Melbourne City 2021/22 A-League Men's season review
Another long off-season has arrived for City fans, who continue to have plenty to be excited about following another successful campaign.
The team was able to successfully defend its league title as it added another Premier's Plate trophy to its growing collection of silverware, but fell at the final hurdle when it failed to secure an unprecedented back-to-back league double by going down to Western United 2-0 in the Grand Final.
Some quarters of the supporter base were already doubting the team's ability to defend its crown after some underwhelming performances early in the season, but many more would have deemed the achievement near-impossible once January arrived.
The team's schedule - and the wider league - had been thrown into chaos by the outbreak of the COVID Omicron variant, whilst Nathaniel Atkinson's mid-season departure only hurt our prospects further.
With Western United streaking ahead in the league, the City boys would pull it together and subject themselves to one of the most physically demanding five-month schedules an A-League side has endured, playing 31 games in 143 days - around a game every four and a half days.
Over that time, fans witnessed countless new storylines unfold, whilst in other cases it was same old, same old. Jamie Maclaren, of course, cantered towards his third-consecutive league Golden Boot, whilst Connor Metcalfe and Marco Tilio continued their ascension as two of Australia's hottest prospects, with the latter even securing an off-season move to FC St. Pauli.
Curtis Good was another constant for City throughout the campaign (lengthy COVID recovery aside), cracking 100 appearances early in the piece before establishing himself as an ALM Team of the Season defender with his familiar cool, composed, and dominant performances at centre-back.
On the flip side, a maiden Asian Champions League campaign introduced some unfamiliar dynamics to City's season for fans and players alike. The team held its own in Thailand, going six games undefeated, but it was an outcome that still couldn't achieve what the team would have been expected to, both externally and internally.
In the absence of Craig Noone on the left, Mathew Leckie would turn out to be an inspired signing and a worthy replacement by the end of the campaign. The Socceroo drew his fair share of criticism after taking until the middle third of the season to get going but was electric for City from that point forward. The 31-year-old netted 10 goals and four assists in all competitions, with this being the first time since 2016/17 that we've had two players crack double digits for goals.
Another intriguing feature of the campaign was the dual-breakout season of Florin Berenguer and Jordan Bos that kept City fans enthralled as their boys made up ground on Western United, eventually pipping both them and Melbourne Victory to the post on what was a highly entertaining final matchday.
With our 2021/22 season now recapped, read on for an evaluation of the campaign, how we as fans should be looking back upon it, and some of the positives and negatives on a team and individual basis:
How should we feel about the season?
There's no hiding that there have been multiple disappointments over the past six months, some of them pretty severe.
However, whilst this has been a long, arduous campaign that has taken quite the emotional toll, the players' efforts and achievements can't be relegated to anything less than a success.
The A-League Premiership is the most important piece of silverware on offer in Australia. It is the most accurate determinant of who the country's best team is and it is the country's only avenue to Asian Champions League football at present.
For our superiority to have been indisputably confirmed by winning the Championship last weekend would have been nice, but our Premiership success alone means that there can be nothing less than a tick next to this season.
City's ACL campaign is another point of divisiveness. Pre-season, failure to progress past the group stage would have been considered an abject failure. The unforeseeable way that the circumstances changed once we had arrived in Thailand, however, makes judging our performance on the continent far more difficult.
Already doing it tough without Berenguer and O'Neill for the entire Asian campaign, and Metcalfe and Leckie for large parts, the boys then had the goalposts moved on them when results against fourth-placed teams were excluded from the equation relating to the best second-placed sides.
That said, the six-game campaign remains an underperformance from a squad of City's calibre. Calamitous goalkeeping errors aside, our attacking performances were underwhelming against BG Pathum and Jeonnam Dragons, with our finishing arguably costing us as many points as Tom Glover's higher-profile errors.
A campaign stained by some disappointing moments, perhaps, but it would be difficult to call it an abject failure or an embarrassment.
This, too, summarises how we should be feeling about the season as a whole.
Did the team underperform? Arguably.
Were we disappointed not to have done better in other competitions? Yes.
But should we continue to be proud of the boys' achievements in securing back-to-back Premierships and in becoming the first Australian side to go undefeated in an ACL group stage (whilst accruing a points tally that should have seen us progress, if not for the rule changes)? Yes, we should.
Where we excelled: Doing imperfect perfectly.
'Doing imperfect perfectly' is, almost by definition, something you don't really excel at, yet it was probably what helped us secure the Premier's Plate.
Indeed, our title defence was far from glamorous and, a far cry from our 2020/21 success, it came down to the final day for the outcome to be confirmed.
A common sentiment amongst City fans has been that the team never really got out of second gear, yet the boys ultimately secured back-to-back titles purely because they were able to achieve what no other team could: consistency amidst the most inconsistent circumstances the league has ever seen.
Whilst our all-Socceroo front three never really performed beyond the sum of their parts and a single, dominant attacking superstar never emerged, it felt as though each game would bring another standout, match-winning performance from the rotating cast of Maclaren, Leckie, Nabbout, or even Berenguer or Tilio.
The unsexy nature of our consistency was highlighted by the fact that the team recorded an 11-game undefeated streak in a season where it failed to win more than four games in a row. The points didn't come fast, but they came often enough.
Where we fell short: Big game failures.
Another reason for the underwhelming nature of our Premiership success is that, as has been so oft-quoted online, the team failed to win against top-four opposition over the course of the season.
Addressing this, let's start by brushing aside our encounters with Adelaide United, who I don't recall scoring a single 'normal' goal against us that didn't require an unbelievable stroke of luck or an infuriating goalkeeping error.
Refocusing on Western United and Melbourne Victory, though, it's clear that the 'perfect imperfectness' that was good enough against the league's bottom-half teams wasn't cutting it against teams of higher quality.
It seems that Patrick Kisnorbo's famous 'process' was found out by John Aloisi and Tony Popovic this season, with City dominating possession (averaging 60%) across all seven fixtures against Western and Victory but scoring just five times on their way to three draws and four losses.
Fans have bemoaned Kisnorbo's tactical inflexibility throughout the season and this unwillingness to adapt and learn from previous mistakes appeared evident in the familiar nature of our eventual defeat in the biggest game of them all, the Grand Final.
As a post-script to this point, our inability to expose a leaky Wellington defence in our ill-fated FFA Cup Quarter-Final could also be grouped into the category of 'big game failures', though the aftermath of the squad's COVID outbreak has left some question marks over how fit the team was for that encounter.
I couldn't manage to squeeze them in elsewhere, but a season review without a mention of our failed foreign recruits wouldn't be doing readers justice, so I'll address it here briefly.
Yes, the signings of Tsubasa Endoh and, particularly, Manuel Pucciarelli have turned out to be comically bad; it'd be an eye-watering exercise to figure out how their City wages divided amongst their respective 236 and 157 minutes of competitive action. Endoh was supposed to be a valuable ACL squad member, whilst Pucciarelli seemed to have been billed as our Adrian Luna replacement.
Concerningly, this is our second poor investment into a Japanese talent following Naoki Tsubaki. League experts have long advocated a greater effort by Australian clubs to explore the footballing wealth of the Asian market, and City hasn't made a convincing start to this endeavour.
Ultimately, there is little more that can be added to this issue. Endoh's loan spell sees him return to Toronto FC, whilst the club's apparent ranking of Jordi Valadon above Manuel Pucciarelli means that the Italian surely won't return to honour the second year of his contract. With our only successful new foreign recruit, Carl Jenkinson, also departing club, the football department should have a clean slate to work with in 2022/23.
Stocks rising for: Marco Tilio
He may be yet to routinely crack Patrick Kisnorbo's starting XI, but that hasn't stopped the force that Tilio has become in Australian football. It seems that everyone is aware of the exciting talent and explosive potential that the winger possesses, endearing himself even to neutral fans who see him as a key figure in the emerging generation of Socceroos.
It goes without saying that Tilio put up the numbers to justify that type of excitement this past season; the winger posted four goals and seven assists in 22 appearances in all competitions.
His stocks aren't just rising in our eyes, either; the winger's market value tripled this season to €900,000 ($1.33M), according to Transfermarkt, making him the ALM's sixth-most valuable player and its most-valuable U23.
With a Premier League scout rumoured to have been in attendance at last Saturday's Grand Final, the likelihood of City's pint-sized winger hanging around for another full season only diminishes as he continues to dazzle with his talents.
Stocks falling for: Tom Glover
It's really not that unfounded to ask: Can he come back from here?
There's no need (...nor space...) to list each of his errors and what they did/ could have cost his team over the course of the season, but it seems that City fans have arrived at the conclusion that the club should be in the market for a new goalkeeper.
What should also be factored into the discussion, however, is the pre-season departure of former goalkeeping coach Neil Young, and how drastic Glover's drop-off in form (and the club's apparent lack of faith in Sutton's ability even so) was almost immediately after.
There is work, it seems, to be done between the sticks in 2022/23... with or without Glover present for it.
Talking City Fans' Player of the Season: Florin Berenguer
This category has been sewn up since we announced he had won the award at the end of the regular season, but after a rocky start to his time at City under Warren Joyce, the Frenchman deserves for his achievements to be accordingly recognised.
The confidence with which he played his natural game this season made for captivating viewing as our midfield maestro found a new level to his ability to withstand challenges and progress the ball through the middle of the pitch.
Berenguer's delivery from wide, which he had plenty of opportunity to refine this season given the surprising volume of crosses he completed, was a reliable outlet for chance creation, with the Frenchman recording multiple assists in this manner.
Additionally, he brought a goal threat from midfield that fans may never have thought him capable of producing, racking up four strikes over the course of the campaign.
Rewarded with a contract extension that fans were evidently quite pleased about, Berenguer will now hope to maintain this level of performance as he and the City boys hunt for an unprecedented third-consecutive Premiership next season.
Becoming the first team to secure a league 'double-Double' would have been a really nice bow for the boys to tie up the first two seasons of Kisnorbo's reign with, yet at the conclusion of Season 2021/22, there's probably a bit of unease amongst City fans - it feels as though we could be heading into a new era.
Erick Mombaerts may have laid the foundations for Kisnorbo to succeed early in his senior coaching career, but those foundations are now fading away, and it will be up to the City Head Coach to forge his own path from here.
Kisnorbo will be tasked with identifying long-term replacements for key starting XI players from the post-Joyce era like Nathaniel Atkinson and Connor Metcalfe (he made his first step towards this with Callum Talbot's signing), whilst the rumoured departure of Stefan Colakovski and a surely imminent European move for Marco Tilio will leave other holes in the squad.
Another consideration for the City Head Coach, not that he would probably acknowledge it, is how (whether?) he will adapt to being figured out by the league's better teams this season. Whilst he'll be unflinching on his City football-influenced Plan A, which his side is evidently very good at, he'll soon need to develop a Plan B and C, or risk being left behind. This is especially pertinent given the current tactical landscape of the ALM, where teams across the league have struggled to translate possession into goal threat, whilst Western United have emerged as one of the competition's best despite rarely dominating the ball.
The saying goes that the only thing harder than getting to the top is staying there. If PK's first season in charge was City getting to the top, and if this year was us proving that it wasn't a fluke, then next season, perhaps our new era, will be about how well he's able to keep us there.