After another season of déjà vu, where to next for the Wanderers?
Déjà vu: noun
The feeling that one has seen or heard something before; something overly or unpleasantly familiar.
For example, the Western Sydney Wanderers once again failing to make the A-League finals. If you’ve lost count, that’s four seasons or 1,514 days since a penalty shoot-out to Brisbane Roar in 2017 consigned the Wanderers to defeat in that season’s elimination finals. In that time every other A-League club has made the finals at least once.
It means that once again at Wanderers HQ, Paul Lederer, John Tsatsimas and co must lick their wounds and assess where yet another season went wrong.
Keen to right the wrongs of the tumultuous 2019-20 season, they pinned their colours to the mast when they poached Carl Robinson from the Newcastle Jets. And they were similarly ruthless in the transfer market, enticing James Troisi, Bernie Ibini and Ziggy Gordon to ditch their contracts at other A-League clubs and join the ‘Robbo Revolution’. They also signed former Premier League players Graham Dorrans and Jordon Mutch.
The massive recruitment drive, along with the hiring of Robinson, meant that there were high expectations on the Wanderers going into the season. A return to the finals was expected, with some experts and fans predicting they could crack the top four.
They had a solid start to the season, only losing one of their first nine games, though four draws highlighted a lack of a cutting edge up front. Their momentum was stunted with disappointing back-to-back home losses to Adelaide and Melbourne City, which was then followed by a surprising three game winning streak, leading many to believe the Wanderers were on the right track.
However, they suffered a heavy loss in a crunch match versus ladder leaders Melbourne City, which plainly highlighted their defensive deficiencies. This would be the start of a 7-match winless run comprising of frustrating three draws and an embarrassing 5-4 defeat to bottom side Melbourne Victory.
Just as the season looked to be heading into freefall, the Wanderers would spark back into life, first defeating Sydney FC 3-2 in a pulsating encounter, before putting Western United to the sword at home; a 5-0 win being their biggest since their inaugural season.
But no sooner had their finals charge began, it then disintegrated entirely, with a lifeless and insipid performance in a 5-1 loss to Perth, a first derby loss in 890 days, and a 2-1 loss at home to Wellington, consigning the Wanderers to a bottom six finish.
For Wanderers fans, it is definitely a case of déjà vu.
There were some positives from the season though, even if superficial. It is the first time the Wanderers have had a positive goal difference since the 2015-16 season and believe it or not, the 45 goals scored is the highest goal tally the club has ever had.
However, when all of the talk from the coaching staff and the players was about breaking into the top four and challenging for silverware, finishing in 8th, four points off the finals places, is nothing short of a massive disappointment.
So, does the blame lie with the players or with the coach? Like most things in life, it’s a bit of both.
Many players have underperformed this season, and sadly for the Wanderers, these were some of their key players around whom the team structure was designed . James Troisi and Bernie Ibini in particular have not performed as hoped. Troisi's form was emblematic of the Wanderers season, either being one of the best on the field - such as in the victorious derby game - or being completely anonymous. Ibini meanwhile failed to be a spark to change close games, sadly being a mere shadow of the player who previously took the A-League by storm. Captain Dylan McGowan also struggled to be a talismanic figure, his defensive performances and leadership leaving much to be desired.
However, Carl Robinson must take a share of responsibility for a tactical set up that at times severely undermined the team. For most of the season he persisted with a 3-5-2 formation. Unfortunately, this hindered rather than helped the team. The Wanderers often found themselves outnumbered in midfield, and without a ball-winning holding midfielder, the Wanderers’ midfield was often overwhelmed, especially when possession was lost. This then mounted pressure on a defence whose fullbacks were frequently caught out of position, leaving the Wanderers vulnerable to counter attacks.
There were occasions where he chose to adopt a pragmatic approach, often to a 4-2-3-1 for more defensive and midfield solidity. This was successful against Sydney FC, where despite having only 26% of possession, their compact defensive structure effectively stifled the Sydney FC attack and allowed the Wanderers to pick up two goals through devastating counter attacks. Yet against eventual champions Melbourne City, Robinson stuck to the 3-5-2 that was torn apart by ruthless attacking performances.
The team also struggled to start strong. In many of their games they found themselves one or two goals down, and it would not be until mass reinforcements came off the bench or a change in shape and style, that the Wanderers would have an impact on the game. Whilst this hints at a never say die attitude that has been lacking in seasons past, they shouldn’t be in those positions in the first place.
So, where to from here for the Wanderers?
Nicolai Muller and Patrick Ziegler have been released, with Jordon Mutch and Kwame Yeboah’s futures also up in the air. Mitchell Duke returns to his parent club after his loan spell and Bruce Kamau is being circled by foreign clubs after a standout season. With Dylan McGowan and Keanu Baccus also being linked to moves overseas, there is set to be another large turnover of players in Western Sydney.
Unlike last season, Robinson is looking to complete his transfer business early, with fullback Adama Traore and exciting winger Ramy Najjarine already being snapped up.
However, given the mixed success of last season's signings, Wanderers fans can be forgiven for not being overly optimistic about the rebuild that is sure to take place.
In fact, there is little at the Wanderers to suggest that there should be any optimism about next season. Yes, the investment in youth is beginning to show some rewards, with the likes of Thomas Aquilina, Tate Russell and Mark Natta impressing since breaking into the first team. However, tactically and personnel-wise, the team is nowhere near capable of challenging for any silverware. And unless Robinson strikes gold in the offseason with signings or radically alters his tactics, he is not the man to lead the club back to glory.
Despite sectors of the fanbase calling for Robinson’s departure, he is set to stay for at least the start of next season. And as much as I personally believe he will not last the whole of next season, I’d rather keep him for now with a small chance that we will have success than to totally blow up the team and rebuild, again.
And that is a damning indictment on the Wanderers’ fall from grace. After years of underperformance, many Wanderers fans are beginning to feel a complete sense of apathy towards the club. It’s showing in the decline in attendances as the season went on. It shows in the fact that after yet more overzealous security at home games, the Red and Black Bloc boycotted the last two home games of the season. And it will only get worse as the club strays further from success.
With that in mind, this off season is potentially the most important in the Wanderers’ short history. Yet with the men they have in charge on and off the pitch, this fan is struggling to see any light at the end of an ever-expanding tunnel.