Western Sydney Wanderers saw the departure of two managers in under a year as they struggled to perform to the standard expected by the Red and Black Bloc, and despite glimpses of talent, there was too much inconsistency and the new boss – whoever it ends up being – will have some work to do before the 2018-19 season kicks off.
What went right
Within an inconsistent and ultimately disappointing season, there were a few highlights for Wanderers supporters. The arrival of marquee striker Oriol Riera in July 2017 provided a goalscoring alternative to Brendon Santalab. A tally of 19 goals in all competitions, including 15 in the league, made for a bright debut season at the club. Roly Bonevacia also proved to be a decent capture after his transfer across the Tasman, at least initially.
In the FFA Cup, the Wanderers managed their best run yet. A semi-final showdown with Adelaide United marked the furthest the club had yet progressed in the competition, breaking through the quarter-finals benchmark set in previous years.
What went wrong
It was a season of instability for Western Sydney, from beginning to end. A week before the commencement of the side’s league campaign, long-standing manager Tony Popovic left for Turkey. Following their 2-1 win over Perth Glory in their first league contest, the Wanderers went nine games in all competitions without a win. It left incoming manager Josep Gombau with a major task and a restless, if vocal, supporter base.
At the tail-end of the season, a seventh-placed finish saw them miss out on finals football for only the second time since their foundation. There was little consolation to be found in the Sydney Derby fixtures either, especially when the Wanderers were subjected to a 5-0 drubbing at home by their Sky Blue neighbours. Overall, the season was tinged with uncertainty. The players were attempting to transition into a new footballing philosophy under Gombau for most of their campaign. However, the more things change, the more they remain the same: the club will likely face similar issues with a new manager next time, with Gombau’s dismissal being announced just after the end of the regular season.
When picking a standout player, it is hard to look past the Wanderers’ first marquee signing and chief goalscorer. Riera’s exploits in front of goal saw him named the club’s A-League player of the year at their awards night last month. He represents what can be done when a marquee slot is used thoughtfully and effectively. If the Wanderers can find some composure and solidity in time for next season, the Spanish No.9 will be crucial in any silverware runs.
Strings are already being pulled behind the scenes in Western Sydney. The offseason has seen the departure of not only Gombau but also Jack Clisby, Michael Thwaite and marquee man Alvaro Cejudo. The players brought in to replace them have caused some buzz. The Wanderers have moved sharply to pick up a trio of names that have recently departed from Melbourne City: Bruce Kamau, Nick Fitzgerald and Ruon Tongyik.
The majority of the transfer hype thus far has been reserved for the return of veteran defender Tarek Elrich, joining from Adelaide United after five years away from Western Sydney. The new faces will be welcome additions to a setup that boasts some talented youngsters but the principle focus will be on finding a manager that can harmonise the squad.
“I think he (Gombau) was the wrong appointment at the wrong time for that club … this team was good enough to get into the finals and win some silverware,” Sydney Morning Herald journalist Dom Bossi said.
Grade — C-
This season was far from a success for the Wanderers. They appeared thoroughly disjointed and uncomfortable. But for all these flaws, their campaign was not a total disaster. They missed out on finals football by a slender margin, and delivered a very respectable FFA Cup run. If this grade appears harsh, it is because the club has high standards. If it seems lenient, then it is because they managed to struggle through dugout drama. All in all, it was a middling season for the Wanderers, but one they will hope to use as a platform for success next time around.