Constructing an age-based team of any A-League Men season just gone is an inevitably fraught exercise.
Even with Australia's predilection for stretching the definition of a "young" player is, or by when they should be established as a starter, there remains plenty of scope for egg on face; players lauded in the present can fall flat in the years ahead, or have misfortune rob them of the opportunity to show what they can do. Furthermore, there are plenty of players toiling on ALM benches or in youth sides who almost certainly would feature on these analyses in a just world, but miss out due to a lack of game time.
However, the 2022-23 ALM season has seen a level of excitement about the players on show -- with the broader mainstream becoming aware of talent that has always been there is because of improved pathways and opportunities to develop.
Of course, that's not to say the league has continued unabated its pandemic-driven trends towards youth opportunities. Weighted by minutes played, the average age in the ALM this season, per FbRef, is 1.3 years older than in the previous campaign -- and is 0.71 years older than the last pre-pandemic season in 2018-19, when there were two fewer teams with the associated 50-odd roster spots to fill. The league, seemingly, is getting older again.
However, perhaps providing a counterbalance to this trend, the increase in age in 2022-23 didn't necessarily correlate with success.
Placing their stock in (mostly) veteran talent, reigning champions Western United had an average weighted playing age of 31.1 years, the oldest in the league, and missed the finals. Melbourne Victory poured millions into a squad that had an average of 29.2 and almost won the wooden spoon.
Conversely, the two teams set to face off in the grand final next weekend, Melbourne City and Central Coast Mariners, both had an average in the bottom half of the league: Premiers City fielded an average age of 27.7 years, with the Mariners the league's youngest at 25.7. This season, you have been able to win stuff with kids.
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"Coaches came in and whinged about the budget, [saying] this club can't compete with the big teams; numerous coaches said that and felt that," Mariners boss Nick Montgomery said after his side's semifinal win over Adelaide United. "I never believed that. I came from a working-class background where if you put your faith into young people they'll give you everything back, and you saw that tonight."
Indeed, trust, faith and understanding being repaid is among the most obvious takeaways from the under-23 players who have shone this season. Jordan Bos, in addition to playing well enough and displaying enough potential to earn a record transfer deal to Belgium, was inserted into Melbourne City's lineup and remained there at the expense of team captain Scott Jamieson during the club's push for a third successive premiership. In another example, Calem Nieuwenhof retained his place in the Western Sydney Wanderers side even when Oliver Bozanic returned to fitness and Morgan Schneiderlin arrived on loan.
There are important circumstances to remember when assessing any young player's emergence, and the credit clubs and coaches deserve for it. Bos and Nieuwenhof's continued minutes weren't just derived when Rado Vidošić or Marko Rudan, at City and Wanderers, respectively, had no other option, but because the coaches recognised the players merited selection. Mistakes and growing pains did occur, but that didn't leave to an immediate banishment back to the reserves or the bench.
"I'm a big fan of being positive," City coach Vidošić told ESPN. "In my first game [in charge] against Sydney FC [after he replaced Patrick Kisnorbo following the World Cup break], Jordan Bos made a mistake and they scored the equaliser... where he could have played the ball he didn't. Cost us a goal. They robbed the ball off him and scored a goal.
"You could react to that in two ways. You can scream at him and punish him and not play him. Or you can just say this is a mistake that young players will make and we just go on.
"I'm more like that. I'm not emphasising those things. We speak about correct mistakes, and if you make correct mistakes, then no problems. We don't want them to make incorrect mistakes.
"If you say play forward from here and he plays the ball backwards, that is an incorrect mistake, for example. I try to be as positive as I can, and encourage them to express themselves and to make as many of those correct mistakes as they need while they're learning and until they are comfortable enough to not make any more mistakes."
2022-23 A-League Men's Best Under-23 Side (4-3-3)
GK: Joe Gauci (Adelaide United)
As the only goalkeeper under the age of 23 who spent the entire campaign as his side's No. 1, Gauci in some ways wins this position by default. However, that's not to underplay the continued growth that the 22-year-old has made since he assumed the Reds' starting role in 2021-22; and its is a journey that passed a major milestone this year, when he was rewarded with a first Socceroos cap against Ecuador.
Gauci will likely be off to Europe at some point in the future -- though he has made it very clear that he's going to take his time in finding the right landing spot -- and that should net Adelaide compensation after he signed a three-year contract extension in April.
RB: Callum Talbot (Melbourne City)
Western Sydney's Aidan Simmons came on strong late, but Talbot's move to City (another talented prospect developed in Sydney FC's academy who slipped through their fingers when it comes to senior football) has seemingly paid off for the Olyroo.
Nuno Reis might have the inside running on starting in the grand final -- staying home alongside the centre-backs as Bos goes marauding forward -- 22-year-old Talbot has produced a strong debut season in Melbourne, starting 20 games at right-back in a side that set new club defensive records.
CB: Kai Trewin (Brisbane Roar)
Not a lot went right for Brisbane Roar this season, but their defence, mostly, held up its end of the bargain -- conceding just 33 goals (the third-best record in the league) and proving stout enough to ensure their keeper had to make an average of only 2.8 saves a game.
Trewin, in his third year as a starter in Queensland, played a variety of roles for coaches Warren Moon and Nick Green this season, but given his history as a central defender, earns a nod in this team. On Thursday, the former Gungahlin United junior was recognised for his form with selection as a train-on player for an Olyroos camp in Varese, Italy.
Triantis took a risk in leaving Western Sydney Wanderers in search of more playing time, signing a three-year deal in Gosford ahead of the season, but he and the Mariners staff have been rewarded for their courage.
The 20-year-old started 18 games for the Mariners through the regular season -- he would have added more had he not had to miss three games while on Young Socceroos duty at the AFC U20 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan -- and he developed in and leaps and bounds as the season progressed. With 6.2 accurate long passes per game, he trailed only Luke Brattan and Scott Jamieson in that ranking.
LB: Jordan Bos (Melbourne City)
Newly minted as the most expensive outbound Australian player, Bos' attack-minded play and physical development beyond his years (and improvement in his defensive play as the season went on) added a new dimension to City's pursuit of a history premiership three-peat this year, induced approximately $AUD 2m from Belgian side Westerlooo, and earned him a maiden Socceroos call-up against Ecuador. His 3.0 successful dribbles per 90 were good for sixth-best in the league -- and he was the only one in the top seven in that ranking who could be considered a week-in and week-out starter. Bos, 20, will be on the radar as the long-term heir-apparent to Aziz Behich on Australia's left flank.
Yet another player who got away from the Sky Blues, Rudan was advised to lure Nieuwenhof across Sydney before the season began; and boy did the 22-year-old live up to the hype, dismissing concerns about his ability to withstand the rigours of a full season by playing 98% of available minutes and becoming the engine in the Wanderers midfield.
No one would have been shocked had he made the Socceroos squad, something that Rudan has publicly advocated for, but Nieuwenhof was called into Tony Vidmar's Olyroos for the coming Maurice Revello Tournament. Amid interest from overseas, a call from Graham Arnold is surely imminent.
DM: Maximilien Balard (Central Coast Mariners)
Quietly, the multilingual Balard - he speaks fluent French and is increasingly picking up Spanish - has put together a highly impressive season for the Mariners: starting 20 games across their second-place finishing season as well as both of their semifinal wins over Adelaide United.
His turn, run, and pass during the build-up to Jason Cummings' go-ahead goal against the Reds in the first leg of that tie exemplified what he and the Mariners have brought this season: a willingness to embrace risk, beat a man, and operate through the midfield without fear.
AM: Keegan Jelacic (Perth Glory)
Reportedly on his way to Belgium for an undisclosed fee, Jalacic has undergone a meteoric rise across the past few years: going from an afterthought at Brisbane Roar, to starting with Olympic FC in NPL Queensland, to becoming one of the best young players in the competition with Perth.
Possessing a remarkable technical ability to go along with a striking calmness and presence on the ball, Jelacic made 21 starts for the Glory this season while scoring twice and providing four assists; sparking an international tug-of-war that saw him, after previously representing New Zealand at U17 level, called up by Vidmar for the Olyroos.
LW: Marco Tilio (Melbourne City)
Bos might presently be the most expensive outbound player in Australian football history, but few will be surprised if Tilio -- who is contracted at City until the end of the 2023/24 campaign -- surpasses him when he, too, makes a move to Europe he feels he is ready for.
Yet another player who departed Sydney's setup in search of greater opportunities, Tilio has developed into one of the competition's best attackers (not just young attackers) in his time at Casey Fields: He was selected for the Olympic Games in Tokyo and supplanted Andrew Nabbout in City's high-powered attack on the way to becoming a World Cup Soccceroo.
Starting 24 games this season and logging more than 2000 minutes, he responded to the extra load with his best ever campaign, registering 10 goals and six assists with a grand final to come.
ST: Noah Botic (Western United)
Western United coach John Aloisi wants it made very clear: His young striker is not the next Mark Viduka, he's Noah Botic, and needs to be allowed to develop into whatever type of player that entails. Fortunately for Botic and the rest of Australian football, he seems to be the pure, goal-scoring striker that isn't too common these days.
Botic scored six goals for United, despite playing just 39% of available minutes this season, and his goals-per-game ratio of 0.60 was good for seventh in the league, while his expected goals of 0.61 per game were sixth. Tall, physical, and with an innate understanding of the game and the striker position, the former Dylan Tombidis Medal winner signed a two-year extension in Melbourne's west towards the end of the season and has established himself in Vidmar's Olyroos.
RW: Nestory Irankunda (Adelaide United)
Reportedly on the radar of global footballing powers such as Bayern Munich, Milan, Internazionale and Liverpool, 17-year-old Irankunda looks like the latest phenom that Australian football is going to hang its hat on. As larger clubs have begun to circle, questions have been raised about his maturity and ability to get through 90 minutes (or even start a game), which is all valid, but there's inarguably an almost violent sense of purpose to Irankunda's game to go with his technical ability: When he's on the pitch and getting near the ball, stuff happens -- mostly because he's making it happen.
Illustrative of this, his 0.91 goals per 90 minutes trailed only Jamie Maclaren this season, while his aggressive, bold and direct play saw him the league in shots and shots on target per 90. Preliminary indications are that and Irankunda will go as far as he wants to, and Reds fans will likely spend the offseason wondering what might have happened had coach Carl Veart sent him from the bench earlier in the second leg of the semifinal loss to the Mariners.
Substitutes: Cameron Cook (Perth Glory), Louis D'Arrigo (Adelaide United), Samuel Silvera (Central Coast Mariners), Aidan Simmons (Western Sydney Wanderers), Jake Hollman (Macarthur FC). Al Hassan Toure (Macarthur FC), Jordan Courtney-Perkins (Brisbane Roar), Dan Farrell (Central Coast Mariners), Patrick Wood (Sydney FC), Luka Jovanovic (Adelaide United)