Youth in focus: Kirsty Fenton and Keegan Jelacic
As we approach the end of January and the midway point of the season, the A-League Men's and Women's competitions tighten as teams push for end-of-season glory and finals places. Youngsters are more often than not the catalysts for turning around a team's fortunes or continuing the consistent level of excellence shown by their side thus far. On that note, Front Page Football looks once more to the promising crop of players leaving their mark on season 2022/23.
Unlike their struggling colleagues in the men's competition, the Sydney FC Women have continued their perennial success, sitting third with a game in hand on Melbourne City and only three points behind Western United. Much of their terrific football has been down to the excellent youth products they've given minutes to this season. We have already analysed the blossoming talent of Sarah Hunter, whilst Remy Siemsen's contributions have earned her an exciting opportunity in England with Leicester City at only 23 years of age. With an attack bolstered by Cortnee Vine and Madison Haley, the success of Sydney this season is hardly a surprise. However, most of their wins have been predicated on an impenetrable defensive structure, with many suggesting that it is the strongest in the competition. Sydney FC has only conceded six goals this season, the lowest in the league. Whilst the talents of Natalie Tobin, Charlotte McLean, and Charlize Rule are on show most weeks, the off-season addition of 19-year-old Young Matilda Kirsty Fenton has been immense.
Fenton was in the Young Matildas squad that travelled to Costa Rica for the FIFA U20 Women's World Cup. (Ann Odong/Football Australia)
Joining Sydney from the Newcastle Jets, Fenton has had quite an effect on the dressing room since arriving. Only playing limited minutes due to injury this campaign, Fenton has used this small window of opportunity. She displayed terrific form on the back of an incredible U20 World Cup in Costa Rica, where she scored against the host nation in the opening match. Fenton has made five starts this season, averaging 84 minutes per match. The epitome of a modern fullback, Fenton is a strong defender whilst also being a dynamic presence on the overlap when Sydney pushes into the opponent's half, providing pace and technical ability from wide areas. Fenton attempts 1.2 shots per game, moderately high for a fullback, especially one of her age and experience. However, maturity in her game can be found in her impressive defensive statistics. Fenton has been involved in four clean sheets, becoming a regular in a solid defensive unit. She averages 4.4 tackles per game and 2.2 interceptions, already showing a defensive instinct at a usually naive age. Her ability to win battles with opposing players is more impressive, as she has won eight (63%) of her one-on-one duels. Fenton has also impressed with her passing range, completing 67% of her attempted passes and averaging 0.6 key passes per game.
Shea Connors of the Roar and Fenton compete for the ball during Brisbane and Sydney's round eight clash. (Albert Perez/Getty Images)
Fenton has already caught the eye of many who indulge in the 'Dub' every week. With Sydney FC pushing Melbourne City and Western United to be crowned A-League Women premiers and champions, Fenton is set to become a much more integral part of the squad. In an interview released on Sydney FC's Twitter feed ahead of yesterday's Big Blue, Fenton explained that she feels "every game is important, not just for yourself but for the team." An extended example of her maturity, she will hope a positive return from injury coincides with championship potential for Sydney FC in 2023. Some have even suggested that should her pre-injury form return, a Matildas call-up isn't out of the picture, especially in the wake of a home World Cup. As women's football grows exponentially overseas, we might soon see Fenton turn out for some of the world's biggest clubs. Watch this space.
After initially struggling away from home earlier this season, Perth Glory's miraculous turnaround has been typified by manager Ruben Zadkovich's use of unwanted A-League Men veterans and emerging young talent. Now taking games to Macedonia Park after a long away stretch before the World Cup, Glory has managed to bring winning football back to Perth in front of small but wildly passionate crowds. The talents of Jacob Dowse, Luke Bodnar, and Cameron Cook have been on show during this time, with the return of Socceroos-calibre striker Adam Taggart breathing new life into their season. In the last four matches, Perth has recorded three wins and a draw, with Taggart marking his third debut at the Glory with a late double against Melbourne Victory last week. Whilst those mentioned have often taken the spotlight, the consistent form of New Zealand youth product Keegan Jelacic has also played no small part in Glory's impeccable home form.
Jelacic suiting up for the Glory. (Perth Glory FC)
The 20-year-old Kiwi, who made two appearances for the national U17 side, has been a revelation under Zadkovich since joining Glory from NPL Queensland side Olympic FC. Before that, Jelacic spent time at Brisbane Roar, but it was brief in appearance. He failed to make an impact in Queensland's capital, mainly turning out for their youth side. However, after a fantastic spell with Olympic FC, Jelacic earned another chance in the A-League Men, one he has taken with both hands. Jelacic has provided excitement in midfield, showing an expansive passing range by completing 16.3 passes per game at 83% efficiency, 1.6 key passes per 90, and already contributing an assist in his 73 minutes per game. His attacking endeavour is admirable, and he scored against the Western Sydney Wanderers in a narrow 1-0 victory earlier this month. Jelacic currently contributes 1.1 shots per 90 as he emerges as an attacking threat from midfield. He has also begun to round out his game by providing some defensive solidity when called upon by his side. Averaging 2.7 tackles per match and 0.6 interceptions, Jelacic is still settling into a more traditional central midfield role in a versatile 5-3-2 formation, which sometimes appears as a 5-4-1 in play. Defensively, Jelacic would want to improve as he has only won 45% of his one-on-one duels at the time of writing.
Critics may want more improvement from Jelacic before giving him "one to watch" status for the second half of the season. But Perth's current trajectory may launch him into the foreground of the league's talent pool in weeks to come as they set their sights on a top-six finish. Glory seems adamant in their quest for finals football, especially since bringing the showpiece event west of the continent as recently as 2019. I'm sure Jelacic shares the same determination as his teammates, but his eyes might be set on a national team call-up in 2023. The All Whites' odds of making the 2026 FIFA World Cup have increased with the expanded tournament allowing an OFC nation to qualify automatically. Furthermore, should the rumours about the appointment of Ufuk Talay as their new manager be true, Australian-based Kiwi talent will undoubtedly have extra incentive for improved performances and development.
Jelacic controls the ball under pressure from Nikola Mileusnic during Perth and Brisbane's recent clash at Macedonia Park. (Will Russell/Getty Images)
All statistics sourced from SofaScore.
Click here to read last week's 'Youth In Focus' on Canberra United goalkeeper Chloe Lincoln and Central Coast Mariners winger Samuel Silvera.