They can’t, can they? The secrets behind Wanderers’ rise to Premiership outsiders

Western Sydney Wanderers are a team rejuvenated under the leadership of a former Socceroo. This is the data that shows why they are looming as an unlikely Premier’s Plate threat.

After 20 rounds of Liberty A-League action, six teams can consider themselves in with a
chance of winning the Premiership title.

Just six points separate defending champions Sydney FC in first and their city rivals Western Sydney Wanderers in sixth. And while the Sky Blues have a game in hand on their fellow Premiership contenders, there is still a chance they could slip up.

Of course, lots of things would have to slot into place for the Wanderers to be crowned Premiers for the first time in their history. But the fact they are in with a chance at all is evidence of their development under Robbie Hooker this season.

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After they defeated Perth Glory 1-0 last time out, one more point could be enough to
guarantee the Wanderers’ place in the Finals for just the second time, after 2019-20, when they went on to reach the last four. The fact they next face a Western United side that have lost their last two matches should provide a further boost.

For the first time since their first A-League campaign in 2012, the Wanderers will be aiming to finish with a positive goal difference – even in their successful 2019-20 season, Western Sydney could not finish above zero in that metric, and in every other year, they have had a negative difference.

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Western Sydney have so far recorded 1.6 expected goals (xG) per game this season, which is their second-highest total across a single season since Opta began collecting such data in 2017, behind the 1.7 they managed in 2019-20. It is worth noting, though, that the Wanderers only played 13 games that season, compared to the 20 they have already played in 2023-24.

They have recorded a 45% win ratio, with their nine victories the most they have enjoyed in a single A-League Women season in their history. Their win percentage, as it stands, is second to only the 54% they managed across the 2019-20 campaign.

Hooker has got his team playing front-foot football – the Wanderers have had 15 shots per game and averaged 31 penalty area entries. Only in 2019-20 (17) and 2017-18 (34) have Western Sydney posted higher averages in those respective metrics. Indeed, their high press has been particularly effective, with the Wanderers forcing 14 high turnovers per game this season.

That is not only higher than their per-game average across any of the last seven seasons, but it is also the joint-second highest of any team in the competition, only behind Sydney FC (15).

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Indeed, only the league leaders can better Western Sydney’s 285 total high turnovers, with 290, while the Wanderers have got 39 shots off from such situations, albeit only scoring twice.

Hooker’s team are one of the most direct in the league. They are level with their city rivals Sydney for direct attacks (52) and second only to Newcastle Jets for goals from direct attacks (six to Newcastle’s seven). A direct attack is defined by Opta as an open-play sequence that starts from just inside a team’s own half and has at least 50% movement towards the opposition’s goal, ending in a shot or a touch in the opposition penalty box.

Winning the ball back in advanced areas and directly attacking the opponent’s goal – these are key traits under Hooker. Last season, the Wanderers ranked down in ninth for high turnovers (209), shot-ending high turnovers (31) and passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA), with 11.2 – a figure that is now down to 10.6 this term.

Essentially, Hooker has transformed one of the competition’s poorest pressing teams into one of the best.

And his team have to be robust for that to pay off. The Wanderers have a tackle success rate of 76%, their best figure across the past seven seasons and up 16% from last term’s 60%.

Indeed, the Wanderers lead the way alongside Melbourne Victory for tackle success percentage, while only Sydney have kept more clean sheets (eight to six) in the league.

And this robust, direct approach has played into their best goalscoring return to date, with 27 strikes in their 20 league fixtures – albeit, the Wanderers are the fourth-lowest scorers in the competition this season. They were starting from a pretty low bar, in that regard.

Sophie Harding has accounted for 10 of those goals, with the attacker – fresh from her maiden Australia call-up last month – in sensational form.

Harding is five goals clear of any of her team-mates, with only Sarina Bolden (12) and the evergreen Michelle Heyman (14) bettering the 24-year-old’s goal return in the Liberty A-League this season.

PlayerGoalsGames Played
Michelle Heyman (Canberra United)1420
Sarina Bolden (Newcastle Jets)1215
Sophie Harding (Western Sydney Wanderers)1019
Rachel Lowe (Melbourne Victory)1020
Cortnee Vine (Sydney FC)916

Not that Harding is the only attacker Hooker is getting a tune out of. Holly Caspers has enjoyed a remarkable rise to prominence in 2023-24 and leads the A-League’s assist charts, having laid on seven goals.

Caspers – who has scored five goals herself – has certainly benefited from some above average finishing, given her tally of 3.42 expected assists (xA), though six of the 26 goalscoring opportunities she has crafted are categorised as big chances, defined by Opta as an opportunity from which a player would be reasonably expected to score. Of Caspers’ chances, 14 of those have been provided for Harding.

PlayerAssistsExpected AssistsBig Chance Created
Holly Caspers (Western Sydney Wanderers)73.426
Michelle Heyman (Canberra United)63.466
Nikki Flannery (Canberra United)62.547
Sarina Bolden (Newcastle Jets)51.983
Tameka Yallop (Brisbane Roar)51.643

Hooker has not been afraid to turn to youth, either. Indeed, 17-year-old Alexia Apostolakis is another player enjoying a breakout campaign under his tutelage. She has scored one, set up another, and created a team-leading 34 chances, while also winning 62 of her 120 duels.

Fifteen-year-olds Talia Younis and Ischia Brooking have also been given their introductions into senior football, playing 13 and five league matches respectively. The future is certainly bright.

While dreams of the Premier’s Plate are intact for now, securing qualification for the Finals has to be the priority for Western Sydney, and with momentum on their side, who knows just what might unfold. The Wanderers are certainly capable of something special.