Real or Not: Momentum is a factor going into A-League Men's finals

You can measure almost everything in football these days. From the ground a player covers, the expected goals and assists they record, or the amount of sweat they lose, almost every aspect of the modern game is quantifiable and analysed to the nth degree. This isn't a bad thing, by any means. Much as it may stick in the craw of those stuck in the Jurassic, advanced statistics are here to stay and, undoubtedly, are at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of what's possible on a pitch.

But they're not the be-all and end-all.

Football, for now at least, is still played by people and with that comes all the fallibility and failings that accompany dealing with humanity. For every piece of physical and statistical analysis that can go into predicting outcomes, there are thousands of abstract concepts that, with no prior warning, can conspire to throw them out the window.

And in a sporting sense, none of the intangible factors seemingly carries as much importance as momentum.

This weekend, Adelaide United and Central Coast Mariners will each enter the A-League Men finals riding a five-game winning streak, while Melbourne Victory commence their campaign on a 15-game undefeated run -- the longest such roll in the club's history.

Third-placed Western United, conversely, enter their elimination final against Wellington Phoenix winless in three games -- not the form you want to take into a clash against a club you have beaten only once in your (admittedly short) history. The Nix, for their part, have lost three of their past five games, and both of their wins were smash-and-grab jobs against a poor Western Sydney Wanderers.

Melbourne City, seeking to become the first side to record back-to-back in A-Leagues premiership and championship doubles, inexplicably lost to Perth Glory in their penultimate fixture of the regular season and, by their own admission, put in a performance with room for improvement in their win over the Phoenix on Monday.

Now, inevitably, something must give on both sides of this form equation: Western United or the Phoenix, on Saturday, will arrest their backsliding form with the invigorating elixir that is a finals win, while Adelaide or the Mariners will have their fairytale run snapped in the do-or-die elimination final at Hindmarsh Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

So what, exactly is the benefit of going into finals with all the momentum of a runaway freight train?

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The simplest explanation is that there simply isn't any, and the concept is a silly superstition in which correlation is confused with causation. Generally, the better team on the day is able to take the victory or, at the very least, avoid defeat; so it logically follows that the best teams win more games than they lose.

That Ange Postecoglou's 2010-11 championship-winning Brisbane Roar entered the finals on a 25-game unbeaten run, for example, probably had less to do with the catching fire and more to do with the fact that they were one of the best teams in ALM history. Likewise, Graham Arnold's 2016-17 championship-winning Sydney FC side didn't enter the playoffs with just one loss all season because they rode a wave, but more because, outside one February evening at Stadium Australia, none of their foes could lay a glove on them.

Simple enough, and it goes some way to explaining why Victory are riding their 15-game undefeated streak: They're simply one of ALM's best sides this year.

But as with any discarnate quality in football, the significant role that the mental side of the game is increasingly recognised to hold means that correlating factors, once identified, can swiftly be harnessed into legitimate causational ones.

"It has to play a part in it," Central Coast veteran Matt Simon, who was also a member of that dominating 2016-17 Sydney FC side, told ESPN.

"Momentum is great for confidence; being positive in the way you play and confident in how you play.

"The times at Sydney and this year at the Mariners, it becomes a habit, a habit of winning. It plays a role in when you go out you're feeling confident and you know you're going to win."

Victory skipper Josh Brillante, another part of 2016-17's ultimate realisation of Arnieball, also acknowledges that momentum is something that can impact teams, giving them something extra upstairs.

Should Western United defeat Wellington on Saturday evening, his side will also benefit from another intangible that is impossible to measure but incapable of being denied: Vocal support born from his side not needing to leave Melbourne for their entire finals run.

"[Momentum] is super important," Brillante said. "It's off the back of performances and that's what gives you confidence going into games. You never know what's going to happen in finals so you need to be consistent. You know what you're going to get out of your teammates and what you're capable of doing if you go 1-0 down and are able to come back in games. In finals, that's a difference that you need.

"It's [also] a massive advantage if we don't have to travel anywhere. We can play on the stadium that we've always played on, and it feels like a home game for us. We'll have all our fans here."

Form, thus, would seem a genuine benefit to teams. Not because it possesses some intrinsic quality of its own, but more that it imbues players with a level of confidence and belief that allows them to tap into their existing reservoirs of talent and, therefore, begets improved performance. Winning, in other words, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So with this in mind, should a line be drawn through City, Western United, and the Phoenix? Is the title Victory's, the Mariners' or Adelaide's to lose? Well, no.

As Simon and Brillante were quick to point out, confidence can't help a team if players doesn't execute in the manner they needs to. One only needs to ask Brillante's coach, Tony Popovic, how his 2012-13 Western Sydney Wanderers fared in the grand final after entering the playoffs having won 11 of their previous 12 regular-season games to know that form isn't the be-all and end-all of things. Spoiler alert, they lost 2-0 to Central Coast.

On the flip side, defending champions City entered last year's finals winless in three games and losing key contributors to international duty, yet still they lifted their first championship trophy in club history.

"[Finals] are a different environment," City captain Scott Jamieson said. "These games are different. There's a knife-edge to things, because the mistake you make could cost you. And everyone is aware of that. Whereas in league games, there's always next week. If you're making big mistakes it's going to cost you dearly.

"I don't think it necessarily sits at the front of people's minds that momentum is great. I don't think that matters to the players; that's more of a storyline. Those who adapt best to the situation on that day go through."

Western United coach John Aloisi adds. "Everyone says that if you're in good form you normally take it into the finals, but I've also seen teams that have come from nowhere and all of a sudden gone and win it. Streaks come to an end. The Mariners and Adelaide are in really good form... but someone's streak has to end."

Form, it therefore appears, might be more important for a team in the regular season than in the finals. If winning is to become a habit, it logically follows that it benefits a team in a competition that rewards sustained excellence.

In finals, where one error or one moment of brilliance can be the difference between a season surviving or ending, its importance can be diminished -- secondary to individual quirks or skill and fate.

But in a close game, where teams are evenly matched and in need of any advantage they can get, it's a factor that cannot be discounted. Belief, sometimes, can move mountains.