New data sheds light on the A-Leagues’ most talked about debate as 9/12 clubs improve

We look at which Isuzu UTE A-League clubs are being rewarded or punished for their faith in youth as a clear gap between minutes for young attackers and defenders is exposed by the Opta data.

Editor’s Note: The data in this article is from prior to Adelaide United’s 3-3 draw with Western United on Tuesday night.

“You can’t win anything with kids.”

Alan Hansen, the ex-Liverpool centre-back, made the claim on the British programme Match Of The Day, way back on the opening day of the 1995-96 Premier League season, when reflecting on Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa.

Alex Ferguson’s side, the much-celebrated “Class of ‘92”, went on to win the Premier League and FA Cup that season, with the likes of David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt playing crucial roles.

But there has always been a balance to strike – whether to lean wholly into the exuberance of youth, or to go with the street-smarts that experience can bring. There’s pros and cons to each, and getting the balance right is never easy.

It is that lack of balance that has, perhaps, resulted in Adelaide United’s poor Isuzu UTE A-League campaign this season. Having reached the Finals in each of the last three years, United sit eighth with just two regular-season games remaining, and they look increasingly unlikely to make the top six.

There has been a suggestion in some quarters that an over-reliance on youth has damaged their chances.

United lead the competition when it comes to appearances made by players aged 18 or under this season – with 74 in total, which is 40 more than Sydney FC (34), who rank second. Of those 74 appearances, 40 have been starts – double the number of next highest Perth Glory (20).

The trend carries on when it comes to players aged 21 or under, with Adelaide having dished out 7,982 minutes to players who fall in that bracket, across 147 games and 83 starts. 

That being said, Wellington Phoenix – who are jostling with Central Coast Mariners for the Premiers title – have relied more heavily on players aged 21 or under, with the 8,663 minutes handed out to players in that category by coach Giancarlo Italiano this season by far the largest total in the A-League.

A-League Men 2023-2024 (Players 18 Years & Under)
Team (Alphabetical Order)Games PlayedGames StartedMinutes Played
Adelaide United74403873
Brisbane Roar32161476
Central Coast Mariners217640
Melbourne City328796
Melbourne Victory71165
Perth Glory23201752
Sydney FC343484
Wellington Phoenix26171402
Western Sydney Wanderers209821
Western United14125

The energy of youth is certainly not doing Wellington any harm, though the Phoenix have perhaps been fortunate that teams have not wholly exposed some naivety to their defensive play – the Phoenix have got away with conceding just 25 goals (the lowest tally in the league) from an expected goals against of 37.18.

Their goals conceded to xGA differential of 12.18 is by far the largest positive differential in the competition, but does suggest there has been a stroke of good fortune too.

Of the teams who occupy the Finals places as it stands, only Sydney FC (152) have handed out more appearances to players aged 21 or under this season than Wellington (148), though Melbourne Victory (41), Macarthur (92) and Western Sydney Wanderers (110) have been slightly more cautious when it comes to giving their kids a chance to shine.

Like Adelaide, Newcastle Jets are another team enduring a poor campaign. They are out of the play-off picture altogether in 10th, but they could point to the fact they have given more minutes to players aged 23 or under (12,634) than any other A-League team.

While players in that age group have featured more for the Mariners (215) than any other side, Newcastle’s tally of 136 starts for such players shows they have not been shy of handing opportunities to younger talents under coach Rob Stanton.

Focusing back in on players aged 21 and under, let’s see which teams have looked to hand over more trust to their youngsters when compared to last season. 

Nine of the Isuzu UTE A-League’s 12 teams have all given more minutes to those players this season than they did do over the course of 2022-23. So, what about the three teams that have instead gone the other way.

Last season, players aged 21 or under featured for 6,006 minutes for Melbourne City as they went on to win the Premiers title and finish as runners-up in the Grand Final. This term, however, that number has dropped to 1,895.

And it is fair to say that City’s performance has dropped off, too – they are in seventh, battling it out for qualification to the Finals Series.

The Mariners are, of course, flying high in their title race with Wellington. They handed 6,833 minutes to players aged 21 or under last season, but that figure has dropped to 4,267 this year.

Brisbane Roar have also somewhat eased off on handing responsibility to the young guns, with their tally of 3,173 minutes for such players dropping down from 5,352 last season. Not that their performance levels have benefitted nor taken a major hit – they finished eighth in 2022-23 and they currently sit ninth with two regular-season fixtures remaining, with a slim chance of making the Finals.

Finally, let’s look at which positions youngsters are most likely to be handed responsibility.

If you make a mistake as a goalkeeper, then of course it is almost certainly going to result in an opposition goal, so it is perhaps no surprise to see that there has only been one start for a goalkeeper aged 18 years or younger. That number rises to 28 for goalkeepers aged 21 or younger, and 50 for those aged 23 or below.

Interestingly, there is apparently more of a willingness to develop young defenders by A-League coaches than there is young attackers.

There have been 410 games started by defenders aged 23 or younger this season, compared to just 159 starts for strikers in the same age bracket.

A-League Men 2023-2024 (Defenders – When Starting)
Age ProfileGames StartedMinutes Played
18 Years & Under261996
21 Years & Under27822926
23 Years & Under41034332

And the energy that youth brings can be a great trait for midfielders, so it is probably not a shock to see that 225 starts have been handed to players aged 21 or younger in that position. 

There is no sure-fire approach that guarantees success, but the A-League is certainly becoming an increasingly attractive proposition for youngsters aiming to make their way in senior football.

Nestory Irankunda, for example, is the latest to have thrived in the competition and earn an impending move to Europe, with the Adelaide star destined for Bayern Munich.

Last year, Garang Kuol left the Mariners to join Newcastle United, and is now learning his trade out on loan in the Netherlands.

Perhaps it will mean a team taking a step back in their title ambitions for a season or two, but the end result will hopefully be worth the effort.

A-League Men 2023-2024 (Players 23 Years & Under)
Team (Alphabetical Order)Games PlayedGames StartedMinutes Played
Adelaide United167959062
Brisbane Roar127757116
Central Coast Mariners21512811697
Melbourne City90423866
Melbourne Victory88494224
Newcastle Jets19613612634
Perth Glory19912211227
Sydney FC169908267
Wellington Phoenix18511610771
Western Sydney Wanderers168999048
Western United156837912