Melbourne City's success leaves W-League with identity crisis

A few hours before Melbourne City defeated Brisbane Roar to round out their second ever undefeated W-League season, UK football writer Jonathan Wilson published a column about the Melbourne club's mothership: Manchester City. Specifically, Wilson wrote about winning, and about what happens to a club, a fanbase and a competition when winning becomes routine.

He touched upon something poignant for Australian fans ever since Melbourne City hoisted their fifth trophy in five seasons in the penultimate round, and something that W-League fans have expressed in its wake: A sort of resignation that, of course this is how the season was always going to end.

"When super-clubs have such advantages over the rest, the expectation becomes of victory and anything else seems like a failure," Wilson wrote. And looking back at Melbourne City over the past two seasons, that idea rings true. The fact that they finished fifth in 2018-19, missing out on finals by a single point, felt like a failure. Given the attacking stars in the side, their draw against Newcastle Jets in the opening round and only winning their first five games by a single goal felt like a failure. Dropping two points in 12 games -- just shy of their perfect-record in 2015-16 -- felt like a failure.

There's no doubt that the City Football Group's "advantages" have helped raised the bar in women's football in both Manchester and Melbourne. And while no other Australian club can boast having a literal nation state as its main financial backer, few can argue that City's entry into the Australian landscape hasn't dragged the rest of the competition in the direction of professionalism. A cursory glance at the W-League over the past five seasons -- indeed, over any league in any nation, men or women -- makes it clear that there's a strong correlation between investment and success.

"But when success becomes an obligation, something unhealthy takes root," Wilson continued.

Because even while Melbourne City light the way forward for women's football in Australia, something unhealthy that has entered into the roots of their success this season. And it can be seen in one particular statistic: The number of significant match minutes given to young and local Australian players.

Over the last 12 seasons of the W-League, the players who have made the biggest impact across various statistical categories have tended to be a) internationals or b) senior Matildas.

These are "benchmark" players; the cream of the crop. The most successful teams across the competition tend to be stacked with a combination of these two groups. This season, Melbourne City are the club to field the largest number of benchmark players (12), so it's no surprise that they've ended it where they have; they are, effectively, the only fully-professional side playing in a semi-professional competition.

These are perhaps the natural growing-pains that all sporting competitions experience. As women's club football evolves, more leagues have "big" clubs -- those that can afford to buy the best players and provide them with the best environments -- float to the top of their respective ladders. We see it in the current W-League season's top four being comprised of Australia's "Big Four" clubs; the clubs with the most memberships, the most recognisable imports, and the biggest financial backing. The problem the competition faces now, though, is that success on this stage is coming at the expense of Australian player development.

We see this when we remove the benchmark players from every team across the 2019-20 W-League season. While Melbourne City fielded four non-benchmark players at some stage, only one -- Emma Checker -- played a significant number of minutes (the cut-off for "significant" being 500 minutes, or roughly half the season).

If the same methodology is applied to the rest of the league, an eerily similar reflection of the end-of-season ladder: Melbourne Victory, who finished second, gave significant minutes to just four non-benchmark players. Sydney FC, who finished third, had six. Western Sydney, who finished fourth, also had six. Perth, who finished seventh, had eight. Adelaide, who finished eighth, had nine. And Newcastle, who finished last, had 12. Brisbane (four players) and Canberra (five players), who finished fifth and sixth respectively, are the odd ones out (though Brisbane's injuries and inconsistent form can account for their ladder position, while Canberra's constant player rotations explains why just five have played more than 500 minutes despite the club having the second-highest number of non-benchmark players in the league).

In other words, while there is a strong correlation between investment and success, there is also a growing correlation between success and a lack of opportunities for non-benchmark players at Australia's top clubs. This is a problem because the W-League is one of the two major women's football competitions that are responsible for developing the next generation of national team players (the other being the state-based National Premier Leagues). If winning becomes the raison d'être of the W-League, the data suggests that it will come at the expense of what should perhaps be the league's ultimate purpose: producing Matildas.

One reason why the W-League has reached this in-between stage, where some clubs have moved away from youth development while others have leaned heavily into it, is that the league still doesn't know what it wants to be. The game's decision-makers are not entirely to blame for this, though; they, like many people involved in women's football around the world, have had to keep up with the rapid transformations the game is experiencing, which has made long-term strategic decisions difficult to make. But the W-League is entering a new stage of its life where it can now plan for the future with some certainty. The future of women's football is in the club space, and while some nations have had a head-start, there is no denying that the next decade will see more domestic leagues -- and, subsequently, the national teams they feed -- grow in strength and stature.

While the W-League may never again be home to Australia's top footballers, that should not preclude it from becoming an environment capable of producing the next crop of them. At the moment, the league's biggest and most lucrative clubs are putting success ahead of development. The question the league now faces is whether that's the road it wants to go down, and whether a better balance ought to be found.

What mechanisms can it build to ensure that the ultimate goal of producing Matildas is central to its workings?

Perhaps it means reducing the number of international roster spots, the introduction of a homegrown player quota, using incentives like national team grants for clubs that produce and give significant minutes to youth national team players, or clubs developing female academy teams to compete in the NPL so that non-benchmark players have consistency and support in the offseason.

Whatever it looks like, Australia's top women's competition must be clear and decisive on who it wants to be and what it wants to do. Because what is the point of winning all these domestic trophies when the biggest trophies of all -- those on the international stage -- are slipping further out of reach?