Wow, what a season.
Western United are the A-League Men's champions for 2021-22, and it is difficult not to appreciate their path to this point. John Aloisi has cultivated a team that battles hard, while the care among the players and coaching staff throughout the season was noticeable and genuine.
In a season of immense obstacles amid the backdrop of COVID-19, fixture clustering and families separated, Western United found sanctuary in each other and the outpouring of emotion following Saturday's 2-0 win over Melbourne City reflected something profound on an interpersonal level.
Yet the nature of their triumph reflected and reaffirmed something else. Because it would be misleading to not correlate the football played by Australian teams at domestic and international levels, in this year that has become the Sum of All Fears in Australian Football.
In that context, this year's ALM finals have served as an apt precursor to the Socceroos' World Cup qualification playoffs. Ultimately, the problems that have manifested for Graham Arnold and the Australian national team in their hopes to qualify for Qatar have only been mirrored at domestic level.
From Ufuk Talay to Tony Popovic earlier in the playoffs, to Patrick Kisnorbo on Saturday after the Grand Final, none concentrated on the collective dynamics which caused that inability to transfer possession to anything of substance in front of goal.
In Kisnorbo's case, he was either unaware of or unwilling to even address Rostyn Griffiths' selection in midfield affecting how Connor Metcalfe and Florin Berenguer could receive the ball, and the knock-on effect that would have on City's front three of Andrew Nabbout, Mathew Leckie and Jamie Maclaren -- specifically in a system predicated on third-man movement.
"I think with Griff, he came on last week [against Adelaide United] and I thought he did a fantastic job so I wanted to reward him with his performance," Kisnorbo said. "Plus, we knew that they've got some big players for set pieces, so that's why he started before Taras [Gomulka].
"It doesn't make a difference really, one person as a No. 6 [or] Griffiths as No. 6 ... he's the one that's the anchor. Jamie Maclaren's service comes from our attacking midfielders and our wingers.
"We knew, due to what we had, we had to win the fight in the middle to allow Florin and our wingers to get on the ball."
As much as the early goal to put Western United up 1-0 in the second minute -- ignoring Griffiths also losing track of Leo Lacroix before Nuno Reis' unfortunate own-goal -- that one selection by Kisnorbo conditions the game, rendering City's majority of possession ineffective.
Once they went up, Western United did not have to chase the game, because they knew they could protect their lead and then damage City in transition. Aleksandar Prijovic's title-sealing goal, almost inevitably, came in such a scenario.
Along with Marco Tilio's lack of scope, City's midfield dysfunction allowed Aloisi and his team to extend what has been their modus operandi all season. That's the one nagging element to Western United's title win, however admirable their turnaround has been in an interpersonal sense: How much of it is borne of their ability to absorb pressure defensively, and how much is of the opposition's inability to function with the ball?
In the seven games over this season's finals series, only once did the team with more possession actually win. That one game, Melbourne Victory's first-leg win over Western United, saw Victory fail to put up a single shot in the second half -- let alone in open play -- until Jake Brimmer's 74th-minute goal from Jason Davidson's corner. Following Brimmer's goal in the first leg, Victory's possession drops to 29%.
Zooming in though, let's take a look at the shots over the finals series in relation to that possession. There were a total of 171 shots among the teams over seven games. When you break that down by shot quality and quantity, in relation to game phase and game state, the complexion of football in the ALM when it matters -- or Australian football, on the whole -- becomes palpably clear.
While albeit marginal, there were more shots in dead-ball phases (6.14 per 90 minutes) over the seven games than there were against a set defence in their half (6 per 90), while shots in transition overshadow both those phases (11.18 per 90).
Of the 44 attempts to come against a set defence over the seven games, only four were from the team in a winning position, compared with the 29 in transition from winning positions and four goals in that game state and phase. The disparity in average shot quality between the two -- 0.07 xG per shot against a set defence and 0.14 xG per shot in transition -- is also deeply illuminative.
Ignoring the fact every team in the finals played with what was effectively the same formation, this is an endemic problem that permeates every level of Australian football.
Teams in the ALM simply do not function in possession, and this reflects the same soulless football as Australia's national team. As noted following the Socceroos' loss to Saudi Arabia, the problem was never Arnold in isolation, but how Arnold represents the largely generic and pragmatic coaching methodology that asphyxiates our play in possession on the pitch.
Considering how these teams play within the league format of a finals series and the safety net of no relegation, the perception of success is warped -- something that propelled Arnold to the Socceroos' coaching position to begin with.
While the Australian football community absurdly tries to extract things that are serious or thoughtful from an exhibition match between the ALM All-Stars and a touring Barcelona, we avoid the real problems that are truly reflective of the Australian game on the pitch.
Although it can be questioned whether ALM franchises owe the game a duty of care in a holistic sense, it has now become impossible to ignore how decision-making both on and off the pitch impacts at the pinnacle of the Australian game.
Ultimately, while the Australian football community suddenly scrambles for reasons why those problems manifest after each international window, bear in mind how they have been staring us in the face with each passing ALM game.