The A-League Angle delves into the world of Australian football, analysing key talking points from the top-flight club competition Down Under.
The Grand Final has been won and lost, with Central Coast Mariners casting aside the bridesmaid tag to claim a maiden championship trumph in their fourth decider. Graham Arnold's men out-thought and out-fought the plucky Western Sydney Wanderers, demonstrating that the most consistent team of the season can also win a one-off cup-style encounter.
Following the most watched - and arguably most entertaining - season of the A-League to date, ESPN examines the year that was for all clubs.
1. Western Sydney Wanderers
A "fairytale inaugural season", most reports gush over the competition's newest club. True enough, the Western Sydney Wanderers surpassed even the most optimistic hopes by claiming the Premiership and with it an Asian Champions League spot through their pragmatic, pressing play. Hitting quickly and in numbers on the counter, the Wanderers caught many teams off guard with a quite stunning run following a shaky opening few matches.
What they lacked in cutting-edge strikers, coach Tony Popovic and his team made up for in endeavour, and creativity in the middle third. It was, then, a wonderfully successful season as man-for-man Popovic eeked out everything from the charges at his disposal. Shinji Ono was a class above, while Youssouf Hersi and Aaron Mooy showed the Wanderers had assembled perhaps the best midfield in the A-League.
A less than convincing display in the Grand Final cannot take away from what was a memorable season for the club and its legion of new fans. However, the "fairytale" description perhaps undermines the planning and strategies put in place by Popovic and his team. A thrilling novel may be a more appropriate term. Gripping in its content, intelligently laid out and, best of all, to be continued.
2. Central Coast Mariners
A watershed season of sorts for Graham Arnold's men, who tasted Grand Final glory for the first time after three previous attempts. A model of consistency throughout the regular season, the Mariners built their game on a reliable back four, with wing-backs Josh Rose and Pedj Bojic also providing impetus in attack.
Daniel McBreen shocked many by claiming the Golden Boot along with the player of the match in the decider against the Wanderers. Yet to be offered a new deal, it remains uncertain whether the 36-year-old can replicate such form in the future. Arnold may instead look to reinvent his team - as he did through a change in formation this season - with the introduction of younger legs and a more creative style of game.
There are also doubts over the future of Arnold himself and goalkeeper Mat Ryan, linked with a number of English clubs. But stability has always been at the core of the Mariners' operations and it's difficult to see that changing, though the personnel may differ. For now, the A-League's smallest club will revel in the fact they were the better team on Grand Final day, relieved to be rid of the 'chokers' tag that had previously shadowed them.
3. Melbourne Victory
Melbourne's biggest off-season recruit delivered. Coach Ange Postecoglou brought his philosophy to the Victory bringing the best out of front-men Archie Thompson and player of the season Marco Rojas. The team pressed intelligently and pounced on loose balls to release the quick wide players early, making for some scintillating counter-attacking football.
Mark Milligan was pivotal to that game plan in the middle of the park, but the Victory could arguably do with more reinforcements at the back. The other question mark for Postecoglou moving forward revolves around replacing Rojas, who seems destined for the Bundesliga. Perhaps youngsters Andrew Nabbout or Connor Pain can fill the void and take them one step further and into the Grand Final as the squad develops next term.
A work in progress that finishes third? Look out.
4. Adelaide United
Early frontrunners Adelaide slipped off the pace as the season reached its climax, while the sudden departure of coach John Kosmina continues to generate conspiracy theories. In truth, Adelaide's early success was more down to their physical conditioning on the back of the 2012 Asian Champions League than their tactical nous.
Michael Valkanis' strategy will be under intense scrutiny in the off-season and the early part of the 2013-14 campaign, but if he is able to keep the likes of Dario Vidosic and Marcelo Carrusca motivated, he has some of the most talented forwards in the A-League in his midst. Indeed, the duo provided numerous highlights for the Reds before the team stumbled to an early finals exit at the hands of Brisbane Roar.
5. Brisbane Roar
The back-to-back champions' title defence barely got off the ground, with their fluent passing game evidently going south the way of former coach Ange Postecoglou to Melbourne Victory. Instead there was a hesitancy about their play and a lack of conviction which told in key matches.
The affable Rado Vidosic was perhaps the wrong choice as Postecoglou's replacement, but the announcement of Mike Mulvey as permanent boss after missing out on the Asian Champions League remains as perplexing as ever. However, Mulvey's move to make swift changes to his squad, creating a solid back four, paid dividends late on, with the capture of Socceroos defender Jade North a promising sign of the new-look Queensland outfit.
6. Perth Glory
Lucky to reach the finals or frustrated by what might have been? How Perth Glory and their fans feel about the year past is surely a mixture of the two. Following Ian Ferguson's sacking in February, the workmanlike Glory played some of the more attractive football of the season under Alistair Edwards. Utilising the quality within their ranks, Perth made a late charge and snuck into the top-six before being bundled out by Melbourne Victory.
One would expect that, with a full pre-season and one or two key additions to the squad, Perth may once again be a force. A new stadium packed full of die-hard supporters clad in purple will certainly be hoping so.
7. Sydney FC
Alessandro Del Piero's arrival heralded a new era for the A-League. However, despite the Italian icon's best efforts, Sydney FC's opening third of the season was nothing short of calamitous. Coach Ian Crook vacated his post as the team wilted into last position for months.
A late revival fell agonisingly short of a finals berth, but shone a light on the way forward under new boss Frank Farina. A mixture of hard-working players and big-name stars are a recipe for success in Australia's most populous city, and Farina is banking on that after releasing seven players in the past week. Will he replace underachievers with those who can manifest the right balance? Time will tell, but with Del Piero on board one suspects a giant may be roused next season.
8. Newcastle Jets
Calls for coach Gary van Egmond to leave the club have been fierce in the local media after another disappointing season. Once the most consistent team in the competition, the Jets have now missed out on the past three finals series.
The exits of Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Jeremy Brockie hurt Newcastle, as their lack of cohesion at the back and ineffectual use of Emile Heskey cost them a spot in the play-offs. Regardless of Van Egmond's future, what is certain is that the Jets must head into the next campaign with a more definitive plan and, most importantly, a more settled defensive structure.
A crafty playmaker drifting between the lines could also draw the best out of Heskey, whose hold-up play and physical presence offers genuine hope to the club's faithful supporters.
9. Melbourne Heart
There's a missing ingredient at this club. After offering so much promise in their first two seasons, the Heart have faltered badly over the past 12 months. The team rarely started a match well and relied on second-half salvos to pick up points throughout the season, while their lethargic approach to attack failed to utilise the speed within their ranks. Both issues seem to fall under the responsibility of coach John Aloisi, who has allowed Matt Thompson, Fred, Clint Bolton, Simon Colosimo and Eli Babalj to depart since they missed the finals series.
To an outsider, the decision to give Aloisi the top job following the exit of John van't Schip appeared odd due to his lack of experience. Management's call to allow Aloisi to stay on and rip the soul of the club out seems more mystifying still. True, his players have underperformed and an overhaul is understandable. But the nation is waiting to see in Aloisi the manager what Heart hierchy evidently do.
Off the pitch, this is a club in dire need of some star power. It's difficult to see big international names clamouring to play under a coach yet to prove himself, however.
10. Wellington Phoenix
They had a golden opportunity to avoid the wooden spoon on the final weekend of the season but, truly, the New Zealanders were the most consistently poor team in the competition. Along with the departure of coach Ricki Herbert mid-season, the Phoenix had owner Gareth Morgan meddling in team tactics throughout the campaign, leading to widespread disharmony within the camp.
Wellington were the defending team in Fox Sports' goal of the season top 10 more than any other club. Coincidence? Hardly. The highlight reel proved a stark reminder that the squad must be strengthened in its defensive structure, with a holding midfielder capable of nullifying opposition playmakers being crucial to their chances of improving next term.
2012-13 A-League Team of the Season
ESPN have decided on a 4-3-3 formation. Who would make your A-League XI for 2012-13?
Goalkeeper: Eugene Galekovic Defenders: Pedj Bojic, Michael Beauchamp, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Adama Traore Midfielders: Mark Milligan, Shinji Ono, Youssouf Hersi Strikers: Marco Rojas, Daniel McBreen, Dario Vidosic