Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Aiden O’Neill has this morning signed a three-year deal with Melbourne City, joining from Premier League side Burnley in what is to be the Australian’s first full transfer.
The 22-year-old has been shipped from club to club on single-season loans since signing for Burnley’s senior side (from its academy) in 2016, with spells at Oldham Athletic, Fleetwood Town, Central Coast Mariners and Brisbane Roar.
Having grown up in Brisbane, O’Neill spent his youth football days with Brisbane Athletic before moving to England and getting scouted in Manchester in 2014.
In his loan spells since 2016, O’Neill was played primarily as a central midfielder (occasionally deeper) at Oldham and Fleetwood, before splitting his time between holding midfield and centre-back for Central Coast in 2018/19 and then establishing himself as a DM at the Roar in 2019/20.
This is perhaps the versatility that Melbourne City Director of Football Michael Petrillo spoke of in the signing announcement that was released earlier this morning:
“Aiden’s quality in the midfield as a player who is able to play as a defensive midfielder or in a more attacking role makes him an ideal, versatile player who will be able to fit straight into our City style of attacking football.”
Whilst his defensive versatility can’t be questioned, his attacking efficacy remains to be proven, particularly in the A-League where he is rarely employed as anything more advanced than a holding midfielder.
O’Neill won the Mariners’ Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year awards in 2018/19 on the back of four goals – all side-footed, placed finishes from the edge of the box (certainly his goal-scoring niche) – but produced just six key passes for zero assists.
This was bettered in 2019/20 with the Roar (for whom he featured less), though still only recording nine key passes for one assist (zero goals).
The midfielder isn’t a prolific, steely tackler and ranks middle-of-the-pack for tackle success (55%) but compensates with energetic pressure to force turnovers and transition directly into an attacking phase for his side.
O’Neill may succeed in a two-DM City midfield where he is adjacently partnered with Josh Brillante, given the latter is more defensively-adept than the former, who can be more accurately characterised as a deep-lying playmaker.
His vision and ground-passing capabilities in this role are no better exemplified than by his assist for Al-Hassan Toure’s winner in Australia’s recent AFC U23 Championship quarter-final against Syria (skip to 1:50 in the video below).
This type of vision for the through-ball could prove especially useful for creating goal-scoring opportunities directly from midfield for Jamie Maclaren given the striker’s knack for bursting into channels behind the opposition centre-backs.
Concluding, Aiden O’Neill is certainly a desirable acquisition for Melbourne City to have made during this particular transfer window, given the likelihood that quality foreign talent will be harder to secure in 2020/21, especially in non-marquee instances.
If Florin Berenguer isn’t offered a new contract, City’s marquee spot will likely go to a star right-winger or attacking midfielder, adding further value to O’Neill’s signing.
Even if he can’t immediately break into Patrick Kisnorbo’s best XI, the 22-year-old has the opportunity to provide a valuable depth-option from the bench – something that all great teams require – and will likely feature in the Asian Champions League (assuming we progress through to the group stages) to mitigate the physical toll on our midfield regulars.