The A-League, and Australian football, continues to roll along at a cracking pace but don't worry if you haven't been able to keep up because the ESPN Australia and New Zealand wrap is here to keep you abreast of everything going down.
All hands of deck
Much of the conversation surrounding the A-League in 2020-21 has been dominated by its youth and the possibility of these players going to the Olympics, earning overseas moves and, one day, becoming fully-fledged Australian internationals.
It makes sense, prospects always carry with them magic that can't be replicated by anything else in the minds of fans and the untapped potential they hold is always fun to speculate on -- imagination is magic.
And in the words of former Australian Professional Leagues (APL) advisor Richard Scudamore: "...the holy grail is the local boy made good because they are [clubs] best asset."
However, with a looming fixture crunch in European football and restrictions on international travel still a vexing topic for nations around the world, 2020-21 also looms as a possible chance for the A-League's more standout veterans to earn their way into national team service.
Ostensibly, the Socceroos are earmarked to play World Cup qualifiers against Kuwait and Nepal in March and Chinese Taipei in June, the first and third of which will be at home. Should international-based players not be available, it means that figures such as Curtis Good, Luke Brattan, Steven Ugarkovic, Aleksandar Susnjar, Daniel De Silva and Ben Halloran could find themselves, no doubt welcomely, pressed into duty.
"I've always been someone that has plan A, B, C and D," Socceroos boss Graham Arnold told journalists on Thursday. "Plan A at the moment is life as normal, that we play Kuwait in March here in Australia and we play Nepal in Nepal.
"Now, the reality is that may not happen and it also may mean that even in June that we can't get players because we are a unique sport; all the other sports here in Australia -- cricket, league, union -- they play and live here in Australia. But for us, you've got players that play all around the world, different quarantine rules when they go back and different testing type things.
"So it may end up in June that I end up, for us to finish World Cup qualifying, I have to use an A-League based team.
"So I'm monitoring and looking at those older boys all the time.
"Curtis Good has been very impressive at left centre-back, Luke Brattan has started the season very well. So there are the older players, I don't just look at the younger players, the older players are the leaders and role models for the kids and they're definitely on the radar for the Socceroos because in this pandemic you've got to be flexible with planning.
"Fortunately, we've got a huge number of players that are playing a lot of minutes overseas and a lot of players playing here in Australia that can play for the Socceroos. So we will find a way."
Fornaroli remains a problem for opposition defenders.
Admittedly, Bruno Fornaroli's 51st-minute strike in Glory's 5-3 win over Adelaide was relatively simple, but it should be noted it only came about because the Uruguayan was cognizant enough of his surroundings to attack the acres and acres of space left vacant by Michael Marrone as the Adelaide defender charged past him.
How he won his side's penalty was also striking in that it just demonstrated that Fornaroli just gets the little things that go into being a striker. Making a darting run off the shoulder of Michael Jakobsen to present for a Neil Kilkenny ball over the top, the striker takes control of the space in the penalty area and then expertly manipulates his body to keep it; putting it first between Jakobsen, and then charging Reds' keeper James Delianov. Delianov, playing in just his fourth senior match ever, is unable to prevent himself from clattering into Jakobsen and one of the best centres of gravity in the A-League and gives away a penalty.
Fornaroli was unfairly maligned for his profligacy during Perth's hub-based run home of the 2019-20 season, his lack of goals much more down to the almost complete dearth of creativity Perth had from open play during those games. It's early, but the signs are there that he could be set to return to form in 2020-21 -- even if he has to rely more on his guile as the season takes its toll on his 33-year-old body.
Goodbye and Good Riddance to Bad Luck
Brisbane Roar's impressive start to the season under Warren Moon continued in Wednesday evening's other fixture, Brisbane defeating Newcastle Jets 2-1 to make it back-to-back wins and jump up to third in the A-League table.
The Jets, however, have now crashed to four-straight losses to begin 2020-21 -- all via a single goal -- and are firmly rooted to the bottom of the table.
Given the travails that the club has found itself in recently, it's hard not to feel at least some pangs of sympathy for the players, coaches and fans in this situation. But at the same time, significant blame for this slow start can be placed on the fact that the Jets at times feel like they couldn't hit the broad side of a barn door at 10 paces.
Against Brisbane, they won the shot count 22 shots (six on target) to four (two), in a 2-1 loss to Macarthur, a dominant second half ended with a 13 (five) to 10 (four) tally, and in another 2-1 loss against Western Sydney it was 21 (four) to 11 (four).
In the 23rd minute of their defeat against Brisbane -- down a goal after Riku Danzaki's freak, deflected opener -- the Jets pressed hard and kept the ball in their foe's penalty area, the ball falling to Ramy Najjarine.
Najjarine -- a potential breakout star of 2020-21 -- then produces a bit of magic to create space before driving a ball across the face of goal, only for Roy O'Donovan to fail to even make contact with his shot attempt.
Still struggling to comprehend how this wasn't at least put on target. pic.twitter.com/EqhNTpSTQa— Joey Lynch (@joeylynchy) January 20, 2021
O'Donovan has had a very successful A-League career since first arriving at Central Coast in 2015 but if he's going to continue to fluff his lines at the crucial moments in games his side go onto lose, the question must be asked how much longer the Jets will stick with him.
Down Payment Blues
Released on Thursday, a Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) examination of player contracts around the A-League has revealed we might be in for a bit of chaos come the end of the 2020-21 campaign: 67.87% of A-League players -- 188 of 277-- are either in the final or the only year of their contracts this campaign.
The 67.87% figure represents the highest number since the player's union first began tracking such figures in 2014; eclipsing the previous record of 63.4% set at the end of the 2017-18 campaign.
With exploits of young players one of the major talking points and good news stories of the current season, the report finds that 60.9% of those under the age of 18 and 71.8% of those aged between 19 and 23 were also in the midst of their contract seasons. Breaking those numbers down further, 78% of Australia's Under-17s (Joeys), 54.8% of the U20s and 55.2% of the U23s or Olyroos are in the closing year of their deals.
Meanwhile, 69.1% of players aged 24-28 -- ostensibly the prime years of footballing performance -- are free to leave their clubs at the end of 2020-21, while the figure is 58.3% for players aged 29-33 and 77.3% for those 34 and over.
Unsurprisingly, the player's union places significant blame for this contractual instability on the A-League's salary cap in their report, which it declares to be -- thanks to the various allowances and additions to it over the years.
Highlighting the ongoing saga surrounding the Jets' ownership as a recent example, it argues that the cap has "not guaranteed the sustainability of all clubs" and that the league is "experiencing a widening gap between the winners and losers" despite its presence.
"For the past seven years, on average over half the players in every A-League squad commence the season with the knowledge they are coming off contract at its conclusion," PFA co-Chief Executive Beau Busch told ESPN.
"This player churn is extreme by global standards and the ongoing challenges associated with this uncertainty continue to undermine the ability of our professional leagues to attract, retain and develop talent. We are now seeing the negative impact of these faltering labour market regulations compounded by a lack of clarity in relation to critical matters, such as the season window.
"The upcoming round of collective bargaining negotiations provides an opportunity to build a fit for purpose model that supports an agreed vision for our professional leagues."
Shoot to Thrill
With his 84th-minute winner against Western United last Saturday, not only did Jamie Maclaren secure Melbourne City their second win of the season, he continued the remarkable run of form that he, and his side, have over their green-and-black neighbours.
City has now defeated Western in all five of their competitive meetings since the club entered the league in 2019-20. Per Australian stats doyen Andy Howe, Maclaren's eight goals against Western, when restricted to players who have played a minimum of five games against their foes, stands alone when it comes to feasting on a single A-League opponent.
His ratio of 1.60 goals per 90 sits clear of Bobo's 1.33 per game in six appearances against City, 1.29 in seven hit-outs against Perth Glory, and 1.17 against Wellington Phoenix. Adam Le Fondre and Oriol Riera also scored at a 1.17 rate against Brisbane Roar.
"When you play a team like Western, they want to win the game as well, they've got players who can unlock a defence with one pass," Maclaren told ESPN.
"[Alessandro] Diamanti... I don't need to talk him up because he's the best player in the league but they've got players that want to win games so it's a lot easier when you play against a team that wants to go out and win and it opens up space for us going forward in transitional moments.
"You saw in our goal, the second goal, to be fair it was a transitional moment and we capitalised on it.
"It was a great fightback and our subs made the difference and sometimes you need to look to your bench to get that."
With his winner, Howe also noted that Maclaren became the fastest player in Australian national league history to reach the 80-goal mark, doing so one game quicker than the previous leader Besart Berisha and well clear of Australian legends Frank Farina, Gary Cole and John Kosmina.
"To be honest, as a striker you always count your goals," the 27-year-old said. "It doesn't matter if they're screamers or penalties, every goal counts for me.
"I was aware of it going into the game I was on 79. I've had an eye on looking to that 90 and 92, Archie [Thompson] and Shane Smeltz, the next two in front of me [on the A-League all-time scoring list]. Last season I overtook Brosquey [Alex Brosque] who is a fantastic footballer.
"That's the thing, you look at some of those names, I don't even think I'm in their category at the moment but it's nice to know I'm overtaking top players. I can see Archie and Smeltzy who were guys that I looked up to and it's nice to know that they're 10 or so goals away.
"There's only one player to hit 100 goals in the A-League and that's Besart [Berisha]. Me and him have so much respect for each other. I don't know if I'll try and reach that 100 this year but it's definitely in the back of my mind for sure."