We’re at the end of the A-League season – well, the end before the end – so before the tussle for the toilet seat begins it’s time to discuss something more important than silverware, our team of the year.
Two of our football writers opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation, in keeping with the competition’s orthodoxy, and anyone under consideration had to have played a minimum of 75% of the total available minutes.
Ante Jukic: I’ll make one thing clear before we continue. Outside an in-form Bruno Fornaroli, Miloš Ninkovic is the best player in this competition and a lock for this team. Despite the emergence of Adrian Mierzejewski, he is still Sydney’s best player. His movement and ability to advance Sydney’s field position is more intangible than goals and assists, but just as important because it makes everyone around him more effective. My only other non-negotiables are Bart Schenkeveld and Steven Ugarkovic, who has been the best central midfielder in the league this season by a street.
Jonathan Howcroft: Despite the lack of buzz around the competition we’re actually spoilt for choice when it comes to forwards and this year’s crop would be up there with any in A-League history. Ante, your fealty to Ninkovic is understandable but not only do I think Mierzejewski was the standout player of the season I think we’ve witnessed one of the all-time great A-League performances.
Goalkeeper: Lawrence Thomas
AJ: While goalkeepers in the A-League generally have reliable reflexes, Thomas is arguably the most complete in the competition – incorporating his anticipation, positioning, footwork, distribution and overall command of his area. He has kept Melbourne Victory in numerous matches because of it. A clear choice for mine.
JH: The standard of goalkeeping has been solid if unspectacular this season with little to choose from between eight or nine of them. As well as Thomas, Vedran Janjetovic and Jamie Young have caught the eye, Paul Izzo continues to improve, and Andrew Redmayne deserves credit for securing Sydney FC’s No1 jersey.
Left-back: Michael Zullo
JH: One of the no-brainer picks. Left-back does a disservice to the role Michael Zullo has played for Sydney FC, marauding down the entire left flank, providing as much value as a left-winger as a left-sided defender. He ranks joint-second for assists across the league and his ability to provide touchline-hugging width allows Alex Brosque to drift into dangerous central areas and offer an outlet for Mierzejewski’s defence-opening passes. Any doubts over Zullo’s value were confirmed during his recent injury when Sydney looked a diminished side without him.
AJ: Speaking of Zullo’s injury, that Kashima game was interesting for other reasons, but left-back is a rather sparse position in terms of quality overall in the A-League. Newcastle’s Ivan Vujica is worth consideration though, with more key passes, clearances, interceptions, a higher tackle success rate and higher pass completion in the opposition half. I’m less certain than you are on selection, but the case can be made for Zullo.
Right-back: Luke Wilkshere
JH: I’m operating on the basis that because Sydney FC were so dominant this season anybody who gets in ahead of a Sydney player has to be clearly worth it. I thought Luke Wilkshire did a solid job covering for Rhyan Grant and nobody else offers a compelling case over the 27 games to be named ahead of him.
AJ: I never thought I would get to this point, but Jason Geria was more than merely adequate, yet, he and Ryan Strain miss the cut for lack of minutes played. It’s another thin position in the A-League, where energy and little else is required. Wilkshere’s the pick of the bunch, I guess.
Central defender: Alex Wilkinson
JH: Alex Wilkinson is my kind of centre-half. Unfussy and consistent he provides a solid platform around which a coach can build. Despite conceding just ten fouls and receiving one caution he leads his team for blocks and clearances. There was plenty of depth in this position this season with Jordy Buijs, Rhys Williams and both Jets stoppers excelling, but Wilkinson’s calm assurance gets the nod.
AJ: No arguments here. Wilkinson has been a picture of consistency and composure since joining Sydney.
Central defender: Bart Schenkeveld
AJ: Schenkeveld is definitely an opposite to Wilkinson in terms of approach, but a much more suitable selection than the aforementioned alternatives. Though Melbourne City’s early neglect of the ball contributes here, the Dutchman’s 51 interceptions for the season and 60% tackle success rate indicates both his incendiary recovery pace and sound reading of the game.
JH: Schenkeveld is an outstanding defender; a great organiser, composed on the ball, uncompromising, and with pace to burn. One of the recruits of the season.
Central midfield: Josh Brillante
JH: The heartbeat of the best team in the competition. Nobody touched a football more often in the A-League this season than Josh Brillante.
AJ: I think Brillante is very effective within the framework of Graham Arnold’s reactive game plan, and is a terrier. He mercilessly pounces on sideways and backwards passes, compressing space for the opposition to work in. Out of primarily defensive midfielders, he’s the pick. Yet, touching the football the most doesn’t necessarily translate to a positive impact in possession. If he made the cut for total minutes, I would take Tom Hiariej from Central Coast.
Central midfield: Steven Ugarkovic
AJ: Going on from Brillante, it is why I think Ugarkovic has been so excellent. He facilitates Newcastle’s collective pace by always receiving in areas to advance the team’s field position centrally. After all, where you receive the ball impacts what you can do with it. He holds both an attacking and defensive responsibility in comparison – which is how it should be for a central midfielder – and his 78.4% tackle success rate is abnormally high. Grossly unlucky not to have been selected for the Socceroos in the last international window.
JH: 23 years old and just hitting the peak of his powers, I don’t think we’re far from Steven Ugarkovic entering Socceroos reckoning and taking his chances overseas. Playing in midfield in such a slingshot side as the Jets isn’t as easy as it looks but Ugarkovic’s nous has knitted everything together beautifully.
Attacking midfield: Miloš Ninkovic
JH: Over to you, Mr Jukic...
AJ: The real heartbeat of the best team in the competition. Ninkovic’s peerless combination of spatial awareness and technique – on these shores at least – allows the likes of Mierzejewski, Brillante and Zullo to play the way they do (particularly the latter two, exemplified by Bobo’s goal against Victory on Friday). The key to stopping Sydney is denying this man space.
Attacking midfield: Adrian Mierzejewski
JH: From his FFA Cup debut against Melbourne City you needn’t have been an analytical genius to realise Mierzejewski was something special. At the end of a stellar campaign he ranks third for goals, second for assists and first for goal involvements. It’s not just the scale of the Pole’s influence either, it’s the beauty of it all; the pinpoint free-kicks, the perfectly weighted through-balls, and the unerring finishing. My player of the year.
AJ: Player of the year? I’m not sure, but there’s still no doubt Ninkovic and Mierzejewski have been the best one-two punch in the competition. Just how quickly the two were able to respond after Victory’s opening goal on Australia Day was the clearest example of their threat. On that basis alone, he’s in the team.
Attacking midfield: Leroy George
JH: Has any team relied more on one player this year than Melbourne Victory on Leroy George? Dynamic, direct and deadly. Let’s just hope Victory find a way to keep him in the competition next season.
AJ: Johan Absalonsen’s a decent shout in response to that question, but he simply has not seen enough time on the pitch to justify a selection – the same goes for Daniel Arzani despite his mammoth impact at Melbourne City. I’m with you on George’s influence, though. Pivotal in open play and from the dead ball, he has been a valuable addition at Victory.
JH: 27 goals (a new A-League record) and almost double his nearest rival this season. He might not be the most eye-catching centre-forward but he puts the ball in the back of the net. Sometimes it’s best not to overthink it.
AJ: Though Oriol Riera is worth consideration, given how much he improves Western Sydney’s play in possession, Bobô is not lacking in this respect either. Both have seen their goal tallies bolstered by being their team’s penalty taker, but the Brazilian is a logical selection.