cup form.
But alas, the league was forced into such a situation this season, and a club's ability to handle the halt could be season-defining.
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