We are near the midway point -- curse you, uneven rounds and byes -- of the A-League season. It's time for some perspective.
To this point, it appears the competition this season is broken up into three tiers, as reflected by the ladder: Sydney, Melbourne City to Adelaide United, then the rest. It's the A-League, though, so anything can happen between now and the time the Toilet Seat is lifted in triumph.
1. Sydney FC
The ladder does not lie. Sydney have unquestionably been the A-League's strongest team so far this season. That does not necessarily mean come May, though, the Sky Blues are unbeatable. Far from it. It can be interpreted as the sign of a quality team when good results can come via not so good performances, but that is a dangerous tightrope to walk coming into the finals. Since their demolition of Brisbane in early December, Steve Corica's side have not been at all convincing.
Brandon O'Neill's departure for Pohang Steelers this month is not a hammer blow -- given the defined role central midfielders have in their system -- but depth is nevertheless affected. That's an important variable, given the AFC Champions League group stage will run into the A-League post-season. Managing Milos Ninkovic will be key, because despite Kosta Barbarouses' complementary element to Adam Le Fondre in a fully-fit side, lifting the Toilet Seat ultimately depends on the Serbian playmaker.
Considering the 11-point gap to second spot, there is an eased opportunity to do that. Still the team to beat.
2. Melbourne City
If Sydney have been the strongest team in the A-League so far, Melbourne City are out on their own as the competition's most confusing team this season. Not so much from a tactical perspective --because susceptibilities both in and out of possession have been evident -- but mentally. Narratives over whether it is part of the City fabric over their short history can be considered peripheral. In testing moments on the pitch this season, however, something has just seemed...off.
At a base level, City under Erick Mombaerts have been solid and are definitely in the running for the spot in next season's AFC Champions League qualifying phase. With the likes of Jamie Maclaren, Craig Noone and Josh Brillante -- with complementary pieces in Lachie Wales and Connor Metcalfe in this aspect -- City can defend up the pitch effectively. Yet with those players -- Brillante particularly -- there is seemingly a trade-off to what City can actually do with the ball and the kind of chances they can realistically create. Markel Susaeta's addition and consequent deployment -- and what that means for others in the squad -- is a very intriguing subplot going forward.
In the event City make the finals, though, this psychological Jekyll and Hyde quality will not be conducive.
3. Perth Glory
After a shaky start, with one win in the opening seven matches of the season, Perth are back in a relatively comfortable ladder position. Tony Popovic's side may be on a five-match winning streak, but beating Central Coast, Newcastle and Western Sydney over the past month has not meant prior problems have been solved. Also taking into account the manner in which they defeated Melbourne City -- to kickstart their season -- the Glory still have a number of things to figure out, when the onus is on them to attack. As noted before the start of the term, everything about Perth has to be looked at within the prism of Popovic's implementation, including their legitimacy as title contenders.
On a positive note, Bruno Fornaroli's integration within the squad and interplay with Diego Castro has been a much-needed relief for the latter. The Uruguayan striker's realisation has also been a gradual pressure relief since arriving, given the type of chances Perth create, irrespective of the fluctuation in results. The apparent shift in the pecking order between Joel Chianese and Chris Ikonomidis has also been notable.
4. Wellington Phoenix
The qualities and attributes of players ultimately impact what a coach can do in terms of tactical implementation. Wellington have shown that more than anyone in the A-League this season, at least in a positive way. Phoenix coach Ufuk Talay has also shown, though, he has the capacity to adjust in his short time since replacing Mark Rudan. Beating Western Sydney this season is not exactly something to hang one's hat on, but Wellington put forward an assured performance with David Ball, Reno Piscopo and Alex Rufer all unavailable. Meanwhile, Louis Fenton's season-ending injury has denied Talay a certain balance with his fullbacks, in his adaptation of the famed Arnieball formation.
On the left side, Liberato Cacace has only maintained form from last season with a slight change in role. Ball and Ulises Davila's performances have been particularly notable, and the nature of the 4-2-2-2 setup does allow for interchangeability of personnel. However, the manner of their steady improvement this season has been built upon the pairing of Matti Steinmann and Cameron Devlin, as a result of Rufer's injury. Their attributes are innately compatible, and what happens when Rufer returns is worth examination.
Nevertheless, Wellington will remain a tough prospect for any side in the competition.
5. Western United
Out of teams in the A-League this season, in terms of potential, Western United have the highest scope for variance. At their best, United have the capacity to beat anyone but at their worst, they can go nowhere with the ball against the likes of Western Sydney and Central Coast. Having opened the season with 10 out a possible 15 points, Scott McDonald and Dario Jertec were the basis of what Mark Rudan's side did well going forward. Jertec still is. Something of concern to fans of the new entity, though, contributing factors to that fluctuating quality are not solely tactical.
Injuries have undoubtedly exposed a thin squad, but to have that kind of ceiling with a short turnaround from day zero to now, it's ultimately a positive. Astutely, Rudan and his staff have recognised Western United have to be different to the rest in order to succeed on the pitch. They are unique, and they are capable. A turbulent start to life, but there's light at the end of that tunnel.
As it stands though -- given the specificity of plan and composition -- a lot of things have to go their way to reach their ceiling, instead of their floor.
6. Melbourne Victory
As noted heading into this season, Melbourne Victory's start to life without Kevin Muscat would contain intrigue. The 2019-20 season was always going to say more about the people who made decisions off the pitch for Victory, than those on it. This week was a cathartic one at Gosch's Paddock, with Marco Kurz shown the door after 14 competitive games, to be replaced by assistant Carlos Salvachua until the end of the season.
Despite Ola Toivonen's individual quality and status as the best striker in the A-League, Robbie Kruse's presence was and remains the determining aspect in Victory's progress this season. His capacity to incorporate the likes of Toivonen, Elvis Kamsoba and Andrew Nabbout contrasted to the opening two months of the season, with mind-numbingly rigid spells of possession.
As long as Kruse is on the pitch, Victory are not to be underestimated.
7. Adelaide United
Battling it out with Melbourne City for the A-League's Pace and Power crown, Adelaide have the tendency to run themselves into a tailspin at times. Gertjan Verbeek has only slightly tinkered with Marco Kurz's formula, so there are going to be obvious fallibilities, but they run. A lot, and fast. At their best, the Reds are very dynamic in transitional phases, as the collective tethers itself to Ben Halloran's incisive movement. When it all works, Riley McGree and Alhassan Toure are pieces that can complement Halloran's role as that reference point.
The constant state of limbo that comes with James Troisi provides natural uncertainty, but behind him and McGree in midfield, Louis D'Arrigo has shown to be a steady pair of hands at the base. Positively for Adelaide, the departures of Isaias and Craig Goodwin have not left irreplaceable voids. At the same time, making a concerted effort to pivot towards youth like D'Arrigo and Toure means dealing with inconsistencies.
Out of the sides not in the finals places at the moment, the only realistic chance.
8. Western Sydney Wanderers
As a negative example to Wellington's positive -- with respect to the tactical parameters squad composition can set for a coach -- Western Sydney have not been thoughtfully assembled this season. Yet, the Wanderers casted last season aside to focus on this one, in a new stadium. It is difficult to truly quantify Markus Babbel's influence in this aspect, but the only option now is to go full Pace and Power. All things considered, the Wanderers suffer from both recruitment and the fact they are the worst coached team in the A-League. We are only a fortnight into 2020, and Australian football already has a candidate for worst team of the decade.
Whether Radoslaw Majewski went down with a knee injury or not on the eve of the season, this was inevitable. That the Wanderers even have 14 points at this stage is a mystery that will remain unsolved until the end of days. Such basic footballing concepts and positional tasks are left ignored on a weekly basis, across the pitch, and that is not simply down to individual player quality, incompatibility or effort.
Comically bad but as Babbel has made sure to point out, there's no promotion and relegation.
9. Brisbane Roar
Along with the Wanderers, Brisbane have been one of the A-League's more aimless sides in possession this term. Overall, though, performances have at least been an improvement upon recent times. Admittedly, that's a silver lining to a cloud, but the Roar were a sieve in transitional phases last season. Conceding 17 goals at the midway point of the season is a progression from the 71 they allowed last season in 27 games. Moving on from Matt McKay and Tom Kristensen in midfield was ultimately necessary and such a radical turnaround this season would be arguably unrealistic.
A team still has to score goals too and it's because of this, Brisbane have spent the least time in leading positions in the A-League this season. For example, Newcastle may have scored less goals (12) than the Roar (14) this term, but that has more to do with the Jets profligacy than the type of chances they create. The latter is an issue more pertinent for Robbie Fowler's side, and it arguably has more to do with direction than personnel. However much it pains to see Rahmat Akbari and Dylan Wenzel-Halls see sporadic minutes.
Baby steps, though.
10. Central Coast Mariners
True to form, Mariners coach Alen Stajcic has not been afraid to experiment in both collective and individual aspects. Being coach of Central Coast is bit like inheriting an island of misfit toys, anyway, so it has been at least refreshing to see this flexibility on a week-to-week basis. Instead of readily accepting defeat amid the natural order of the A-League. Such drastic adjustment can have a psychological toll on a playing group, as well as reflecting poorly on their consequent estimation -- as opposed to making the opposition adjust to that playing group. Collectively, though, there is an unpredictability that comes with shifting between zonal and one-on-one defensive coverage, and shifting from three to five-man defences. It has impacted games, positively and negatively relative to the scenarios in which adjustment has taken place.
The format of the league allows it so, from a coaching standpoint, why not?
Stajcic has had to squeeze the very most out of the squad he has and with this in mind, it is of little surprise Matt Simon and Michael McGlinchey have not been handed previously titular roles. In fact, to use them only sparingly is logical. There is arguably a composition that best utilises the likes of Daniel de Silva and Tommy Oar, but Sam Silvera's sudden departure for the United States significantly impacts that.
What this all says about the legitimacy of the Mariners as an entity, though, is another matter.
11. Newcastle Jets
It has been a footballing tragedy to see Steven Ugarkovic have to almost solely carry the burden for Newcastle this season. In retrospect, it's a repeat of last term. The 4-0 loss to Melbourne Victory a fortnight ago, before Ernie Merrick's dismissal as Jets coach, was like a zenith in this sense. As other players sought a bottomless hole in the AAMI Park surface to jump into, Ugarkovic was still working deep into injury time - moving to penetrate for his teammates and trying to make things happen in attack.
The 25-year-old is the best central midfielder in the competition, but as touched upon in November, his peerless impact -- in this competition, at least -- is at the mercy of the collective's capacity for realisation. In addition, that Newcastle were not attacking and defending as a unit under Merrick only exacerbated matters. With Craig Deans taking the reins as coach, last Friday's performance against league-leading Sydney was a positive starting point.
Ultimately, the same issue of not finishing what the collective can create could still establish itself.