The only way for Melbourne City this season, you felt, was down. As admirable as their ambitions to repeat last season’s undefeated double were, their own history has shown pride comes before the fall.
In their inaugural season of 2015-16, City achieved the same feat – an undefeated double (down to conceding the same number of goals: 4) – only to scrape into fourth the following two seasons and then miss the finals entirely.
Now, there is a sense of history repeating. It is fitting that City’s first loss of the current campaign was delivered by Canberra United, the same club which handed the Melbourne side their first ever loss back in 2016-17 (thanks, too, to the same Canberra player – Nicki Flannery – who was directly involved in the winning goal both times).
That first loss in 2016 sparked a dip in form during which City took two points from their next five games before stumbling over the finish line. The same, it seems, is happening this season – though the club’s fall from grace is occurring far more rapidly than their history foreshadowed.
This past weekend, City suffered their biggest defeat since entering the league: a 6-0 humbling by Melbourne Victory in the derby. Concerningly, it did not seem like a one-off buckling on the day; tremors of the disjointedness and lack of direction in City’s previous two games were evident against Brisbane and Canberra, too.
Indeed, for all the talk of long-term planning in the W-League, City looked and played like a team without one. The panicked signings of Chinatsu Kira, Alex Chidiac and Noor Eckhoff after the season had already begun is a case in point.
As City begins its descending oscillation, then, who can we expect to usurp them? Victory have certainly thrown their hat in the ring after round three’s performance. Jeff Hopkins’s side is a well-coached team with a balance of youth and experience and an array of attacking threats (each of their six goals against City was scored by a different player) and emerging national team faces in defence.
Achieving this kind of balance appears to be the modus operandi of many W-League teams this season. This includes Canberra and Sydney FC, both of whom contain a sprinkling of international experience in key areas of the field (Michelle Heyman and Kendall Fletcher for Canberra, Teresa Polias and Ellie Brush for Sydney), and who currently sit first and second on the ladder respectively.
Brisbane Roar’s anomalous early season results aside, their statistical dominance (69 shots, 59 chances created, an xG value of 6.91 – more than twice as much as the next-best team) reflects a similar kind of balance that has been struck between international-level players and promising young or local talent.
Adelaide and Western Sydney, too, subscribe to the same philosophy and are looking more competitive as they ease into their campaigns. The close nature of most games in the first three rounds suggests the W-League is as open as ever; a silver lining provided not just by the pandemic, which has acted as a kind of equalisation measure, but also of the machinations of the women’s club scene elsewhere that has lured Australia’s top talent. Success this season, then, appears to hinge on how well clubs have prepared for this moment, how quickly they have adapted to these shifting circumstances.
Which is why City’s recent performances are so puzzling. The slapdash, still-in-construction nature of their squad suggests there was no clear succession plan in place following the predictable exodus of almost their entire playing roster to Europe. It’s a state of affairs that feels all the more bizarre given City Football Group are partly responsible for this wider trend, having invested vast sums into their Manchester City women’s side over the past several years and, in turn, making both the FA Women’s Super League and the continent more widely the destination of choice for women footballers everywhere.
This is not to say Melbourne City won’t turn things around. It is still, as they say, early doors – even though the season is already a quarter completed. Perhaps their last-minute signings will shore up their sieve-like midfield and their two most natural strikers will start to find the target. Perhaps, as their own history indicates, they will pick up steam towards the back end of the season and hit form just as the Championship trophy winks over the horizon.
Or perhaps they won’t. In either case, there is another history lesson for a club who appear to be suffering the consequences of prioritising short-term success over long-term planning: dynasties may begin with a single generation, but they never survive with one.