Western Sydney Wanderers 15/16 Mid-Season Report Card

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It’s the time of the year when clubs look towards the second half of the season and The Football Sack critiques each club’s progress so far.

Do you agree with our assessments made in the return of our mid-season report cards?

Semester Summary: Heading into the 2015/16 A-League season the Wanderers had won just four of their previous 28 matches. Although manager Tony Popovic had taken Western Sydney from plucky A-League newcomers to AFC Champions League conquerors, he had remarkably lost a sizable fraction of the dressing room and the formerly unwavering support of the terraces.

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Popovic had embarked on quite the rebuilding job in the off-season. The signing of a former Catalan in Andres Carrasco was certainly an eyebrow-raiser and signaled a surprising departure from convention. A mass exodus of established performers and spare parts had made way for a long list of new arrivals highlighted by an exciting Spanish trio – another departure from the norm for the Red and Black.

The sheer scale and ambition of the rebuilding job Popovic and the Wanderers’ hierachy faced at the turn of the 14/15 campaign has been drastically overlooked. Therefore, the fact that the transformation, despite a few initial and inevitable speed bumps, has been executed so seamlessly at this stage is nothing short of remarkable.

A ten-match unbeaten run means the Wanderers lie just below Brisbane on goal difference in the Hyundai A-League table. They’re playing their best football in memory and are convincingly outplaying their competitors with a fresh and well-constructed brand of possession football.

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After the disaster of last campaign it feels like normal service has resumed for the Wanderers; albeit in a way no one but Popovic himself could’ve envisaged.

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Areas of Excellence: The most significant gambit of change for the Wanderers has been the modification of their midfield, and that’s the area that has proven most pivotal to their success. The bruising double-pivot of La Rocca and Poljak has been swept aside by a duo of scuttling Spanish maestros in Andreu and Dimas who have born an emphasis on possession, of patient interplay in the middle third and a range of penetrative and probing distribution that was simply not possible in previous campaigns.

Where as Popovic has favoured a pragmatic approach in his A-League reign so far, his side now have the ability to control matches as well. This has had a profound effect on a defence that has returned to the rock-solid foundations of seasons one and two. Andrew Redmayne has surprised many with a string of fine performances whilst Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Alberto might be the best central defensive partnership in the competition.

Areas in need of improvement: Although the Wanderers still create what is essentially the equal-most goal scoring chances per 90 minutes (11, behind Melbourne City with 11.07) one of their only potential downfalls lies in their inability to convert the chances they create. Indeed this handicapped a frustrating opening month in which they thoroughly outplayed their opponents in all areas but were betrayed by a lack of efficiency in front of goal.

Although this was overturned in spectacular fashion during a seven-game winning streak, it’s no coincidence that the two draws in their last three games have been a direct combination of the opposition coming with a plan to rely on the transition for attacking returns and remain compact, deep and unambitious in longer sequences of possession. The Wanderers are at their least productive when they are forced to probe for an opening – not for a lack of finding a way through the defence but in then converting opportunities created.

Top students: It would be crass to cherry-pick standout players in a team that has performed superbly as a unit but there are several players that deserve a special mention: not least Mitch Nichols who has been a revelation. In what could turn out to be the signing of the season, Nichols has proven a real match-winner and even when it seems he’s not directly influencing the Wanderers play, his movement off the ball and tireless pressing without it has set the foundation for a fantastic first half of the season.

Nikolai-Topor Stanley deserves more plaudits for organizing an entirely new back five into the A-League’s steeliest defence, whilst Mark Bridge has been ruthless up top with five goals in six. If Romeo Castelen can stay fit he’s an outside chance at the Johnny Warren medal.

Class clown: The label of clown seems a tad harsh, but there isn’t anyone more befitting of the role than Italian marquee Federico Piovaccari. The journeyman forward has become an unfortunate lightning rod for criticsm this season and whilst he’s missed some truly shocking sitters he hasn’t been anywhere near as bad as pundits and fans have made out.

On the other hand, there can be really no excuse for Piovaccari – his teammates have consistently laid a catalogue of eminently presentable opportunities on a platter for him. It’s a mystery as to why he hasn’t delivered so far – especially as Piovaccari scores the majority of his goals inside the box, and that’s precisely the type of chance that he’s squandered on numerous ocassions.

It’s a stretch to call him the reincarnation of Dino Kresinger yet Piovaccari’s frustrating yet somehow endearing demeanour casts so many comparisons with the dearly departed Croatian it might be an idea to consider retiring the number nine jersey at the end of the season. Hopefully it’s just an extraordinary run of bad form for the Italian – there are signs of improvement and it’s easy to forget the Wanderers don’t necessarily need their number nine to rack up a ten-fifteen goal a season tally to be competitive.

Grade: A

Outlook: The Wanderers have already exceeded expectations this season in what could very well have represented a season to rebuild rather than challenge. Yet, Popovic’s masterclass means they’re the best equipped side to challenge for both honours this campaign and it’s hard not to see them in the Grand Final as things stand. Sydney and Melbourne Victory must contend with the AFC Champions League and aren’t exactly without their own inherent issues, whilst there’s surely a hiccup around the corner for John Aloisi’s Brisbane.

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