Even if you don’t follow the A-League, you have probably heard of Melbourne City FC before. Presumably because they are part of City Football Group or because David Villa used to play for them. If you follow the A-League closely, you know that Melbourne City Football Club is a franchise with bags of potential. But for some reason, they can’t fulfil that potential, or even get close to doing so. I looked into it a bit more and here’s what I found.
Let’s start at the beginning. Melbourne City didn’t just come out of nowhere. Before CFG took over, the club was known as Melbourne Heart. Founded in 2009, Heart played its inaugural season in 2010/11, starting with a 1-0 defeat to the Central Coast Mariners and finishing 8th at the end of the season, missing out on the playoffs – or ‘finals’ as they’re known in Australia. Their second season was somewhat more successful, as they finished 6th, made the finals, but lost in the very first round against the Perth Glory.
In 12/13, the club fell off a cliff, losing 16 of their 27 matches and finishing 9th. The following season was actually worse, as they finished 10th, but here’s where CFG joins our story. City Football Group acquired 80% of the Melbourne Heart in January 2014. The team’s name was changed to ‘Melbourne City Football Club’ and the club colour was changed to ‘Sky Blue’.
That colour change sparked some controversy though. The other ‘Sky Blue’ team in the A-League – Sydney FC – wasn’t all too happy. The issue was resolved after a few years and now Sydney FC is the team in ‘Sky Blue’ and Melbourne City is the team in…um…well…’City Blue’, whatever that is. Back to the football.
In the summer of 2014, Melbourne received David Villa on loan from new MLS and fellow CFG franchise New York City FC in a bid to keep him fit until the start of MLS preseason in December. Villa brought excitement to the club, but bigger crowds and enthusiasm didn’t help the team and Villa left after only playing four times and not recording a single win.
CFG bought the remaining 20% of MCFC after the 2014/15 season and results started to get better. City finished 4th in 15/16 and 16/17, while also winning the FFA Cup in late 2016 – their only piece of silverware to date. City achieved their highest ever league position in 2017/18, finishing 3rd, but they were knocked out of the playoffs by the Newcastle Jets and that incredible Riley McGree scorpion kick in the semi-final. Fun fact: Riley McGree is currently playing for Melbourne City.
Let’s revisit something I wrote in the opening lines of this article: “Melbourne City Football Club is a franchise with bags of potential. But for some reason, they can’t fulfil that potential, or even get close to doing so.“
MCFC have all the tools in the world to be successful, but they just can’t seem to get their act together and actually be stable, while also achieving success on the field as well as off it. Allow me to elaborate.
City Football Group
Look, I don’t ‘hate’ CFG or their methods, neither do I hate Red Bull or their methods, but I can’t claim to be a big fan of them either. As I’ve stated in my USL opinion piece, I don’t like unregulated ‘affiliation’ – be it between MLS and USL teams, RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg or Manchester, New York and Melbourne City – I. Don’t. Like. It.
In my opinion, every club should be independent regardless of which ‘group’ or company they belong to. Clubs need to have their own squads. CFG is definitely doing a better job than Red Bull with that – we’ve seen a lot of players transfer between Salzburg and Leipzig over the past few years. But even in the early years of NYCFC’s existence, there were quite a few trades between Manchester and New York.
The relationship between Manchester City and Melbourne is a weird one, it’s one that I absolutely despise. Manchester City buy A-League players only to then loan them to Melbourne.
Man City signed Anthony Caceres from the Central Coast Mariners in 2016 and loaned him to Melbourne immediately and then again in the summer of 2018, with a loan move to the UAE sandwiched in between. A similar thing happened to Brisbane Roar’s Luke Brattan. Brattan was snapped up by City in late 2015 and after a weird 2-month loan to Bolton, was loaned to Melbourne in the summer of 2016. HE IS STILL PLAYING FOR MELBOURNE! His loan is set to expire this summer – a full three years later. How is this allowed?
Melbourne City not being fully independent will cripple them in the long run.
Melbourne City, like Manchester City, have a hard time creating a real organic connection between the club and the fans. I don’t want to label either fanbase as ‘plastic’, but if you look at other teams around their respective leagues, you’ll notice a big difference.
Melbourne City just can’t fill their stadium. No matter what the occasion. City’s stadium – AAMI Park – has a capacity of just over 30,000. City’s record attendance? 26,579.
That record was set back in 2011 when the club was still called Melbourne Heart. So despite finishing 4th and 3rd since the rebrand, City haven’t managed to break their attendance record. Their stadium looks empty most of the time and an atmosphere is basically non-existent.*insert ‘more seagulls than fans’ joke here*
MCFC have the best academy in Australia. That’s a fact. However, they can’t seem to make use of their kids in a meaningful way. They have an entire team of youngsters ready to play in the A-League, yet only Ramy Najjarine has been given any ‘significant’ playing time this season, making 8 substitute appearances (156 minutes). [Source: Transfermarkt]
Not only are they not playing their youngster, they’re not even trying to hold onto them. Daniel Arzani was sold to, you guessed it, Manchester City. But that’s acceptable – Arzani had a great 17/18 season and he played in the World Cup – he deserved a move to a big club. Not acceptable is losing 18-year old Anthony Lesiotis to cross-town rivals Melbourne Victory. Or letting 19-year old, U23 international Denis Genreau go to PEC Zwolle.
Play. Your. Kids.
Warren Joyce & The Team
Warren Joyce was unveiled as Melbourne City coach in the summer of 2017 after John van ‘t Schip resigned earlier in the year. Despite leading City to their highest ever league finish in 2017/18, fans weren’t convinced by Joyce’s style of play. Some even wanted him to get the boot prior to the start of this season.
Joyce didn’t help his case when he fell out with City’s main man – goal machine extraordinaire, Bruno Fornaroli – very early on in the season. The 31-year old Uruguayan would never again pull on the City shirt and his contract was terminated very recently. Fornaroli will apparently sign with Perth Glory in the summer, following in the footsteps of Neil Kilkenny – another City player that Joyce fell out with.
At the point of writing this, City have only won 2 of their last 10 games and Joyce is under serious pressure.
This season has been a perfect example of why sometimes recruiting from within the league is better than going out and signing a European player or spending big on a marquee signing.
City signed Michael O’Halloran from Rangers in the summer. The Scot got injured straight away, so they brought in former Western Sydney Wanderers holding midfielder Kearyn Baccus on an injury replacement deal. O’Halloran struggled to get fit, got homesick and joined St. Johnstone, while Baccus has been one of the best midfielders in the league and definitely one of City’s players of the season.
City also signed Florin Berenguer from Sochaux, who, when he’s been fit, has been outstandingly useless. The 29-year old was supposed to be one of MCFC’s main attacking outlets, but he has a grand total of 2 assists and 0 goals in 15 games for the club. Berenguer has played 1,100 minutes this season, that means that he has a goal involvement every 550 minutes. 21-year old Lachlan Wales, who City signed from the Mariners in the summer, has 3 goals and 2 assists in 1,427 minutes – that’s a goal involvement every 285 minutes.
The only good non-Australian import has been Ritchie De Laet. The 30-year old Belgian joined from Aston Villa on loan and in addition to being a calming presence at right-back; he’s City’s top goalscorer with 6 goals and that is a great segway to my next point.
The imbecilic squad building. Who thinks going into a season with 1 (ONE) out-and-out striker is a good idea? Who thinks that falling out with that one striker is a good idea? Warren Joyce and whoever’s in charge of the transfers apparently.
So after falling out with Bruno Fornaroli and never playing him again, Joyce opted to play players out of position, rather than reconcile with the Uruguayan. Here’s a list of players that played as ‘strikers’ between the start of the season and the January transfer window: Lachlan Wales (winger), Florin Berenguer (winger), Riley McGree (attacking midfielder), Ritchie De Laet (right-back), Nathan Atkinson (right-back/winger) and Dario Vidosic (winger).
The problem was solved when City signed Jamie Maclaren and Shay Harrison, who’ve come straight into the team to play as the main forwards, in January. But even if you disregard the constant interchanging of forwards, there has been no continuity with the line-ups in general all season.
The only mainstays in the team have been: 37-year old Eugene Galekovic, who has put in some goalkeeper of the year performances. Bart Schenkeveld who is by far the best defensive player on the team. De Laet at right-back (when he wasn’t used as a striker) and captain Scott Jamieson at left-back. Kearyn Baccus and Luke Brattan in the midfield and Lachie Wales as a forward/winger.
The other positions – the 2nd centre-back, the 3rd midfielder and the other two forwards – have been constantly changed all season. Joyce has also been playing around with different formations – he’s been playing 4-3-3 a lot, but then there have been games in which he played 5 at the back, in other games, he’s played a 4-2-3-1 formation and since the January signings have come in, he’s tried to go with a 4-4-2.
This team is all over the place.
Let’s take a look at the thing that annoys City supporters the most – the style of play. But what is City’s style of play?
I don’t know. That is perhaps the worrying thing. They play a different formation every game and their style of play is different for every match. Sometimes, they let the other team have possession, let Kearyn Baccus break up the play and then use the speed of Lachlan Wales on the counter. Other times, City have the majority of possession and they try to break teams down.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The best example of it going horribly wrong is City’s 3-1 loss to the Newcastle Jets in February. MCFC had 67% of the possession, but they weren’t able to break their opponent down and two identical counter-attacks late on, saw City lose a game which they dominated. Perhaps this lack of a clear identity is why City are currently on such a terrible run of form and why the fans want to see Joyce sacked.
The signing of Jamie Maclaren is huge and they should do everything in their power to keep a hold of Luke Brattan. Personally, I think I agree with the fans, Joyce doesn’t seem like the right fit for the club. Get someone in who gives youth more of a chance and who uses the young, creative and vibrant first team players in a sensible way – i.e. don’t drop Lachlan Wales (21) and Riley McGree (20) to accommodate Florin Berenguer (29) and Rostyn Griffiths (30).
City have a good academy, a decent squad, a big stadium and rich owners, but someone needs to give the club life. That responsibility lies with the supporters and the coach.
Melbourne City FC’s search for that elusive first Grand Final victory continues and unless something changes, that search will be fruitless yet again this year.