Taking the fight to Australian football's trolls, the wobbly Wanderers, working week in and week out, five A-League youngsters taking their chances, Sydney's blunt edge, and much more. ESPN's Australian football wrap is back.
Social media has brought humanity a great number of excellent things; you may have clicked on the wrap after seeing it linked on Facebook or Twitter, for instance. Unfortunately, the platforms have also helped to bring out the worst in some people at a rapidly increasing rate.
Earlier this season, Adelaide United captain Stefan Mauk was sent messages telling him to "kill himself" after his side's controversial win over Central Coast Mariners, while Western Sydney Wanderers player Bernie Ibini was on the receiving end of abuse amid his exit from Newcastle Jets.
One W-League side, after a loss, had several players receive messages hurling abuse and death threats in quick succession, and Melbourne Victory's Adama Traore was the subject of racially targeted abuse after his side's 2-0 loss to Western Sydney.
Players are often advised to ignore these messages when they arrive, especially when delivered from behind a veil of anonymity of a dedicated troll account. But those receiving messages of abuse aren't in a position to perform a background check on every sender's intention before they see their message -- meaning that its deleterious effects are inevitably felt before the offender can be outed as a troll. Furthermore, they shouldn't have to do that to begin with.
"What the players have been exposed to is abhorrent, and this type of cyber abuse has no place in society and our game," Professional Footballers Australia co-chief executive Kate Gill told ESPN. "It's critical that the sport develops an industry-wide response that shifts from a reactive to a proactive approach that delivers appropriate outcomes, the opportunity for support and remedy and broader education."
This is some of the crap @StefanMauk is copping tonight after the match.— Jarrod Walsh (@jarrodwalsh) February 19, 2021
You may have your views on a result or a sports match, but be a decent human.
If you're going to be abusive, especially to this extreme - think again. pic.twitter.com/kDuMv3KX2E
With its members reporting an upswing in online attacks this year, the PFA is seeking to collaborate with professional clubs, Football Australia and relevant governmental authorities in the coming months towards the creation of policies surrounding social media and the protection of players from online attacks.
These steps, the union hopes, will include the standardization of policies across the Australian game regarding the deletion of abusive posts, blocking of accounts, and, in sustained or particularly egregious examples, escalation of matters to police.
"Football is inclusive and it is welcoming; this abuse has no place in our game and we condemn it in the strongest terms," an Australian Professional Leagues spokesperson told ESPN. "We will work with our partners -- in football, at social media companies and in government -- to make sure online spaces are safe and enjoyable for everyone."
When do we worry about Western Sydney Wanderers?
The A-League's red-and-black outfit produced a moribund performance on Tuesday night, as they were dispatched by a not necessarily outstanding Melbourne City thanks to a Jamie Maclaren brace.
Admittedly, despite suffering back-to-back defeats, coach Carl Robinson's side still has only three losses this campaign and remains fourth on the A-League table heading into their meeting with Western United this Sunday. However, with more draws than any other side in the competition, their 1.3 points per game earned thus far places them ninth on such a table.
As befitting of their resourcing and ambition, Wanderers recruited strongly during the off-season -- bringing in Ibini, James Troisi, Graham Dorrans and Ziggy Gordon. Yet from early returns, it doesn't appear as though there is yet a clear method to consistently ensure the assembled group functions as something greater than the sum of its parts; the mid-season addition of Mitch Duke, for all its undoubted promise, only further complicates the issue.
Midfield cohesiveness and control has also been conspicuously fleeting across the season's opening two month, with Steven Ugarkovic and Angus Thurgate's impact proving difficult for Robinson to replicate at Wanderland. A sharp attacking edge is also frustratingly absent, with only the A-League's bottom four sides recording fewer goals per 90 minutes in 2020-21.
Last year, Western Sydney started the season like a house on fire before quickly falling back down to Earth, and their win total after 10 games that season was also three. Now drawing games instead of losing them, things aren't as bad in red and black as they were under Markus Babbel but things can undoubtedly get better... or worse.
The Daily Grind
Just over two months in, and kids continue to play.
Almost 40% of players who have featured in 202-21 were aged 22 or under at the beginning of the campaign, which matches last year's figure -- which was swelled by the hub-based run home to the season -- and stands behind only 2012-13 when it comes to the proportion of young talent deployed. That year, future Socceroos Craig Goodwin, Tom Rogic, Rhyan Grant, Ibini and Trent Sainsbury were all nominated for the Young Player of the Year award, while Mat Ryan, Aziz Behich, and Adam Taggart were A-League regulars.
Time to pop the champagne for the next generation of Socceroos, then? No, not yet. For simply seeing the pitch is just half the battle when it comes to development.
"There are over 70 kids in the A-League that have played more than 100 minutes this year -- [players] under the age of 23," Football Australia technical director Trevor Morgan said to ESPN. "If you go above 200 minutes, there's over 50. If you go above 300, there's over 30. If you go above 400 minutes, there's over 25. If you go above 700, there are over 10."
"If you only get six or eight minutes out of 90 and then don't play for a few weeks, and then you get it again, it's very hard to adapt and to be comfortable and to start to make better decisions. If you get 1000 minutes over a league [season], but if you don't play for chunks of three and four weeks at a time, you lose match fitness, connections and understanding.
"The whole point is to build a rhythm of what you do, and to start to be consistent because that's what goes into going from a talent to a senior player: Consistently performing at a level."
Fortune Favours the Young
Undoubtedly, economic imperatives forced upon the game buy the COVID-19 pandemic are a significant driver of the above trend; and the tales of five youngsters, in particular, demonstrate the rapidly altering trajectories careers have taken as a result.
Genreau, 21, was one of the first players to sign with A-League newcomers Macarthur FC. He was announced on a three-year deal with his former Young Socceroos coach Ante Milicic's side last July. At that point, despite ostensibly being talented enough to start games in the Eredivisie during a stint in the Netherlands that they sandwiched, he had played only 543 senior A-League minutes in three A-League seasons.
Now, in 2020-21, the Paris-born midfielder has become one of the competition's iron men: He has started every game for the Bulls, already recording 832 minutes of senior football. A regular Olyroos starter during the qualifying campaign for the Tokyo Games, his deployment as an eight, six and 10 illustrates his versatility and in combination with the regular minutes bodes well for his Olympic hopes.
Margush and Delianov are prime examples of youngsters moving to fill slots vacated by veterans headed abroad.
Previously logging 630 minutes across three campaigns, Margush, 23, ascended to the No.1 goalkeeping position at Western Sydney after former Wanderers custodian Daniel Lopar departed after reportedly declining to negotiate a reduction in his wage to match this season's cuts to the salary cap. Having logged 90 career minute prior, Delianov, 21, won a three-way battle with Joe Gauci and Dakota Ochsenham in pre-season to replace Paul Izzo at Adelaide United; Izzo was one of several senior players to depart the A-League when he signed with Greek second-tier side Xanthi FC (who sacked Tony Popovic as coach last week).
The pair have since started and played every minute of their side's campaigns in 2020-21, with Delianov named as the Reds' player of the month for both January and February thanks to his efforts behind the inconsistent Adelaide backline.
Wenzel-Halls blistering start to the season and the vivacious manner in which he approaches the game has made him an instant favourite among fans, but it's difficult to envision the youngster having been afforded the same level of scope he's received for Brisbane Roar this season had Warren Moon not replaced Robbie Fowler after the 2019-20 A-League season's suspension.
Before Fowler's departure, Wenzel-Halls had started just seven of 22 games in 2019-20, scored a single goal, and recorded more than an hour's game time just twice. Since Moon's rise, he has started 14 out of 14 games, scored six goals, and is yet to record less than an hour-long appearance. The 23-year-old is only 325 minutes from surpassing his season mark for minutes in 2020-21.
Technically, Kuol made his A-League debut in an 18-minute, Round 18 cameo last season, but it was in the hub where emerged into the consciousness of the greater Australian public.
Making three appearances in that run of games and delivering one of the most memorable post-game interviews in years, the former NPL2 Victoria Golden Boot winner has gone on to bag six goals in 10 appearances for Central Coast Mariners in 2020-21. He's not starting every game, but with his side top of the table and his 1.41 goals per 90 leading the league Mariners' boss Alen Stajcic and his staff appear to have hit upon the perfect strategy for slowly introducing the raw youngster to senior football: They are hiding his weaknesses and avoiding overexposure while maximizing his devastating strengths.
Sky Blue Struggles
A quick perusal of the A-League table yields a shocking discovery, and no it's not the Mariners being top.
Instead, it comes when we try to find the side that, normally, would be expected to be sitting where the Mariners are, or breathing down their necks: Sydney FC. Coach Steve Corica's side, albeit with a game or two in hand, currently find themselves sitting ninth heading into Saturday's meeting with Brisbane Roar; while their defence is the most miserly in the competition, their 10 goals scored is equal-second worst.
In year's past, the Sky Blues have been able to rely upon their machine-like clinical finishing to supplement their resolute backline and well-oiled system to take results from games in which other sides would have come away with nothing. But that lethality has been critically lacking in 2020-21, as was on display in the Harboursiders' 1-0 loss to Macarthur FC.
In the 14th minute of that contest, Milos Ninkovic won the ball in the middle of the park and sliced a ball in behind to catch the Bulls on their heels for the first time, but Kosta Barbarouses' subsequent shot was straight at Adam Federici. Nine minutes later, it was Barbarouses' turn to free Patrick Wood to advance on Federici, but the youngster's shot also was straight at the Bulls' custodian.
In the 33rd minute, Ninkovic -- who remains a creative force in the middle of the Sky Blues' attack despite their broader struggles -- freed Paolo Retre with a golden opportunity to put his side ahead only for the subsequent shot to fly over the bar. Just moments after the visitors took the lead but before Sydney were reduced to 10 players, Alex Baumjohann sliced a ball through the penalty area for Barbarouses that should have allowed the Kiwi to level proceedings, only for the forward to drag his shot across goal.
Goals change games, and the game's completion and possibly the result may have been vastly different had Sydney taken one of those chances against the Bulls. Now though, thanks to their profligacy, Sydney's proportion of minutes spent with a lead is the second smallest this campaign.
Good Football Thing of the Week
There's a reason that Markel Susaeta played over 500 games for Athletic Bilbao.
Good Social Media Thing of the Week
As someone who received the very same news over a decade ago, it's difficult to describe the wave of emotions that Rebekah Stott is experiencing after her diagnosis with stage three Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
Stott, however, is already seeking to inspire and help others in light of the news; launching her own World's Greatest Shave campaign to support the Leukaemia Foundation.