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Discussion: Should MLN be broken up to accommodate for Tilio?

Since the City Football Group takeover occurred nearly 10 years ago in 2014, the acquisitions and development of young Australian talent has been a non-negotiable in every season spent under the CFG banner.

An approach such as this is quite an interesting one and definitely required some tinkering to get right. After all, putting so many resources into players who ultimately will look to move on when an opportunity arises makes it difficult to maintain a sense of identity and longevity about the squad that many fans long for.

In the early days of City, this approach usually led to high squad turnover that resulted in almost a new squad every season, subsequently causing inconsistency and a lack of success.

In that time, however, City fans have been treated to some of the most exciting talents the country has to offer. The likes of Riley McGree, Daniel Arzani, and Aaron Mooy are just a few names who have been able to launch attempts at European careers after spending time at City in an otherwise rather fruitless era. Some of those careers have been far more successful than others, but that’s football.

However, recently City has cracked the code that troubled them for so long, securing a strong foundation of senior players over multiple seasons that has enabled an in-flow of young talent and allowed them to flourish; Connor Metcalfe, Nathaniel Atkinson, and Denis Genreau being the most recent examples of the new approach.

Currently, there is no player looking more likely to continue this trend than Marco Tilio.

Whilst Tilio was not part of the Melbourne City academy, he arrived at the club from Sydney FC with only 3 appearances under his belt and just 10 minutes played. He did manage to record a goal and an assist in those minutes, so there was promise, but the jury was still out whether he would fall into football's long list of one-hit wonders or actually kick on.

Fortunately for City, it’s been the latter.

Photo: Andrew Wiseman (@wisemansports)

In his time at City, Tilio has lit up the pitch and captured the hearts of nearly every City fan.

His first two seasons at the club resulted in seemingly everything he touched turning to gold. Who could forget his 2020/21 Finals series? We saw an arguably best-on-ground performance in the Semi Final against the Bulls that saw Tilio lead the way with a goal and assist and a more-than-handy Grand final performance where he managed to do everything but get on the score sheet.

He only managed eight starts in his inaugural season at City, most late in the campaign, but it was clear to see City had something special in their midst.

Tilio then spent last season furthering his impact on the City playing group with another five goals, five assists and 38 chances created (per FotMob), most notably another Semi Final goal that helped the club into its third consecutive Grand Final. What makes these stats more impressive is that Tilio started only 13 games in the league last season.

Photo: Andrew Wiseman (@wisemansports)

So that leads us to the question and overall point of this article, why isn’t Tilio starting? The answer: MLN.

Unfortunately, Tilio has blossomed whilst City has possessed arguably the best front three in club history, at least on paper. With Mat Leckie (and previously, Craig Noone), Jamie Maclaren and Andrew Nabbout in the squad ahead of him, breaking into the team's first-choice front three always going to be a mammoth task.

However, I do believe it may be time that we change our mindset on the MLN combination. This is by no means saying that the MLN trio is doing poorly, but it is saying that I don’t believe they should be the impenetrable force that at times I think they have been.

Having an all-Socceroo front three as the first names on the team sheet has pretty much meant Tilio has played wherever PK can fit him in. The youngster has spent time on either side of the wing, up top as our striker or false nine, and in the midfield as a 10.

That is understandable when looking at Tilio as a youngster breaking into the team, but I ask is it time we say he’s past that?

Photo: Andrew Wiseman (@wisemansports)

What we do know is it’s going to be a lot more difficult to find time to throw him in anywhere in the midfield this season.

City’s attacking midfield slot is jam-packed after the transfer window with Florin Berenguer, Richard van der Venne, and Valon Berisha now three first-team options battling for that spot.

This means Tilio’s best chance at breaking into the side is in on the wings, currently reserved by Nabbout and Leckie.

Fortunately for City fans, we’re talking about three absolutely class options here, and I reiterate this is not a criticism that Leckie and Nabbout aren’t performing, but is definitely saying they shouldn’t be on lock.

Leckie managed 13 goal involvements from 20 starts last season, an impressive return. But with the veteran now 31 years of age, it remains to be seen if he can maintain that level of output. I think he has done enough to earn his starting spot come the start of the season, however, there is definitely an argument for Tilio to start over Nabbout; City's right-sided winger also managed 13 goal involvements last season, but from 25 starts. This is four more than Tilio, but also in 13 more starting appearances.

Would Tilio be able to better that if given the same amount of game time? No one knows for sure, but the maths would hint that he can.

Should he therefore be given an opportunity as City's first-choice right-winger for a period? Yes, I think he’s earned that.

It’s also important to factor in that Tilio is now 21 years old. In a footballer’s lifespan, it's game time that is most crucial at this age. He would likely walk into every starting XI in the country, but this means City runs the risk of losing him if we don’t play him. Tilio may have the best chance at success at City, but having already won two premierships and a Grand Final, what’s more important to him now, game time or success?

Photo: Andrew Wiseman (@wisemansports)

It truly is a unique situation City finds itself in where having too much quality in the squad becomes an issue. Because, despite those ahead of him, I think most would agree that Tilio’s performances have already been at a level good enough to see him genuinely challenge for a starting spot for City.

So, with all that said, how should City handle this moving forward?

Should the Socceroo front three be prioritised? - City was the highest-scoring side in the competition last season, so it would be unfair to break that up.

Or is Tilio more important? He is arguably the hottest young talent in Australian football currently, and perhaps that should be put at the forefront of the club’s direction moving forward.

Personally, I think neither.

At times I have felt that MLN has been impenetrable and I do think that should change, but not if it means the front three is still on lock but with Tilio in it instead.

The squad should be picked on merit, and that includes even our most prestigious names. If Tilio is outperforming Leckie or Nabbout, he should play, and if his performances are not at that level, he should be second in line.

What is in the best interests of the club and Marco is setting the bar high and rewarding those who reach it.

But Tilio is no longer a prospect, a super sub, or an up-and-coming talent. Tilio should be treated based on what his performances have shown us thus far, which is that he's an invaluable asset to the squad with the ability to impact even the biggest of games.

Photo: Andrew Wiseman (@wisemansports)

A spot in that front three is a hard thing to earn, but if he’s performing well enough to have it, he should have it, regardless of who is in front of him.

The season is just around the corner and Melbourne City possesses four of the most exciting and lethal attackers the country has to offer. If selection is based on merit, that means anyone in that starting front three has to be on the top of their game, which is in the best interests of the club, which at the end of the day should always be the priority.

Tilio has been a pleasure to watch in his time at City, but he hasn’t come this far to come this far. This season is his opportunity to further stamp his authority on Australian football and cement himself as a genuine starter at the club, but if only if his performances continue to warrant it.

Will that happen? Time will tell. But with so much attacking threat, one thing we do know is it will sure be fun to watch.

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