Will the Wanderers get it right this time?
Insanity is often defined as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. So why is it, with another squad overhaul happening in Western Sydney, that a positive outcome is expected this time?
The Western Sydney Wanderers have gone five straight seasons with no finals football. The club hit a new low at the end of last season, losing to Brisbane Roar in their Australia Cup playoff at their state-of-the-art training ground.
But to break this cycle, the club has wielded the axe and let 18 players out the door. On the flip side, 16 players have been signed since their dismal end to last season’s campaign. But questions about the squad's ability to turn this once might club around remain.
Can we expect a squad of players with a mentality to fight for the shirt, as was so typical of those who played in the club's early years? Has Mark Rudan found the right group of players to challenge for finals, as he did in his first season with Western United? Or will this season continue to prove the insanity of football as a once mighty club fall further into an abyss of irrationality and underachievement?
Western Sydney lost at home to Brisbane Roar in their Australia Cup playoff in May. (Australia Cup)
It has become the story of the Wanderers' off-seasons to undergo a significant squad reform. The last five off-seasons, all that have come following a failure to make the finals, have seen a minimum of eight players leave and join the club.
A lack of consistency is the main reason for the club’s failings in recent years. Patience is a virtue in football, and this quality is something the Wanderers currently lack.
But instead of changing their approach, they have further leaned into it, more than ever before this time. The transfer window saw several underperforming stars depart the club already. Phillip Cancar and Keanu Baccus left for the greener pastures of European football and are considered exceptions. But there is little disappointment about the others shown the door.
And the names coming into the club have fans excited.
Compared to last season, the standard of their domestic transfers is a clear positive for the club. Capped Socceroos Lawrence Thomas, Brandon Borrello, Ruon Tongyik, and Oliver Bozanic have joined alongside youth international Kusini Yengi. Highly rated youngsters Calem Nieuwenhof, Zac Sapsford, Nathaneal Blair, and Aidan Simmons have also come in.
Oliver Bozanic is one of the star signings for the Wanderers for the upcoming season. (Western Sydney Wanderers)
Alongside domestic signings, the visa signings the club have made all come with a pedigree that suggests they can be successful. These players include Marcelo Guedes, Yeni Ngbakoto, Romain Amalfitano, and Sulejman Krpić.
But the most prominent transfer story of the Wanderers' off-season has been the acquisition of Sydney FC legend Milos Ninkovic, following his messy and unprecedented departure from the Sky Blues. Initially, there was a mixed reaction across the Wanderers’ fan base. But it seems the sentiment right now is that this signing is a ‘one-up’ of sorts on their cross-town rivals who have been so dominant over them in recent years.
Milos Ninkovic was the transfer story of the A-League Men off-season, signing for Western Sydney from arch-rivals Sydney FC. (Twitter: @wswanderers)
On paper, this transfer window can be seen as successful, but football is decided on the pitch instead. With several new faces, they run the risk of once again struggling to integrate on the field together.
So with the same approach to squad building as in recent years, will we see the same result?
According to Wanderers fan Joseph Kay, the squad Rudan has put together has the potential to be strong this season. He also believes the expectation should be there to do so.
Kay, the content creator behind @JoeKayFootball on TikTok, believes the squad overhaul was necessary for the club this season, particularly as the relationship between the squad and the fans had hit an all-time low.
“I’m not the biggest fan of squad overhauls myself, but I think one needed to happen again,” Kay said.
“Not so much to change the quality in the squad, but rather the mentality, to bring in more experienced players like Bozanic, Ninkovic, who can hopefully bring more of a winning mentality to the club this season.”
However, regarding quality, a key area the Wanderers have addressed is the number nine role. After scoring 30 goals as a collective last season, the club has signed young Adelaide United striker Kusini Yengi and Bosnian striker Sulejman Krpić. The 31-year-old was the top scorer in his country's top flight last season.
“I’d love for Yengi to have a full (injury-free) season in the A-League; he’s got all the physical attributes needed to be a great striker,” Kay said.
Highly rated Young Socceroos striker Kusini Yengi will be hoping to further his career with the Western Sydney Wanderers. (Twitter: @Yeeengi7)
Kay also expressed his intrigue in seeing how Krpić will adapt to Australia, having built an impressive goal-scoring CV abroad throughout his career.
“Scoring goals is always a good thing, so it will be interesting to see how he (Krpić) adapts to the A-League. He’s clinical in the air. Hopefully, he will perform for us,” Kay said.
Yeni Ngbakoto will join them in the front line alongside former Socceroo Brandon Borrello. Both players come with high expectations, although they are seen as a noticeable improvement to their wide options from last season, with Keijiro Ogawa proving an underwhelming signing.
“He (Ngbakoto) looks dangerous, and I hope we do get the best out of him because he could be a real weapon for us, especially with [his] pace in behind,” Kay said.
“I think Borrello will come in and hit the heights he has in the past as well.”
It’s a freshened-up attack to one that scored the third lowest number of goals in the league last season. With big names joining the club, there is certainly reason for fans to be excited.
Meanwhile, the backline has been the least affected area of the field by recent transfer activity. But the signings of Marcelo Guedes, Lawrence Thomas, and Gabriel Cleur will still provide a much-needed boost.
“It’s (the signing of Guedes) more experience at the back and hopefully more of a cooler head. We threw away a lot of points last season, in particular towards the end. He can add quality at the back and sure things up a bit alongside [Lawrence] Thomas,” Kay said.
Guedes brings a wealth of experience to the Wanderers, having played in a UEFA Champions League Semi-Final as recently as 2020. (KeepUp)
“Gabriel Cleur is another player I’m keen to see, particularly with Tate Russell now out with an ACL injury; it was a much-needed signing.”
However, in Kay's eyes, the most impressive aspect of the recent squad overhaul is the camaraderie amongst the players despite only being together for a short period.
Western Sydney’s social media accounts have given fans plenty of behind-the-scenes looks of the side at the training ground. There appears to be a much more jubilant mood compared to what was rumoured to be last season. Despite many players being new to one another, it seems that bonds have been formed already, and the personalities in the squad are mixing together well.
It's a testament to the club's recruitment department for considering the personalities of the players they sign and their footballing ability.
The Wanderer's media team looks to be making a conscious effort to show this togetherness, too, most likely to ease doubts regarding squad harmony amid another overhaul.
The Wanderers squad looks to be in high spirits leading into the new season. (Twitter: @wswanderers)
“It’s great to see the squad like that because it gets you excited, seeing the squad happy and in an environment where unity is building,” Kay said.
“I think there has been a conscious effort to show that to the fans this season, what happens behind closed doors. I know the new CEO (Scott Hudson) wanted to take a member-first approach this season. So this would be a way of building the club back up and getting the community back behind us.”
The squad are rejuvenated, and there's a good mood on the training ground. Kay believes the Wanderers should be aiming not just to make the finals but make a strong push for a Grand Final spot.
“I think if we make finals and bow out of the first round, that’s still not good enough. Considering the number of squad overhauls and trying to get it right, it’s getting to a point where we need to start achieving results for it,” Kay said.
“I think top four is where I expect us to be, given the squad and the mentality shift this off-season.”
Mark Rudan will be under the spotlight this season as he looks to lead a new look Wanderers side to success. (The Guardian)
There’s plenty to be excited about this coming season for the Wanderers. With a fanbase starved of success for so long since their Asian Champions League triumph in 2014, patience is starting to wear thin.
There’s a lot the club has gotten right since their dismal end to the 2021/22 campaign. But the task is now to ensure they translate off-field activity into positive on-field results.
Whether they can achieve success or not remains to be seen. But with star quality aplenty joining the club this season, they have captured fans' attention right across the competition.
It truly is a case of now or never for Western Sydney. Another unsuccessful season could do irreversible damage to the club. But should they finally turn things around this year, Australia could see the re-emergence of one of its most passionate sporting clubs.
Hopefully, for their sake, insanity doesn't prevail.
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