A month of the A-League Men's season is now in the books and, with just one round of action remaining until Graham Arnold reveals his Socceroos squad for the World Cup, ESPN's Joey Lynch breaks down what did and didn't impress in the fourth week of the campaign.
Round Three Results: Western Sydney Wanderers 2-0 Newcastle Jets | Brisbane Roar 0-0 Melbourne Victory | Central Coast Mariners 4-2 Western United | Macarthur FC 2-3 Sydney FC | Adelaide United 2-1 Perth Glory | Melbourne City 2-2 Wellington Phoenix
After "he wasn't at the races," against Perth Glory last week, Cummings was seeking retribution against Western United and, with his World Cup fates perhaps hanging in the balance as well, he needed to deliver. And deliver he did.
After watching two would-be-goals of his be disallowed -- the latter for a multiball situation that raised the ire of Cummings and Mariners coach Nick Montgomery post-game -- and seeing his side fall into a two-goal hole, the Scottish-born Socceroo found another gear against the defending champions on the hour-mark, turning the game.
Reducing his side's deficit to one in the 67th minute, he subsequently played a key role in all three of his side's subsequent goals across the next 20 minutes as the Mariners roared back to secure a 4-2 win -- a performance showing the range of skills he brings to the table.
Thrown on as a second-half substitute, Kuol was likewise needing to impress after a tepid performance against Glory and he, too, boosted his stocks -- albeit not quite at the same level as his teammate. Just minutes after his half-time introduction, the teenager induced a challenge from Nikolai Topor-Stanley that reduced United to 10 men, and then provided the assist for Cummings' first goal.
Given the question marks that exist over so many of Australia's attacking options heading into Qatar -- many of the most obvious names either out of season, injured, struggling for minutes, or some combination of the latter two -- Cummings and Kuol's form will be increasingly hard to ignore for Arnold. The former, especially, can now feel legitimately ruffled should he not be off to Qatar.
Western Sydney Wanderers
Are the Wanderers legit? Is the lid coming off?
Well, given they've flattered to deceive far too often in the past, no. And there will be legitimate questions to be asked of this side in possession and/or when they're forced to confront going down a goal for the first time this season.
Nonetheless, given that they're still undefeated after four weeks and possess one of the league's most stout defences, Wanderers fans might want to at least make some cursory attempts to at least figure out where said lid is.
Coach Marko Rudan's side grounded the Jets on their way to their third win in four games on Saturday afternoon, forcing their foes to play the game on their terms and restricting them to just four efforts on goal -- only one of which, Reno Piscopo's 56th-minute effort, was decent.
After a month's worth of football, it's pretty safe to declare that the Wanderers aren't going to set the league alight with dazzling displays of attacking potency this season. But those don't get you championships, and this side increasingly appears built to thrive in a league where you can win titles preying on your opponent's foibles on the ball.
Given his role in qualifying and willingness to take one of the crucial penalties in the Socceroos' shootout victory over Peru, it always felt like Goodwin's case for Qatar rested less on his form in the opening weeks of the ALM season and more on his ability to find some level of fitness. It would be out of character for Arnold to leave him out.
But after finding the net in his side's 2-1 win over Perth Glory, the Adelaide skipper has since seemingly found both. Now, missing out on Qatar, at this point, would be a major surprise.
A fortnight ago, Tilio had played a total of 18 minutes across Melbourne City's opening two games and his hopes of earning a place in Arnold's 26-player squad appeared to be hanging by a thread.
But they were still hanging in there and now, a week on from playing a full 90 minutes in the Melbourne Derby, the 21-year-old has well and truly forced his way back into the battle with Kuol and Daniel Arzani for a place on the plane to Qatar with his performance against Wellington.
The diminutive winger won the penalty that was converted by Jamie Maclaren to open the scoring in City's 2-2 draw and then doubled his side's advantage with a well-taken 34th-minute strike in his 72 minutes of action. And luckily for his hopes of playing next week, Phoenix's fast finish only kicked into action with goals after he was subbed off.
Marco Tilio: Account OPENED for the @IsuzuUTE A-League season 🙌— Isuzu UTE A-League (@aleaguemen) October 30, 2022
The youngster extends @MelbourneCity's lead at AAMI Park 💥
Follow live: https://t.co/tQlohCRZ0j#MCYvWEL #WeAreALeagues pic.twitter.com/6mGwpwm4Vi
After things started so brightly for Melbourne Victory -- spoiling Sydney's Sydney Football Stadium return with a 3-2 Big Blue win in round one -- things have taken a bit of a concerning turn.
As a result of their 0-0 draw with Brisbane Roar on Saturday afternoon, Victory has now gone 277 minutes without finding the back of the net-- 35 of that coming when Roar was down to 10 following a red-card to first-choice keeper Jordan Holmes. And given that the four-time ALM champions are fielding three Socceroos, a Johnny Warren Medalist, and a former Champions League winner in their attack, that's hardly ideal.
Even being generous and subtracting their Melbourne Derby defeat from calculations -- Josh Brillante's first-half red card irrevocably altering the game's dynamic and coach Tony Popovic expressing contentment with the performance -- their displays against Brisbane and Western Sydney's low-blocks both raise questions about how the side is seeking to get their goals.
Against the Wanderers, it took until the 91st minute for Victory to register their first shot on target despite having 61% of the ball and spending the entire second half chasing the game. Against the Roar, they were only able to get a shot on target twice despite having 66% of possession and 29 total efforts on goal -- Brisbane's 18 blocked shots throughout the contest were indicative of the quality of chances Victory was able to muster.
Of course, given that it's only a month into the season it's too early to declare a crisis. Victory are underperforming their xG so far this season, suggesting they may soon move closer to the mean, and next week face a Newcastle Jets' defence not exactly celebrated for its robustness. Further, reports have strongly linked the club to now free-agent striker Bruno Fornaroli and the Socceroos striker would undoubtedly bring a fresh skillset to boost their fortunes.
Nonetheless, given that Victory's two most blunt performances have somewhat echoed their challenges in possession from last season, it can't just be dismissed as nothing either. And a 35-year-old Fornaroli, good as he is, is not a cure-all.
It's probably safe to call it a championship hangover at this point. Now winless in the opening month of their title defence, Topor-Stanley's 48th-minute red card proved the catalyst for Western to capitulate against Central Coast: the defending champions shipping four goals in 20 minutes on the way to a 4-2 defeat.
Set up to absorb pressure, hit the Mariners on the counter and then defend their lead -- the formula the club rode to success in 2021-22 -- United's plan looked like it was working in the first half, but the shift in game dynamic that accompanied the red card meant wasn't accompanied by either the attitude on the pitch or adjustment from the touchline to defend the lead.
Set to host Adelaide this week, Western has now shipped 10 goals this season -- more than any other side in the league -- and will now be without Topor-Stanley for at least a week, compounding the absence of the injured Tomoki Imai.
Another week, another round of VAR controversies.
The all-seeing eye in the sky intervened to upgrade three separate incidents to red cards across the fourth round of the campaign, two of which -- Holmes' dismissal against Victory and Macarthur defender Jonathan Aspropotamitis' sanction against Sydney -- earned the ire of coach and pundit alike. Conversely, it opted not to interject when referee Alex King awarded a suspect penalty to Sky Blues winger Robert Mak, which led to Patrick Wood's opening goal.
The decisions against the Bulls, in particular, induced Alex Brosque to declare on Network Ten that "There's something wrong in the VAR at the moment."
For a competition desperately seeking to create some form of positive buzz around itself, that the conversation every round is seemingly dominated by controversy surrounding officiating us a challenge. Already fighting a perception battle over the quality of the league, long and jarring interruptions to play and confusion around how certain decisions are made will likely only serve to alienate more and more people as they continue.
The parameters they are working in will inevitably dictate what they can do, but it would behove the APL to find a means to improve the product and remove the toxicity that permeates discussions of referees.