Isuzu UTE A-League review P2: 25yo’s redemption arc, success creates ‘brilliant’ Phoenix opportunity

WATCH: Season Highlights 2023-24 | Isuzu UTE A-League

After the conclusion of the Finals Series,  reviews each team’s season from spot 1-6 on the Isuzu UTE A-League table, and identifies the best player, biggest disappointment and most improved player from each team, as well with what needs to improve in the off-season.

SEASON REVIEW PART 1: 22yo explodes, a transfer masterstroke & how teams 7-12 can improve

6th: Melbourne City

On some weeks, Melbourne City looked like the best team in the Isuzu UTE A-League by some distance. On other weeks, they looked destined for the bottom six.

City recorded the biggest ever win in Isuzu UTE A-League history in April: an 8-0 thumping of Perth Glory. They also notched two seven-goal victories against Western Sydney Wanderers (7-0) and Brisbane Roar (8-1).

City also lost 6-0 to Adelaide and 5-1 to Brisbane. You never knew what to expect with City this season, and an Elimination Finals finish was perhaps a fair result for Aurelio Vidmar’s side.

Best Player

Tolgay Arslan has proven one of the best overseas recruits in recent history.

The German and Turkish youth international won the Scott Jamieson Medal as the club’s most valuable player, as well as the Players’ Player Award and Golden Boot; Arslan scored 13 goals in his debut campaign at the club.

SEASON REVIEW PART 1: 22yo explodes, a transfer masterstroke & how teams 7-12 can improve

Tolgay Arslan.

Biggest disappointment

Aside from the sixth-place finish domestically, a group stage exit from the Asian Champions League was a major disappointment early in the campaign.

City drew one and won two of their first group stage games but a defeat and two draws to end the group stage saw City bow out, with Japanese J2 club Ventforet Kofu advancing at their expense. It’s been a long time since an Australian club has gone deep in a Champions League campaign and City were well-placed to do so this season but fell at the first hurdle.

Most improved

Max Caputo’s career trajectory is on the up after 21 appearances (five starts) in City’s attack. The 18-year-old had received just 36 minutes in three seasons prior but has always been a highly-touted prospect and in 2023-24 began to show why.

What to work on for next season

Having won three consecutive Premierships and reached four consecutive Grand Finals, this season was a reality check for City.

The disappointment of a sixth-place finish and an Elimination Finals exit should inspire a big response in the off-season as the former Premiers look to launch back up the table.

Max Caputo.

5th: Macarthur FC

Macarthur FC went unbeaten through the first seven rounds of the season, then lost three on the bounce before another unbeaten stretch of seven games; by that stage Mile Sterjovski’s side had climbed up to third on the table as things were looking up for the Bulls.

But five defeats in their last 10 games led to a fifth-place finish, and a hefty 4-0 Elimination Final defeat against Sydney FC.

Best Player

Jake Hollman won the Macarthur Medal at the club’s end-of-season awards night and it was just reward for the 22-year-old midfielder who scored five goals in 25 appearances through his fourth season at the club.

Biggest disappointment

Macarthur held a place in the top four all the way through to Round 22 but three losses from their last five games saw them drop into fifth spot and lose the right to host a Finals Series fixture.

The Bulls missed out on the top four on goal difference alone; a home final would have been a special occasion for the club as they look to tick off a series of firsts in their short history.

Most improved

Jed Drew enhanced his reputation as one of Australia’s best and brightest young wingers with an impactful 26-game season at the Bulls.

The 20-year-old scored two goals and notched three assists throughout the season, and having received nearly double the amount of minutes he played in the season prior, is primed to launch into a fourth campaign at the Bulls and make a significant impact.

What to work on for next season

Consistency is key for Macarthur after letting their promising start to the season slip away. Improvement on the 2023-24 season would mean a top-four finish and a club-first home final, which would be important to cultivating the fanbase.

Jed Drew.

4th: Sydney FC

Sydney FC began the season with three consecutive defeats under Steve Corica. In came Ufuk Talay who took the reins and after a rocky start to his tenure, began to impose his style on the squad and had the Sky Blues playing one of the most recognisable brands of football around the league by the end of the season.

Talay’s Sydney FC are high-pressing, high energy and at times play with high risk – and they dominate teams when they get it right. Semi-Final defeat to Central Coast ended their campaign but Sky Blues fans will be optimistic as they look ahead to next season.

Best Player

Joe Lolley was one of the best players in the league this season, finishing fourth in the Johnny Warren Medal voting and collecting Sydney FC’s Player of the Year, Members’ Player of the Year and Golden Boot awards.

Lolley also won the Alex Tobin Medal, awarded by Network 10’s panel of experts.

Biggest disappointment

Falling short of the Grand Final. Despite taking on Premiers Central Coast, Sydney FC were confident they could pull off an upset having defeated Mark Jackson’s side twice in the regular season.

Talay and the Sky Blues trailed 2-1 after the first leg of the Semi-Finals and felt aggrieved not to have won the return leg after a number of contentious officiating decisions in a 0-0 draw.

Most improved

Jake Girdwood-Reich became one of Sydney’s most important players in 2023-24, making 25 appearances, 11 more than the season prior, and showing versatility to play in central midfield or central defence – a quality that was invaluable to Talay and Sydney as the season progressed.

He’s since made the move to MLS club St Louis City – a record outbound transfer for the Sky Blues.

READ MORE: 20-year-old becomes Sydney FC’s first million-dollar sale as club record transfer confirmed

What to work on for next season

The squad showed an immediate buy-in to Talay’s tactics and style of play and that was evident in the on-field product – now imagine what the Sky Blues boss can achieve with a full pre-season.

Talay took on the top job at Sydney FC three games into the season, with a squad assembled by Corica unfamiliar with his methods. The long off-season gives Talay the chance to well and truly make this Sydney side his own.

Ufuk Talay.

3rd: Melbourne Victory

Melbourne Victory came a long way from their 11th-placed finish in 2022-23, losing just five games on their way to third on the table by the end of the 2023-24 regular season, and a deep run through the finals.

Grand Final defeat to Central Coast Mariners was an agonising end to a season in which Victory took big strides forward.

Best Player

Bruno Fornaroli was the early frontrunner having bagged 13 goals in his first 10 games but a Socceroos call-up for the Asian Cup stalled his scoring momentum; for his consistency throughout the campaign, defender Damien Da Silva gets the nod.

The French centre-back was immense in a stringent Victory backline and on Grand Final night, was one of the best on ground and would have been in contention for the Joe Marston Medal up until the 91st minute when everything changed and the Mariners stormed home.

Biggest disappointment

Grand Final night. Not for their performance – for 90 minutes Victory were superb – but for the agonising end to a brave showing in Gosford.

Melbourne Victory were minutes away from sealing the club’s fifth Isuzu UTE A-League Championship title as they led 1-0 through 90 minutes of their Grand Final clash with Central Coast Mariners – but their season ultimately ended in heartbreak as a 91st-minute equaliser sent the Mariners on course to the Championship.

Most improved

Daniel Arzani is back in the Socceroos squad and is set to make his first national team appearance in six years, all thanks to his form through his first season at Victory.

Arzani struggled to put a full game together in the early stages of the season and was consistently challenged by head coach Tony Popovic to improve his conditioning to run out games and contribute both in attack and defence. By the end of the season his two-way running was one of the most noticeable factors of his game.

Socceroos head coach Graham Arnold spoke Glowingly on Arzani’s season at Victory as he announced his recall to the national team squad, and challenged him to show “how much he wants to go to the 2026 World Cup” in June’s two World Cup qualifiers against Bangladesh and Palestine. Read the full quotes here.

MORE: Arnold responds to Irankunda’s Socceroos message as call-up shows ‘he wants that badge’

What to work on for next season

Victory must resist the urge to plant a big-name signing into central midfield in place of either Ryan Teague or Jordi Valadon, after the young Australian duo showed genuine promise to become a formidable combination at the heart of this Victory team next season.

Teague’s quality has been evident from start to finish in his first season at the club but Valadon has taken longer to flourish; the 21-year-old fed mostly off substitute appearance until late in the season, and started in both Semi-Finals as well as the Grand Final.

Valadon was superb in all three games and his partnership with Teague will go from strength to strength if Victory put their trust in youth and resist the temptation to tinker with a good thing.

2nd: Wellington Phoenix

What a season it was for Wellington Phoenix – but after their fairytale run to a second-place finish, their Semi-Final elimination feels like somewhat of a disappointment.

The team tipped by many to finish toward the bottom of the table in pre-season under debut head coach Giancarlo Italiano, the Phoenix blew all expectations out of the water to reach a two-legged Semi-Final against Melbourne Victory.

After a 0-0 draw in the first leg, Wellington hosted the return leg in front of 33,297 fans at Sky Stadium but were beaten to the Grand Final by a determined Victory outfit. The season ended in heartbreak, but there is simply so much to look forward to as ‘Chiefy’ Italiano and the ‘Nix look to build into the future.

Giancarlo Italiano.

Best Player

Alex Paulsen began the season as a young player with potential and ended it as a genuine star of the competition.

The 21-year-old goalkeeper made a league-high 119 saves, conceded just 26 goals in the regular season and kept 12 clean sheets.

He was named captain of the PFA Team of the Year and swept up three Isuzu UTE A-League end-of-season awards: Goalkeeper of the Year, Fan Player of the Year and an equal-share of the Boost Young Footballer of the Year award with Nestory Irankunda.

Biggest disappointment

Semi-Final defeat to Melbourne Victory at Sky Stadium. The stage was set for the Phoenix to reach the club’s first A-Leagues Grand Final in front of 33,297 fans at Sky Stadium – but Italiano’s side were outfoxed by Victory – a club experienced in going deep into the finals.

From the deflating 2-1 extra-time defeat, however, came a special moment Phoenix fans, players and staff will never forget: that 99th-minute Oskar Zawada equaliser that took the game to 30 minutes of extra time and blew the lid off the ‘Cake Tin’.

Most improved

In his fourth season with the Phoenix first team, 21-year-old Ben Old took his game to a whole new level. In 2023-24, Old nearly tripled the minutes he accrued across the season prior, and scored five goals in 29 appearances.

The New Zealand international was selected in the A-League All Stars Men squad and scored against Newcastle United to cap off his attention-grabbing season.

What to work on for next season

Off-season transfer/contract discussions will be fascinating at the Phoenix after their unprecedented success in 2022-23.

Alex Paulsen has spent just one season as a first-team mainstay, and yet the 21-year-old goalkeeper has already secured a move to Premier League club AFC Bournemouth.

He’s not alone in attracting interest from other clubs; after Paulsen’s departure Phoenix director of football Shaun Gill said Ben Old and Finn Surman are two players he expects to receive similar transfer approaches for after their sublime seasons, while players who may not have been on the highest wages have suddenly become far more valuable in the market after the second-place finish.

READ MORE: Three Premier League clubs were after Alex Paulsen. A legend won the race for Bournemouth

It will be a delicate balancing act for Italiano and the Phoenix squad to retain the right players at the right price, while bringing in new signings to cope with any potential departures.

“It’s definitely fantastic,” said Gill when discussing Paulsen’s transfer.

“It’s a great endorsement for the club to be having conversations with these particular clubs. Hopefully in the future we’ll be having more of them with the likes of Surman and Ben Old etc, etc. It’s brilliant.

“There’s a lot of noise around some of the plays at the moment. You know, a couple of agents in regular contact about potential clubs that are interested in a couple of players.

“I would expect we’ll have further conversations at some point. For some of these guys, that’s the right time to be going on and taking the next challenge in their career.”

Top scorer Kosta Barbarouses has already signed on for the new season, and Zawada has confirmed his exit.

SEASON REVIEW PART 1: 22yo explodes, a transfer masterstroke & how teams 7-12 can improve

1st: Central Coast Mariners

The Central Coast Mariners trophy treble is complete after a Grand Final win over Melbourne Victory secured the club’s second-consecutive Isuzu UTE A-League Championship.

New head coach Mark Jackson lost his first four league games on the bounce before he oversaw an incredible turnaround, leading the Mariners to the top of the table and the Premiers Plate, as well as the AFC Cup title after more than 100,000 kilometres of travel time around Asia.

This Mariners side will go down as one of the greatest in Isuzu UTE A-League history after their achievements in 2023-24.

Best Player

There are many contenders, but you simply cannot look past Josh Nisbet.

The midfielder was unleashed in a number 10 role by Jackson this season, and went on to play 4,022 minutes in the 2023-24 season, the most of any player in a single season since Opta first began collecting data in 2012-13.

Nisbet won three trophies with the Mariners, made his Socceroos debut in March and ended the league campaign with the Johnny Warren Medal.

Biggest disappointment

For the coaching staff, it was the absence of Jackson’s assistant Danny Schofield on Grand Final day.

The man who head coach Mark Jackson credits with much of the Mariners’ success this season, Schofield was banned from Industree Group Stadium for the build-up to and duration of the Grand Final against Melbourne Victory due to a red card collected in the second leg of the Semi-Finals.

After the Grand Final win over Victory, Jackson said that without Schofield, there would have been no Mariners success story this season.

“A big factor in that is (assistant) Danny Schofield, massive, massive factor in that is Danny,” he said.

“Me and him worked really closely together in the offseason, when we were both out of work. We were scouting games, we were talking about football, we’re talking about potential opportunities. We were working on our football philosophy together. 

“And when this opportunity came, he was courageous enough to step on a plane and come with me. It takes a lot to do that. He’s been without his family now for a while. They’re due to come over in July. So that’ll be fantastic for him. 

“But I’m made up for him as well. Because, you know, without him, this doesn’t happen.”

Most improved

Mikael Doka transformed from a scarcely-used substitute in the first half of the season to one of Central Coast’s most important players.

After scoring his first goal of the season as a substitute in Round 17, Doka became a mainstay in Mark Jackson’s starting XI. The Brazilian was used as a right back, and then as a winger ahead of Storm Roux and that combination became the winning formula.

Doka finished the Isuzu UTE A-League season with seven goals and 11 assists, and was named Player of the Tournament after the Mariners’ AFC Cup title win.

What to work on for next season

Turning this team into a dynasty. Two consecutive Championships and coming off an historic trophy treble, the Mariners have the opportunity to become the first team to win three consecutive Championships in Isuzu UTE A-League history.

This Mariners team is already in the conversation as the greatest in Isuzu UTE A-League history and it would be hard to argue against that fact if they go again next season.