Reviewing City's 2022/23 ALW season
Another year, another early Finals exit at the hands of Melbourne Victory.
Yet again, I find myself writing this post-season review earlier than I would have hoped given the potential of the group, though the contexts of the past two campaigns are entirely different. Last year's run to the Finals was a fairytale return to competitiveness that fans thought we might have been able to ride to a Grand Final, while this season the expectations were accordingly much higher, but both campaigns ended with the same unbearable self-sabotage when push came to shove.
The 2022/23 campaign began in unbelievable, white-hot fashion.
Playing some of the most attractive, high-scoring football in the league, City's attacking force of Maria Rojas, Emina Ekic, Rhianna Pollicina and Bryleeh Henry was absolutely cooking across the season's opening stages. Teenage sensation Daniela Galic was also making a name for herself as she played beyond her years in the heart of midfield.
Even after suffering a first defeat of the season against Western United and losing Ekic and Rojas to injury and contract expiration respectively, the City girls, under the stewardship of Dario Vidosic in his first season as a senior Head Coach, managed to establish themselves as an early front-runner.
After 11 played, the team had won eight games.
They would claim just one more in their final eight.
The remainder of the season played out like a game of Whack-a-Mole; knock one problem on the head and another would appear immediately. From losing a key player whose importance had previously gone unrecognised (Leah Davidson), to major accuracy issues in front of goal, to devastating defensive collapses; again and again, the City resurgence continued to be brought undone just as it got going.
The result of this seven-game stutter was an Elimination Final performance that was the culmination of both our attacking inefficiencies and defensive collapses, and the City girls were ultimately sent packing early with their Melbourne Derby loss on penalties.
It's a cruel game sometimes, and that's a theme we'll be exploring further below.
How should we feel about the season?
Fans might feel disappointed that our Premiership challenge fizzled out so meekly in the second half of the season. They might be frustrated at the way we capitulated defensively (again) in the Elimination Final, but they might also be proud of the fight the team put up to get back into it.
Above all, though, fans will probably feel unsatiated; like there was still more to come. And there was.
Short of defensive depth, ironically the issue whose domino effect impacted our season the most, City's recruiting department had actually constructed a very competitive squad of young, talented individuals that may have challenged for silverware in an alternate dimension. There was a mixture of raw, unproven (but ultimately first-team quality) talents like Daniela Galic and Julia Grosso, slightly more experienced prospects like Kaitlyn Torpey and Rhianna Pollicina, and veteran players of impressive calibre like Katie Bowen and Cote Rojas - and that's just who we had available from the start.
After setting the league on fire in our opening handful of games, the sky really did seem to be the limit for City, with the likes of Karly Roestbakken, Emma Checker, Holly McNamara and Hannah Wilkinson still arriving as squad reinforcements once they were due to return from injury. The squad was on the cusp of unlocking its full, devastating potential.
But it never did, and there remains a sense of hunger, desire, a sense of 'what if?' about the team.
What if Ekic hadn't broken her leg just as Wilkinson needed support with transitioning back into the team? What if City had just ONE more fit central defender or defensive midfielder, so that when Davidson's season came to an end, her role could be filled without compromising on our preferred three-back system (Bowen was shifted from defence into midfield to solve this)? What if we had one constant goalkeeper this season, instead of being forced into switching between Sally James and Melissa Barbieri depending on who was fit at the time?
Ultimately, it is frustrating that we will never get answers to these questions. We will never get to see an 'on our day' City taking it to the big teams in Finals. We will never get to see the full potential of this City squad, because our season is over, and we don't get another chance.
Fans can only hunger for what could have been.
Where we excelled: Foreign signings.
With the exception of Wilkinson, City's foreign signings this year were an undisputed success.
Ekic and Rojas were the headliners from our blitzing start to the season, Grosso sparkled in her debut season (and will be discussed in her own right below) and Bowen brought a welcome consistency and experience amidst a crisis of injuries and young players being stretched beyond their capacities.
On Wilkinson, the Kiwi was far from a flop, it's just that her success is a little more open to debate. The striker had plenty of big moments, especially late in the campaign, and ended with eight goal involvements despite the difficulties to accommodate her. It's this incompatibility that raises questions around the success of her signing, but it would also be harsh to ignore her contributions to the team.
On the whole, City's foreign recruitment was on-point this season, but it will be interesting to see if we can again be intelligent in complementing a young Australian core in 2023/24.
Where we fell short: Not getting the most out of our attacking stars.
This was really a two-part shortfall of ours.
The first part of the statement relates to fault on the part of the players. With the exception of the opening third of the season, City's finishing subjectively felt very poor, particularly in big games. The stats don't support this (City is around the top for shooting accuracy and goals-per-shot, whilst performing almost exactly to its xG), but my theory would be that City's drastic overperformance in blowouts against weaker teams offset the underperformance in the big games.
Missing big chances throughout the season was always an issue - we warned of it in several post-match reviews this year - but it never really cost the team until the campaign's latter stages; City underperformed its xG by at least 0.5 in five of its final eight matches, in which time the team won just once.
The second part to where we fell short was more of a tactical and selection deficiency.
A front three of Pollicina, Rojas and Ekic worked wonders at the start of the season, but things fell away very quickly once Hannah Wilkinson entered the fray.
With City previously playing a very slick transitional game that was enabled by the technical qualities and pace of its midfield and front three, the hulking figure of Wilkinson stuck out like a sore thumb. More of a target-player, Wilkinson lacked the acceleration to burst into the right areas when chances were created and also held our transitions up with her inferior abilities on the ball to her Chilean predecessor.
Holly McNamara fortunately hit the ground running when she returned to action, but once Rojas was able to be signed as an injury replacement for Ekic, Vidosic proved that having a wealth of attacking talent isn't always the 'good headache' that coaches claim. Trying to fit McNamara, Wilkinson, Rojas, Pollicina and Henry proved an impossible puzzle, and any combination Vidosic tried just didn't seem to work.
Undoubtedly set to lose some of that attacking talent over the off-season, it will be interesting to see if City achieves a clearer attacking identity in 2023/24.
Stocks rising for: Julia Grosso
If there is one player who walked into this squad as a relative nobody, but would now not look out of place in any league in the world, it's Julia Grosso.
In her first professional season, the American college product shone at left-back, ironically putting in very similar performances to City's other breakout defensive star, Jordan Bos. The pair both share some mesmeric dribbling abilities, with a knack for beating defenders even in the most unbelievable of situations, and can also contribute with a goal involvement every once in a while.
Also like Jordy Bos, Grosso managed a difficult feat in an up-and-down campaign: delivering at least a 7/10 performance every week no matter the circumstances. It's tough to think of a game that Grosso played poorly in, and this consistency is a trait that will benefit Grosso greatly if she chooses to move back overseas.
From her debut season in pro football, the young American talent has probably done enough to say that she has the world at her feet.
Stocks falling for: Sally James
Unfortunately, there are far too many players whose name could be thrown into the mix here, more through 'disappointing' campaigns than objectively bad ones.
In terms of the player whose trajectory is the most below what it could have been though, it's hard to go past Sally James.
The 20-year-old goalkeeper, now into her second season at the club, would have been hoping to put an injury-riddled 2021/22 campaign behind her, and successfully challenge Melissa Barbieri (more than twice her age) for the role of City's #1 goalkeeper. Whilst James started the season in that role as expected, an unusual amount of rotation and a campaign-disrupting injury saw Barbieri quickly thrust back between the sticks - and for the second season in a row, the ALW legend defied all expectations.
Once the two keepers had accumulated similar playing time, it was clear in the numbers that City was far better off with one between the sticks than the other. From an expected 12.5 goals, James allowed the ball into the back of her net 15 times, whereas Barbieri conceded only about as many as she would have been expected to (7.4) based on the chances she faced.
Once tipped as a World Cup squad bolter, it is concerning to see that, for a second season, James has failed to establish herself as the #1 with only 43-year-old Barbieri as competition.
With the latter surely moving into a non-playing role in the near future, does the club still have faith in James if that competition is removed next season?
Talking City's Player of the Season: Rhianna Pollicina
In a season where so many players excited only briefly, like flashes in a pan, it feels strange to award this to Pollicina.
Remove all of those temporary highs, however, and it's the consistent, underpinning contributions of Pollicina to enable her teammates that we'd have missed the most.
The midfielder improves season-upon-season, netting a career-high 10 goals in this campaign. Pollicina was also a key cog in that free-flowing football that we saw early in the season, helping along City's transitions with her remarkable technical qualities to scythe through opposition midfields and defences with her quick, intelligent passing and ball-carrying abilities.
A standout player in the league for the past two seasons, City's issue, now, is how to keep her.
If Season 2021/22 was a fast-tracked rebuild where we outshone expectations, then Season 2022/23 was perhaps a regression to where we should have been at this stage of the aftermath of the Matildas exodus of 2020.
Looking ahead to Season 2023/24, the key is, as always, squad retention.
I have no issues with conceding that Sydney FC are the gold standard for A-League Women's squad management, and the key to their three consecutive Premierships has been the retention and development of players who they've had on the books for years.
In this regard, City should perhaps, on the surface, be worried. The team has four players whose current contracts run into next season (Henry, Torpey, Blissett and Karic), and Vidosic faces the seemingly monumental task of holding onto a wealth of exciting young talent.
From another perspective, City is actually very well equipped to handle this challenge.