The Football Sack assesses a turbulent season in Western Sydney.

Semester Summary

A host of off-field issues was reflected by an inconsistent and messy season from Western Sydney Wanderers. The outfit never managed to produce more than two consecutive wins and ended their campaign with just eight victories, nine draws and ten losses. Coach Josep Gombau endeavoured to install his style at the club but was evidently ill-suited to the unstable environment left by the shock departure of Tony Popovic.

The Wanderers spent most of the campaign drifting in and out of an already lenient finals cut-off position and were finally sent packing after a final round 3-2 loss to Adelaide United. For a club which will always be measured by their 2014 Asian Champions League success this sub-par campaign has been a bitter pill to swallow for players and supporters alike.

Following a relatively steady opening under caretaker coach Hayden Foxe the Wanderers never properly established themselves as a team to be reckoned with and by season’s end had only once beaten a side within the top three.

A meagre seventh place finish was not enough to keep Gombau at the helm so the Spaniard has been shown the door, meaning the club is once again on the hunt for a new coach.

Areas of excellence

As a former FC Barcelona youth coach, Josep Gombau made it no secret that he wanted the Wanderers to a play a possession based, attacking brand of football. His methods never quite stuck but occasionally the Wanderers would find their rhythm and produce some beautiful football birthed from the midfield. Midfielder Alvaro Cejudo paired delightfully with fellow countryman Oriol Riera, while the addition of Christopher Ikonomidis later in the season proved to be one of the club’s best signings in recent years.

Whenever the side clicked and strung together a series of slick, one-touch passes through the midfield it was an impressive sight. The presence of Riera inside in the box also encouraged a high amount of involvement from the overlapping defenders, namely Raul Llorente and Joshua Risdon.

It was clear Tony Popovic thoughtfully picked out this squad and perhaps under less turbulent circumstances the talent that resided in the team would have ended the season on a better note.

Areas in need of improvement

A patchy defence resulted in the Wanderers conceding 47 goals this season, seven more than Brisbane Roar who finished one spot above them on the ladder. The loss of former captain Robert Cornthwaite in round 16 exasperated their frailties at the back and further injuries to Jonathan Aspropotamitis and Michael Thwaite meant the side were often at the mercy of opposition strikers. Teams with a particularly formidable attacking line-up such as Sydney FC or Melbourne City exposed just how porous the Wanderers defence was this season.

Inconsistency is by far the biggest issue at hand. The Wanderers suffered back to back losses on three occasions this season and desperately need stability if they want to rekindle their past ways. For a club as big as the Wanderers there’s also no room for the training ground scuffles and sideline arguments we witnessed this season.

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Top Student

Oriol Riera was the A-League’s second leading goalscorer this season, netting 15 goals in 25 appearances for the Red and Black. A quintessential striker, the Spanish marquee was dangerous in the air and would effortlessly slip into the right area when the Wanderers were pushing in a counter.

His time at the famed FC Barcelona La Masia academy shone through in many performances as he underpinned the quick, shifting attacking play favoured by the Wanderers. His aerial prowess was perhaps his most noteworthy feature, Riera utilised his stature and timing brilliantly when earning his five headed goals.

He’s been secured for another season and provided with appropriate support should continue his spell as one of the league’s most proficient strikers.

Class Clown

Left back Jack Clisby is one of the club’s few domestic players that has a contract expiring in June. The Wanderers will no doubt be looking to upgrade their back four and there’s a chance Clisby will be ousted in the process. Making just nine starts this season, the defender often found himself filling an unfamiliar central role and often seemed flustered and uncomfortable in the position. With Tarek Elrich from Adelaide United and Ruon Tongyik from Melbourne City linked with moves to the club Clisby may not be part of the long term plan.

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Grade: D

Outlook

Western Sydney Wanderers veteran Brendan Santalab said it best, something needs to change. The club is resilient and will no doubt dust itself off and begin rebuilding however uncertainty still remains over who will guide them in the coming seasons. It’s not all doom and gloom at Wanderland however and many will see this season as a transitional period for the club. With plenty of promising youngsters from the championship winning youth league squad eager for a call-up the future looks solid for the side. The potential signings of Nick Fitzgerald and Bruce Kamau are a positive start in the Wanderers rebuild and the off season will certainly be an interesting one as speculation grows over who will fill the top job.

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Bachelor of Journalism student from the University of Wollongong, covering Western Sydney Wanderers for the 2017/18 season.