Melbourne City's 2021/22 A-League Women's campaign has come to an end following a straight-sets Finals exit.
The team demonstrated marked improvement to go from its seventh-placed 2020/21 finish to becoming the league runners-up this year, with a blend of youth and experience and some brilliant individual campaigns helping to secure that achievement. The team ultimately finished just two points off Sydney FC in the Premiership race, with Hannah Wilkinson top-scoring for the team but similarly finishing as a runner-up to Fiona Worts in the Golden Boot race, with our Kiwi's 12 goals (14 after Finals) falling just one short of Worts' 13.
60 minutes into our blockbuster Semi-Final against Sydney FC, it appeared that our City girls had one foot already in the Grand Final, but an inexplicable late collapse and a red card enabled the Sky Blues to force extra-time, where they made the most of their one- (and later) two-player advantage to run out triumphant 4-2 winners.
The subsequent Melbourne Derby Preliminary Final (which we're touching on for the first time in a written format since the occasion) was, put simply, a disaster. It was one of those days where there wasn't really a player that could still hold their head high. Perhaps we'd 'played our Grand Final' the week before, perhaps we'd underestimated our opposition; ultimately though, the girls were never in it. It's a shame because the girls let themselves down more than anyone else; they'd already exceeded media expectations, restored fans' pride and showcased their own quality on the national stage. For all of that, they deserved for their hard work and performances to be rewarded with a place in the Grand Final.
In this 2021/22 season review, we'll discuss how the girls' campaign should be evaluated and then go through some of the positives and negatives on a team and individual basis.
How should we feel about the season?
In a word, proud.
Whilst City's dropping of HUGE opportunities for even greater success than we ended up with - namely that 1-0 defeat to Brisbane that derailed our very real Premiership campaign and then that late collapse in the Semi against Sydney - the progress made by the team this season should be viewed with immense pride.
Sydney FC is as successful and dominant as it currently is because the squad is composed of young players who have been at the club for several seasons and have familiarity with their teammates, coach and the playing style, during which time their development has also flourished. Due to City's reliance on superstar players on one-season contracts between 2015 and 2020, we never had the chance to see similar benefits within our own squad.
It is incredible, then, that two seasons into our 'rebuild' we've been able to achieve a second-placed finish - coming so close to securing silverware despite being in this phase - whilst also seeing a number of young players burst onto the scene, even quite literally contributing to national team youth development with Holly McNamara's Matildas debut just five games into her professional career.
Accordingly, there should be pride from fans and players alike in our achievements this year and optimism for what Season 2022/23 might hold in store - but more on that later.
Where we excelled: Attacking recruitment
Hannah Wilkinson: 12 goals, three assists. 1.17 goal involvements per 90.
Holly McNamara: Five goals, three assists. 1.10 goal involvements per 90.
Rhianna Pollicina: Seven goals, three assists. 0.77 goal involvements per 90.
That, right there, is an insane return - 86% of the team's total goals scored - from our main attacking signings.
It was so vital, too, that it was three influential attackers that City could rely on throughout the season, as we noted in one of our post-match reviews:
"Hannah Wilkinson is elite in her role as a target-player, but could be marked out of the game with planning. Holly McNamara is a mercurial presence in the final third, but won’t always have space in behind to exploit with her pace. Pollicina is the differential, the unaccounted variable that teams over the past month have failed to deal with."
Though this particular quote was in reference to Pollicina's incredible form around the third quarter of the season, it also helps to explain exactly what made City's front three so lethal in 2021/22 - each possesses distinct characteristics and, though the combination of all three when on-song is unbeatable, it was the 'cut one head off and another takes its place' nature of the trio that helped the team to pick up points when the going got tough.
Where we fell short: Attacking depth – as predicted.
Whilst we were often able to squeeze out results when one or even two of our front three were marked out of the contest, it was the individual quality of Wilkinson, McNamara and Pollicina that merited such attention in the first place; they could unlock defences on their own if left unchecked.
It was in the absences of McNamara, Wilkinson and then McNamara again that the team really struggled offensively, as City simply didn't have the same level of attacking depth as, for instance, Sydney, who at one point was able to compensate for the losses of Remy Siemsen and Cortnee Vine by relying on fully-fledged Kiwi and Chilean internationals Paige Satchell and Maria Cote Rojas.
Whilst that level of attacking depth is a luxury (though one worth mentioning because it probably won them the title, with Satchell literally scoring the all-important winner on the final day against Adelaide), it became clear during City's own high-profile double-absence of McNamara and Wilkinson for that ill-fated Brisbane Roar match that we didn't possess enough attacking quality when our big-hitters were out.
Beyond that, it was also a frequent observation of commentators that City didn't possess any match-winners off the bench, which was often loaded with quality defensive players - we cringe thinking back to the end of that Roar game when we had a front four of Vlajnic, Pollicina, van der Meer and, informally, Checker, who had been thrust afield in a last-gasp attempt at finding a goal via whatever means necessary.
That brings us to back to "as predicted"; this is the second season in a row that our squad has been defensively loaded, yet incredibly lacking up top (though not as bad as last year, for sure). Avoiding this should be a priority in 2021/22.
Stocks rising for: Holly McNamara
This isn't just stocks rising, this is stocks exploding.
Pre-season, we threw McNamara into our predicted starting XI, knowing Rado would prefer to have two up front, purely because she was described as a striker and had featured in the pre-season friendly against the Victory. For her to go on and make her Matildas debut and become literally our most influential player (as backed by the stats*) by the end of a campaign in which she'd play just eight games before doing an ACL is insane.
Though interest in her from other clubs would have cooled due to her long-term injury anyway, the fact that we don't have to worry about losing her over the off-season is very relieving.
If 2021/22 was just our first glimpse of Holly McNamara, we already can't wait to see what's in store for us next year.
*The stats, for those that care: She tops the squad for points per appearance and for net goals per 90 minutes (goals scored-goals conceded per 90 minutes that the player is on the pitch). In short, we score more, concede less and win more games when she's on.
Stocks falling for: Naomi Chinnama
Yeah, this is a rough one for sure, but this is no slight against Chinnama as a player at all.
'Stock are falling' for Chinnama purely because of the way that she'd rounded out the 2020/21 season, starting the final five games of the campaign as a first-choice centre-back. Maybe it was because there was little left to be gained from the season and Vidosic thought he'd give the then 16-year-old vital senior minutes, but her composed performances in such a high-pressure position were enough to convince us that she'd be competing with Marisa van der Meer (who, ironically, was nearly named in this category instead of Chinnama) for our third central defensive position before City went ahead and signed Winonah Heatley almost on the eve of the season.
Whilst Chinnama made two starts to van der Meer's zero and played 50 more minutes, the Kiwi defender came into the City setup as a largely unknown quantity, whilst there were hopes that Chinnama may be able to kick on following a promising start to life as a professional footballer.
Player development isn't linear and this season has merely been a period of stagnation for the supremely talented Chinnama rather than a setback.
Talking City's Player of the Season: Melissa Barbieri
It could have been literally any of our front three, it could have been the world-class Rebekah Stott who proved her superiority week in, week out, but our Player of the Season is instead going to the seemingly age-defying Melissa Barbieri in her 25th year of professional football.
Normally described with adjectives that represent her off-field professionalism, character and leadership, this year Barbieri gave us plenty of adjectives to describe her incredible on-field goalkeeping performances.
We get the feeling Jada Whyman's record breaking feats with Sydney FC might steal the headlines come awards season, but we can think of no individual more deserving of being recognised as the best goalkeeper of 2021/22 than City's evergreen 42-year-old.
Barbieri won games off of her own... glove (?), pulling off some unbelievable reflex and diving saves with the agility and power of someone half her age. On countless occasions, it has been Barbieri who has single-handedly kept City in matches long enough for our attackers to do the business up the other end, with this trait no better exemplified than by her performance against Brisbane Roar earlier in the season where she pulled off countless truly unbelievable saves to prevent the scoreline from blowing out to three or four goals, with City able to pull off a late comeback and secure a massive three points.
Vidosic has already stated in the media that City will be looking to offer Barbieri a new contract for the 2022/23 season and we can't think of a player more deserving of that level of faith.
Following such a successful 2021/22 campaign, City seems to have fast-tracked its rebuild and can start to focus on building a squad for long-term benefits for the first time in our seven-season Women's history.
This aspiration is hinted at by the fact that, unlike seasons past where we've relied on an army of superstar loanees, we've already got eight players under contract for next season. We've already mentioned that McNamara will be back in City colours upon her ACL recovery, and so too will the aforementioned Chinnama. Emma Checker will return for her third year as Captain and fourth at the club overall. Joining them will be Chelsea Blissett (until the end of 2023/24), Leah Davidson, Darcey Malone, Leticia McKenna and Tori Tumeth.
Of that group, you'd be fairly comfortable with all but Malone, who will continue to gain top-flight experience and develop, forming the core of next year's starting XI if we elected not to upgrade; Checker, Tumeth and Chinnama would be familiar enough with one another to form a back three flanked on one side by Blissett, who we're hoping will finally get a full season as a first-choice defender under her belt, whilst Davidson and McKenna could form the foundation of a midfield behind McNamara up front.
The ideal next step would be to convince the likes of Wilkinson and Pollicina that City is the best place for them to be in Season 2021/22, with the latter indicating in an interview with The Far Post podcast that she will likely be returning to the A-League again following an off-season stint with APIA Leichardt.
Those two were mentioned in isolation due to the irreplicable nature of their relationship with McNamara - a front three good enough to win silverware, as we almost proved - but Winonah Heatley, Kaitlyn Torpey and Rebekah Stott also fall into the category of players we should be desperate to keep a hold of (though the future plans of the latter given her calibre are unclear).
Between the sticks, City would be well-served by keeping on both Barbieri and Sally James into 2023, an option that probably looms as a good outcome for the latter so that she can have another crack at having her breakout season - if her Preliminary Final performance is anything to go by then she’s certainly shown she’s got what it takes!
The point we're making with all this is that for the first time in the history of our Women's team, we have a degree of certainty about what the future holds for the team, and that's that it is a young and spirited side that will continue to excite and bring pride to its fans.