Melbourne Victory's A-League decline has been both gradual and sudden

What's gone wrong -- and right -- at Melbourne Victory? Are Central Coast Mariners wizards? Just how close is the A-League in 2020-21? Is having more of the ball better or worse? The ESPN Australia and New Zealand Football Wrap is back to answer all your questions about the round ball game Down Under.

The Fall of the House of Victory

In Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, Brett Ashley asks fiance Mike Campbell how he went bankrupt.

"Two ways," he responds. "Gradually and then suddenly."

The same could be said of how Melbourne Victory came to find themselves at their lowest ebb as an A-League side.

In a season defined by an ability to deliver entertaining matches and fun storylines, the four-time A-League champions have stood out for all the wrong reasons in 2020-21: Toothless in attack, lacking creativity and purposeful movement with and without the ball, tempo-less, and too often missing a discernible sense of pride and application. Frequently, catapulting aerial balls onto the head of Rudy Gestede or passing the ball to Callum McManaman appears the only consistent planned path to goal -- which doesn't require Marcelo Bielsa-like levels of genius to counter.

The Victory are now bottom of the A-League table a season after finishing second-last, and the gradual aspect of how 2020-21's calamity befell one of Australian football's proudest houses is complex and far-reaching. Clubs the size and success of Victory don't slip into the mire because of one bad day.

Inconsistent performances from international signings and hit-and-miss domestic additions have contributed to the present tapestry of moroseness, as has, at minimum, two failed attempts to replace coach Kevin Muscat and reinvigorate the club after his exit. An inability to bring through and integrate a consistent pipeline of young talent -- Melbourne City's new academy in Casey, when it opens, will be the second elite facility they have constructed since their birth compared with Victory's none -- has also been brought sharply into focus by 2020-21's youth movement. Injuries consistently continue to haunt their squad despite several changes in head coaches and strength and conditioning departments.

Off-field, a fastidiously maintained network of partners, corporate sponsors and influencers ensures the club remains one of the financially strongest in the league; the fact it has been sustained even as the club's on-field plight has collapsed leads to queries about complacency, priorities, purpose and self-awareness.

Victory's loud and passionate fanbase, once the envy of the A-League, is increasingly disillusioned and voting with their feet on game day. Taken for granted -- as active and passionate support in the Australian game is more broadly -- the lamentations about a lack of club backing against complaints of overzealous stadium security and police, the continued use of Marvel Stadium as a home, perceived special treatment for corporates and lack of communication on the club's direction grow louder every day. The actual games aren't helping either.

These ghosts of Victory's deep-seated issues are detectable in their sudden fall: Two wins in 10 games in 2020-21 and a goal difference of -13.

Supporters jeered after Victory's defeat by Newcastle Jets -- the first in a five-game homestand described by head coach Grant Brebner as "season-defining". The coach, whom The Age has reported will be backed by the board, acknowledged bluntly that the fans were "justified" in their frustrations. In yet more juicy symbolism, the boos were met by cheers from some remaining in the corporate sections -- white wine in hand -- seemingly not to show support for the squad but, instead, for a bit of contrarian craic.

Defeat by Western United was not only heartbreaking but also extended a hoodoo, as Western boss Mark Rudan put it, against an expansion side that barely existed as an idea -- let alone a squad -- when Victory were last lifting an A-League title in 2017-18. And as City put one goal after another past them last week, fans in navy blue once again voiced their displeasure as it became increasingly clear that, from an on-field perspective, their Melbourne-based rivals had left them in the dust since the beginning of the 2019-20 campaign.

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Saturday's Original Rivalry meeting with Adelaide United offers an opportunity for yet more contrasts, with the Reds likely heading to Marvel Stadium with a youthful squad including a significant South Australian contingency that has been nurtured through the club's academy.

Mid-season, things are going to be difficult for Victory to stage a turnaround -- the return of Jean-Paul de Marigny as an assistant is tempered somewhat by the news that Marco Rojas has broken a leg-- but perhaps more important than what's ahead for the club is an acknowledgement of how things got this way in the first place, lest all this be allowed to happen again.

Victory was born with unopposed control of Australia's second-largest city and its "sporting capital" -- enabling it to establish a strong foundation as the A-League's best and biggest club. Melbourne Heart's haphazard attempts to eke out an identity and poor on-field performances upon their entry to the competition did little to challenge this; this was in sharp contrast to the challenges Western Sydney Wanderers presented Victory's Big Blue rivals Sydney FC.

With trophies piling up under such circumstances -- and even if a warning shot was fired when City's W-League program eviscerated Victory's upon its birth -- it's not hard to see how complacency and hubris could set in. The 2017-18 Championship, in turn, served to paper over the cracks in this glittering veneer that were beginning to appear. Remember, fans had been calling for Muscat's head just months before 'The Heist in the Hunter'.

But now, the landscape is truly shifted: Sydney ascendant, City rising and Western challenging. Repairs are needed, rather than maintenance. No amount of vicissitude is irreversible in the A-League -- Sydney spent much of the early 2010s in the wilderness -- but such turnarounds require hard truths, tough decisions and a willingness to accept the unpalatable.

A Light in the Darkness

For all the doom and gloom at Victory, though, it's important to note that the above section began with "lowest ebb as an A-League side" and not "lowest ebb as a club".

For all the woes of the men's team, Melbourne Victory Women appear all but nailed on to play in their third W-League finals campaign in three years and cannot be discounted as chances to win a first title since 2013-14.

Under Jeff Hopkins, Victory have staged a remarkable turnaround over the past half decade. After recording a wooden-spoon finish in his first season in 2016-17 -- the club's second in a row after City's entrance to the W-League stripped them of most of their talent -- and a seventh-place finish the year after, they won their first premiership in 2018-19 and recorded a second-place finish the year after.

Star player Tash Dowie might now play for AC Milan, but Victory have continued to perform well in 2020-21 thanks -- in contrast to the men's side -- to a strong base of Victorian talent. Polly Doran, Melinda J Barbieri, Amy Jackson, Melina Ayres, Tiffany Eliadis, Maja Markovski, Lia Privitelli, and Melissa Maizels are all local representatives from their most-recent squad, and Kyra Cooney-Cross, born in Queensland, cut her teeth in the Victorian pathway. Gaby Garton, Catherine Zimmerman, Kayla Morrison and Natalie Martineau were all recruited off strong NPLW Victoria play.

It's an admirable run of success for a side largely forced to operate in the shadow of Melbourne City Women's squad of Matildas and international talent, and shouldn't be jeopardized by whatever reforms are made to the Victory set up in response to their A-League travails.

Matt Simon Wears a Magic Hat

At this point, it might be worth checking to see if 'The Wizard of Woy Woy' Matt Simon actually does possess magical powers.

Central Coast Mariners did it again on Monday, defeating Macarthur FC 2-0 with goals from Simon and 20-year-old debutant Matt Hatch -- the latter posting the fastest debut goal in national league history when he scored with his first ever professional touch after coming on in the 81st minute.

The win moves Alen Stajcic's side seven points clear atop the A-League table, with a league-leading goal difference of +9 and, to steal a phrase from former Socceroos cult hero Ljubo Milicevic, "the best vibes".

And unthinkable as it may have been in previous years, the sense of momentum, belief and, daresay it, destiny permeating the Mariners is snowballing to the point that playing them must now be beginning to carry with it a sense of intimidation that could begin to affect their opponents' performance.

How, when seemingly everything is going right for your opposition, do you maintain your composure when play swings against you? Are you able to maintain focus when you take the lead? Melbourne City and Western United weren't. And you're not safe chasing the game, as the Mariners' solid defence and ability to get out quickly and punish a moment's hesitation are among their biggest strengths this season.

You're not safe at home, either; the Mariners have won four games on the road against one defeat, and their +6 goal difference away is one better than Melbourne City's combined home-and-away total.

Everyone Gets a Turn

The Mariners' seven-point lead atop the table notwithstanding, and Victory being four points adrift at its foot, one of the clearest trends emerging during the 2020-21 A-League season is the parity across the competition.

With the disclaimer that the spread of games played is uneven, just six points separate second-placed Macarthur FC from 11th-placed Newcastle Jets; the Jets also are just four points behind sixth-placed Brisbane Roar, who occupy the last of the finals places.

After the slashing of the salary cap pushing out a number of top-range talents, COVID-restrictions enforcing fixture chaos and youth being promoted in significant numbers, such a scenario should probably have been foreseeable as the pressures on a club's ceiling are greater than that on the floor.

Nonetheless, the compactness of the ladder does address one of the major problems the league has faced in recent years: A significantly higher number of games throughout this season will now have stakes riding upon them. This gives the 2020-21 season much greater opportunity to maintain the fun factor -- important given it is still without a naming-rights sponsor, negotiating TV deals, and seeking to eke out a place in a crowded sporting market.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Wellington Phoenix (in their very tasty, Wollongong-inspired red kits) downed Perth Glory 3-0 at WIN Stadium on Sunday, claiming an important three points for Ufuk Talay's side and ensuring they did their bit to support the aforementioned league parity.

Notable in the fixture was the fact that Phoenix, despite winning by three goals, had only 38% of possession and were outshot 21 to eight. Despite this, they had only three fewer shots on target than Glory; clearly, they possessed a much more lethal finishing touch on the day.

Elsewhere, the Mariners, per FBRef, have seen just 43% of the ball across their 11 games, but, nonetheless, sit atop the table with the most wins and, at 5.18, have the fourth-most shots on target per 90 minutes in the league.

The only two sides that shoot more on target than the Mariners?

Ball loving, in-form Melbourne City (5.44 shots) and possession-hogging Macarthur FC (5.27). City are also the league's second-leading scorers per 90 minutes at 1.89.

Ultimately, football isn't about having more of the ball (dominating, as A-League coaches like to declare) but, at the same time, it's not simply a matter of being more direct. One is not necessarily better than the other. They're simply overarching principles, the execution of which is far more important to the overarching success of a team.

Good Football Thing of the Week

Milos Ninkovic once again doing Milos Ninkovic things to lay the groundwork for Sydney FC's first goal. The A-League's best-ever player, ladies and gentlemen.

Good Social Media Thing of the Week

"The Mariners admin is going to be trouble."

"I know, but they're just so. damn. talented."