The City boys are finally back after a two-and-a-half week COVID-enforced break and their first test will be progressing to the FFA Cup Semi-Finals with a win over Wellington Phoenix tomorrow night.
The last time the team was in action was that exhilarating 2-2 draw in the Christmas Derby, a contest that fans would have hoped for more out of given our 2-1 lead late on, before Nick D'Agostino's 81st-minute equaliser.
Wellington's poor start to the 2021/22 season continued on New Year's Day, with the side going down 4-0 to Adelaide United on an evening that saw the visiting Phoenix side's poor defensive streak continue as they shipped countless chances for the Reds' front line to inevitably swallow up.
City will be without Jamie Maclaren for tomorrow night's clash, with the striker suspended following a red card in stoppage time during the Melbourne Derby. All other injury and COVID news is unknown to this point, with Mathew Leckie and Nuno Reis hopefully having recovered from minor niggles over the break.
Here are some of the big talking points heading into the clash:
They may be everyone's equal-second team (I'll tie them with the Mariners), but the signs aren't looking good for Wellington heading into this one.
The Phoenix have already conceded 14 goals in six A-League Men's games this season, six more than the next worst defence. To dive deeper into the stats, this is also nearly five goals more than they would be expected to have conceded according to their Expected Goals Against (xGA) of 1.56 per 90 (x six games = a total xGA of 9.36).
An underperformance against xGA such as this is typically indicative of superb finishing from the opposition or poor goalkeeping, and Wellington's goalkeeping predicament has only worsened with the announcement of a long-term injury to first-choice keeper Oli Sail that will rule him out of the Cup fixture.
It was 19-year-old Alex Paulsen who stepped in between the sticks following Sail's first-half substitution against Sydney in that December clash and it'll be Paulsen again who City will need to find a way past tomorrow night.
Is it time to give Matt Sutton a go?
(A condensed version of: Could Glover's dropping, or reinvention, be the key to City rediscovering its 20/21 form faster?)
According to data from FBref.com, Melbourne City have recorded the most shots per 90 minutes (19.00) and conceded the fewest (10.40) this season. Let's just start with the fact that when you're recording nine more shots than your opposition per game, you're in a pretty good position to collect some points.
For those with a soft spot for Expected Goals (xG) and Goals Against (xGA) data, FootyStats.org supports the contention of the stats from above; City also possess the best xG per 90 (1.94) and xGA (0.83) - we're expected to score a goal more than our opposition per game.
City's issue, unfortunately, is the man entrusted to keep out the shots that our opposition actually do get away: Tom Glover.
You see, based on the first five rounds, no keeper in the league performs worse when facing shots on target than City's #1. At the moment, opposition teams are scoring at a rate of one in every three shots on target - a league-worst figure (0.35). This explains why City have conceded two more goals than their expected xGA of 4.15 (and when you consider we've had three results that could have been different with even one less opposition goal...).
On paper, our defence is already better than last season, conceding fewer shots and shots on target (and, accordingly, lower xGA) per 90 than our double-winning backline of 2020/21. We just need to sort out that goalkeeping dilemma - whether by giving Matt Sutton a chance or Glover rediscovering his best form.
*NEW* A fork in the road
Whilst this is the new talking point to replace the previous one about fielding a strong side in spite of a busy schedule to show that we're serious about winning the Cup, the contention behind the two is very similar.
Six games (for some, but not all) into the new season and it's clear that City won't be the singular dominant force in the league in 2021/22.
Whilst we've stuttered and spluttered our way to a solid eight points from five games, the likes of Macarthur, Western United and - of the most genuine concern - Melbourne Victory have all raced ahead.
Macarthur are overperforming massively (expected to have conceded five more goals than they have) and Western feel like the usual early-season bolter who tails off halfway through the campaign, but Victory seem like they'll still be there come the business end of the season.
So, back to Melbourne City, there's only so long we can stumble along before we find ourselves significantly off the pace.
We're going to be challenged this season; COVID, fixture congestion and Atkinson's departure - leaving us with no senior recognised deputy right-back - will subject this team to some testing circumstances.
Patrick Kisnorbo and the boys should be viewing this Wellington matchup as an opportunity to flip the switch; a chance to pump them by four or five goals and go into the Macarthur game on the 9th with a head full of steam and ready to take them down a peg.
To borrow from the original talking point: If we're to continue building our identity and history, the FFA Cup is a piece of silverware that we should be desperate to win, and the lineup we name on Wednesday should reflect that ambition.