Twists, turns, and Tilio: Melbourne City thump Western United to keep on rolling

Sometimes, games of football provide their audiences with very little to remember them by, 90 minutes coming and going with nary an echo left on one’s consciousness. Yet on other occasions, games have so much going on that it’s difficult to determine which of its many narrative threads does merit the most attention in its aftermath. 

Melbourne City’s 4-0 win over Western United? The latter. For what does one focus on first after all that?

Perhaps it’s City moving six points clear with a game in hand atop the ALM table just over a third of the way through the season, threatening to make the race for the Premiers’ Plate increasingly resemble a fait accompli? Mayhaps it’s Jamie Maclaren extending his national league record by netting in his 10th straight game, taking his overall tally for the season to 13, and closing the gap between himself and Besart Berisha atop the A-Leagues all-time goalscoring chart to nine.

Conversely, for a more depressing tale, it could be Leo Lacroix’s disastrous night at the office (another one) that featured an own goal and, at times, a performance that looked laconic and haphazard — despite having four Soocceroo attackers bearing down on him. More broadly, it could be United’s nascent sense of momentum and defensive fortitude being snuffed out in a ruthless opening 25 minutes from City.

A lot to cover. But it somewhat feels churlish to commence with anything other than Marco Tilio’s star turn. 

The 21-year-old was superb against his local rivals, opening the scoring in just the ninth minute of play when he grabbed a loose pass from Connor Pain near the halfway line, darted forward, rounded Lacroix with a casual, almost insulting ease, and then placed a ball into the net. It was quite a nice goal; indicative of the way he approached things across the 90.

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After starting the season relegated to the bench, Tilio has now entrenched himself in the plans of Rado Vidosic. Starting alongside Maclaren and Mat Leckie, the threat he brings on the win is one of the more dangerous in the competition.

Yet, given his tender age, that comes with its own price, literally. As his technical ability continues to grow and refine and he logs more and more senior minutes, the questions of when the youngster heads overseas increasingly loom large. 

January transfer windows now opening up again, if City wants to cash in while they’ve got that ready-made replacement on the bench – who added an 85th-minute cherry on the sundae on Saturday – in Andrew Nabbout.

Certainly even if not now, there are few realistic scenarios in which the youngster is still on the books of City at the start of 2023/24 that don’t involve some kind of injury. Remember, City has form: they sold Connor Metcalfe to FC St Pauli with the understanding that he’d see out the season last year.

Marco Tilio beats Leo Lacroix before putting City up 1-0
Image Credit: Network Ten

“You need to ask Mr Petrillo,” Vidosic said of transfer interest in Tilio, referring to City’s football director Michael Petrillo. “There will always be interest in some of our young players as long as they play and they play well. 

“Tilio has been fantastic this season. He has contributed enormously. He’s been rewarded with a World Cup trip. He’s a very smart kid, his feet are on the ground and he knows that his future is very bright. There’s no need to rush. 

“Sometimes for young players, it’s better to go overseas when they’re ready to play in the starting XI, so they don’t have to sit on the bench or play for the second team. 

“It’s better to play here, dominate your games, score goals and enjoy your game here before you head off.”

And what of Maclaren’s future?

The striker again batted away questions about if he wanted to make another go of things in Europe mid-week, declaring that he had a contract until the end of next season, and he’s made no secret of how much he enjoys living and playing in his hometown of Melbourne. 

But with a fourth-straight ALM golden boot already looking a near certainty, what else is there for the 29-year-old to accomplish in the competition? He hasn’t played in a winning grand final yet – in hotel quarantine when City won in 2020-21 – and is yet to make any kind of deep run in Asian competition with the club but, beyond that, there’s very little on the footballing side of things to counteract any lingering desires to give it another go around after short stints in Scotland and Germany. 

“He’s our key player. He’s our key goalscorer,” said Vidosic. “He’s been overseas, he’s experienced that. He’s playing in the form of his life. He’s chasing records. So I don’t think that that would be on his mind. 

Maclaren’s 24th-minute effort made it 3-0 against United, the hitman collecting a well-placed cutback from Tilio and, after taking a touch, burying it into the bottom corner of the net. He has now scored more goals than five other ALM sides this season and is level with Macarthur FC. 

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City’s second goal, though, in contrast, the one sandwiched between Tilio and Maclaren, wasn’t scored by a player in blue at all – Lacroix instead getting the ball tied up in his legs as he attempted to defend a Leckie cross and turned it into his net. It was the Swiss defender’s third own goal of the season and, given that he’s missed two games with suspension, that means that one third of his appearances have featured an own goal.

Beyond that, after being one of the most dominant defenders the ALM had ever seen in United’s title-winning campaign, he’s been a shadow the force he was across his side’s opening eleven games. Rumours that the 30-year-old wanted a move away swirled during the offseason after an automatic extension clause was activated in his contract. In these situations, questions are going to be asked.

“It’s hard for me to say what’s going on with the individual because I don’t live with them, I don’t see what they do day to day,” Aloisi said when probed on his defender’s drop in form.

“But it’s plain and easy to see that certain individuals aren’t at their best like they were last season and Leo is one of them – he’ll be open and honest about that. 

“He’s been training pretty well. There are no knocks or anything like that. There was a knock a couple of weeks ago that he got but he recovered from that pretty well. So no, nothing too major

“You just have to try and work with them, make sure that they’re doing the right things in training, keep on working hard on the basics in training and then once you do that, then normally, with a couple of good performances you can turn it around pretty quick. 

“If you’re at a level and you’ve got that level, especially an older player, they can turn it around quicker than a younger player because the younger player doesn’t know how to get out of it.”

Nonetheless, a shadow could perhaps not just describe Lacroix’s play, but United’s season as a whole to this point. This was a team that rode a defence that would bend but almost always refused to break to a title last season. Now, they’re getting blown out of the water by City – who didn’t beat them once in 2021-22 – and have conceded 23 times this season, four more than the next ‘best’ Sydney FC. 

Any hopes that their post-World Cup break three-game undefeated run in which they conceded just once was the signal of a turnaround has now been blasted… four times. 

“We made two bad errors that cost us,” said Aloisi. “We did that in the first game against them and we didn’t learn our lesson. Two bad errors. We live with them for the first 20-25 minutes, I think we’re going to be well and truly in that game. 

“We saw in the second half, and I commend the boys because they didn’t drop their heads, they play their football in the second half.

“Give credit to them because they’re a top side, when we made our mistakes, they punished us, when we pressed them on the ball in areas, we didn’t punish them in the first half and then they’re a good side, they get their confidence up and then they start to move the ball quickly and they score a third but we lost the game those first 10 minutes.”

For City, the train keeps rolling. After a slip-up in his first game in charge after stepping in as an interim, Vidosic has got the team rolling in his way. They look like they’re enjoying their football and, frankly, the rest of the league doesn’t look capable of catching them. 

“We’ve been giving them more autonomy to make decisions on the park and I think they’ve been rewarding us with their performances and their decisions,” said the City boss. 

“Hopefully by the end of the season, we’re going to be seeing much more dominant performances throughout the whole 90 minutes.”

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Header Image Credit: Network Ten

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