Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) have released their annual A-League report detailing crucial data on the league and Australian football as a whole.
The numbers make for interesting reading as the PFA reveal the average salary of A-League players, general satisfaction for the league amongst the playing cohort and players’ desire to remain in the league amongst an array of other statistics.
However, perhaps the most startling revelation that has magnified by the report is the A-League’s stark shift towards youth development. Over the past two seasons, the average age of players in the A-League has dropped from 27.6 years old to 25.1 years old, demonstrating a remarkable shift from the upward trend in player age that had been evident in the 14 years since the league’s inception.
The report goes on to highlight that of the 300 players used in the league during the 2020/21 season, 35% (107 players) were aged 21 or under. Clubs appear to have embraced this shift towards youth development as it has also become a viable means of achieving success in the league.
This is none more obvious than in the case of title winners Melbourne City who won the league’s top honour by fielding a youthful front three of Marco Tilio, Stefan Colakovski and Nathaniel Atkinson in the side’s Grand Final victory against last season’s oldest team Sydney FC.
The team that City fielded during the Grand Final was the youngest team to feature in the A-League’s ultimate match since Central Coast in 2011 – a team that featured then youngsters and now capped Socceroos Mat Ryan, Trent Sainsbury, Mustafa Amini, Oli Bozanic and Bernie Ibini.
It is easy to imagine many of City’s youngsters following a similar path to the national team as has been trodden by those Mariners.
Over the course of the season, City’s average age stood at 23.7, making them the 2nd youngest team in the league but also the most successful. Semi-Finalists Adelaide United were the league’s 3rd youngest team at 23.9 while strugglers Western United, Newcastle Jets and Perth Glory were some of the league’s oldest teams.
There has never been a clearer case of causation between youth development and team success in the A-League.
Aside from the reports championing of the increasing trend towards youth, it also poignantly illustrates the A-League’s distinct recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic with players now perceiving the A-League as more enticing than previously.
Specifically, the report posits that 55% of players surveyed said that they would like to stay playing in the A-League next season – a demonstrable increase from 45% in 2019/20’s iteration of the survey.
While the previous year’s numbers were undoubtedly skewed by the uncertainty with which the pandemic brought, these numbers make for positive reading ahead of what promises to be an exciting season for the A-League, headlined by a ground-breaking CBA and new broadcast partnership.
Perhaps more startling is the fact that 56% of players are now confident about the direction of their football careers, a number which has increased from 33% in 2019/20.
There also appears to be a greater competitive balance in the A-League with the gap between top side Melbourne City and bottom team Melbourne Victory being just 30 points last season when between 2016 and 2019 the numbers were 44, 44 and 47 respectively.
Success has also been less categorised by big market teams like Melbourne Victory as Macarthur and Central Coast both qualified for the finals last season with Macarthur going down to eventual Champions City in the Semi-Final.
This greater balance between teams and more even spread of points is a potential contributor in justifying the consensus belief that last season’s A-League was one of the most entertaining season’s to date.
This combined with the youthful feel of the league should excite A-League fans ahead of the coming season where an easing of COVID related regulations should increase attendance and atmosphere at matches.
In terms of support and stadia, Coopers Stadium was rated the best overall pitch for the 2nd consecutive season while the much-maligned non-football specific grounds such as Marvel Stadium, GMHBA Stadium and Stadium Australia languished towards the foot of these rankings.
The decisions of Melbourne Victory, Western United and Sydney FC to largely abandon these stadiums will go down well with fans of each club and should contribute to the overall quality of playing surface and atmosphere to increase in 2021/22.
The report places fan experience at the forefront, wishing to re-encapsulate the raucous atmospheres often associated with the A-League.
“Capturing the fans’ passion for the A-League when they return in greater numbers will be the game’s greatest opportunity to reinvigorate match days,” the PFA explains.
Technical quality observed in the league also appears to have improved with the number of passes per match increasing in each of the last three seasons.
This growth can also be explained by the league’s decision to play a larger proportion of matches in the winter, thus ensuring that players are not subjected to immense heat that has previously curtailed free-flowing football.
Last season also saw the A-League average 2.93 goals per game, a figure that sees the league sit above the English Premier League (2.69) and La Liga (2.51), thus providing context for the league’s increasingly free-flowing nature.
Despite the league’s deficiencies, it is difficult to argue against the contents of the report that suggest that the A-League is now trending in the right direction for a multitude of important facets within the context of Australian football.
The 2021/22 season looms as an opportunity to build on the success of last season and concretise the league’s success in promoting youth development and entertaining football.
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