Take a moment to absorb the A-League Men's finals participants and striking features begin to emerge. How you react likely depends on which side of the Murray River you reside.
Firstly, following Wellington's win over Western Sydney on Thursday, the coming ALM playoffs will be the first to take place without a representative from Sydney since 2010-11. Per Australian football stats doyen Andrew Howe, however, the worst, 'best' finish for Sydney-based sides when the city has had more than one representative in the national league -- in both A-Leagues and NSL -- was Sydney Olympic's fifth in 1999-00. This is history that Sydney FC, Western Sydney Wanderers and Macarthur will not have wanted to create.
Secondly, in the form of Melbourne City, Melbourne Victory and Western United, sides from Melbourne, per Howe, have monopolised the league's top three places for the first time in national league history. Only once previously have sides from the same city occupied the top three places in the national league table: Marconi, St George, and Olympic in 1989.
Widely heralded as prohibitive title favourites heading into the season after securing a premiership and championship double in 2020-21, the presence of City atop the ALM summit will have surprise few. Such is the resourcing and depth of talent assembled at Casey Fields that anything less would have been considered a disappointment; this is the double-edged sword of expectations that come with success.
The turnarounds at Victory and United, however, were less anticipated; at least the extent of them.
Victory slumped to their first wooden spoon in 2020-21, after two miserable years, while United collapsed during the regular season's final stretch to finish third-bottom after appearing to have been nailed on for a finals place. Yet the two sides, under new coaches Tony Popovic and John Aloisi, respectively, have staged a meteoric rise up the table. The manner in which they have done so hasn't always been pretty, but both sides have been able, in enough games, to capitalise on the league's prevailing trends in possession and approach to grind out results. Points aren't awarded for style, after all.
"I'm just happy that we're amongst it," Popovic said after his side locked in a top-three berth with a win over Wellington Phoenix.
"It's where we want to be: Challenging for honours. We've put ourselves in a position where we give ourselves a chance again.
"That's what this club has always been accustomed to. We're happy we're in this position."
So with these contrasting trends in mind, does the rise of the Melbourne clubs signal that Australian men's football's powerbase is shifting? Is this a moment of celebration for Victorian exceptionalists as their capital becomes the mecca of Australian football? Are pots, parmas, and potato cakes triumphant?
Well, no. At least, not yet. Not on a deeper level.
One of the reasons that Victory and United have been able to stage such rapid turnarounds in the 2021-22 season is the heavy investment in their squads. Neither entity is exactly frugal when it comes to first-team spending, and both brought in a significant number of key contributors during the offseason; invariably, these individuals were not forged in the Victorian scene. This also extends to the coaches, with Aloisi one of South Australia's most notable footballing exports and Popovic from the fertile footballing grounds of Sydney's west.
Of players who had played at least 50% of available match minutes as of May 1, just two of Western United's squad -- Dylan Pierias and Connor Pain -- have their origins in Victoria's developmental pathways. Victory have three -- Jake Brimmer, Jason Davidson and Leigh Broxham -- although Matthew Spiranovic likely would have made it four had he been physically capable of doing so. None of these players were trained in the club's academy.
Though hardly emulating Athletic Club's locals-first approach to squad construction, City are slightly better in this regard with five players who have emerged in one way or another from the Victorian scene. In Patrick Kisnorbo, they also have a Melburnian in the main chair.
Extending this to any minutes played at all, and being very generous with the definition of "homegrown" to include players such Noah Botic and Jay Barnett, United have six players who were either raised in Melbourne or spent time in the club's academy (30% of players used in 2021-22, contributing 13.3% of available minutes), Victory have 11 (45% of players used, 32.7% of available minutes), and City have 14 (56% of players used, 43.2% of available minutes). A more austere criteria for homegrown would shrink these margins.
Again, though, this shouldn't be surprising, given the Victory and United rebuilds were designed to restore them to competitiveness as soon as possible. This inevitably means that emphasising talent and schematic fit takes precedence over other factors. City, meanwhile, have had the benefit of years of stability and planning that allows the club to foster players from its impressive academy setup through to the senior team. City's significant resourcing and success also give the club an added leg up when it comes to luring established talents such as Jamie Maclaren and Mathew Leckie back home.
Hence, the cosmopolitan nature of the Melbourne sides' success means the 2021-22 season doesn't mark a shift in the centre of the Australian football universe to Victoria.
At least not yet, because, if things break in a certain manner, the success of the three Melbourne sides in 2021-22 could signal that such a cycle is possible in the coming years.
If harnessed, success at a senior level significantly supplements and/or boosts the efforts of a club when it comes to the fundamentals of infrastructure and youth development. Local, talented kids want to play for clubs they can go down the road to see win. Sponsors want to be associated with them. Local and state governments are eager to partner with them and bask in their reflected glow.
These improvements, in turn, should ostensibly help to sustain continued success at a senior level. Nathaniel Atkinson, the 2020-21 Joe Marston Medalist, was recruited to City by then-academy director Joe Palatisdes from Tasmania and progressed through the under-20s and NPL side at the City Football Academy before reaching the senior team and helping the club to win its first trophies. He was the second successive player developed by his club to take out the award, after Rhyan Grant received the medal the year before.
The strength of City's academy and infrastructure -- the club is already constructing its second elite training facility and academy in its short lifetime -- is well known. But their Melbourne rivals are seeking to rapidly close the gap and establish their own, local powerbases.
After a stint in Singapore, Palatsides made the jump across town in the offseason and is now running the academy of Victory. Previously helping to develop the likes of Atkinson, Denis Genreau and Conor Metcalfe at City, he is now in charge of fostering talent that will haunt his former employers.
At United, another City youth coach, Anthony Frost, has been put in charge of an academy that entered senior and under-21 teams into the NPL for the first time in 2021 -- Adisu Bayew is one of those players to have already graduated -- and the club is looking to expand in coming years.
Both clubs are also looking to keep pace in the infrastructure game. United has long since lost the benefit of the doubt when it comes to its stadium but the club has, at least, commenced construction of a training base in Tarneit. ESPN understands Victory are also deep in the process of securing a permanent home base.
This process has been made difficult by COVID -- academy staff needing to identify and develop players who have effectively lost two years of football, for example -- and it will take time to bear fruit as educational, vocational, and medical programs are created or reformed alongside footballing ones. But Palatisdes believes a strong start has been made.
"There's never any right or wrong in how you set up an academy," Palatisdes told ESPN. "It always falls under the vision and beliefs and values that you put in place.
"The first thing that we did was we wanted to make sure that we had a vision of what we wanted our teams to look and how we wanted our players to look. And how that was going to work best going forward.
"Once we start structuring that, we have a look at areas such as talent ID, which we thought was really important,
"It was difficult to try and identify talented players and who was in a good state at that time. I'm sure we didn't get it perfectly right, but what we did was get a lot right.
"We see the players we brought into the academy, as we reflect on it four or five months later, and we can see that the changes that we have made have given us a pool of players we're quite proud of being able to identify."