In-form hitman Jamie Maclaren's extended spell on the sidelines is set to present Melbourne City Head Coach Erick Mombaerts with his biggest challenge since he arrived in Bundoora.
Maclaren was in career-best form before suffering a small tear to his hamstring in City’s 2-1 win over Western United on Sunday, finding the back of the net 14 times in just 10 games across the FFA Cup, A-League and international duty with the Socceroos.
However, with the club confirming on Monday morning that the 26-year-old will be forced to spend between 4-5 weeks on the sideline with an injury, the scramble will be on at the City Football Academy to try to find a means of replacing their injured striker’s production.
Ultimately, it will have to be a whole-team effort to replace Maclaren, no other player at City having found the back of the net so far during the 2019/20 A-League season but, assuming that Mombaerts continues to ride the hot hand and keep Craig Noone out wide on the wing, there are a number of options he could turn to in order to fill the void up front.
Deployed on the left-wing in City’s 2-1 win over United on Sunday, young Wales has already deputised for Maclaren in the number nine role during 2019/20 when he served as the tip of the spear in City’s goalless draw with Melbourne Victory in round one.
The 22-year-old was also deployed as a centre forward ten times under former Head Coach Warren Joyce during the 2018/19 A-League season, scoring three goals, and his defensive work rate would seemingly fit the pressing demands that Mombaerts has of his players.
Questions, however, would arise on the youngster’s ability to shoulder the scoring load for City in the coming weeks, with Wales looking out-of-sorts in possession against United.
Javier Cabrera and Adrian Luna
City’s two Uruguayan imports missed Sunday’s win over United – Luna dropped to the bench and Cabrera not risked after picking up a calf injury – but both could be called upon by Mombaerts to play as a false nine in the absence of Maclaren.
Though primarily deployed out wide with Mexican side C.D. Veracruz during 18/19, Luna did deputise as a forward or second striker on occasion, while Cabrera was touted as having the ability to play centrally when he signed with City at the beginning of the season.
Veterans of many seasons across their South American homelands, Mexico and Spain, the duo would likely be the least likely to crumble under the pressure of replacing Maclaren, but neither has set the world on fire since their arrival in Australia.
The most obvious like-for-like swap, Najjar is the only other out-and-out striker on the books of City’s A-League side and would bring the same high energy, pressing style to City’s attack that Maclaren provides.
Making a 20-minute cameo against Victory in round one of the season in what was just his third-ever senior A-League appearance, Najjar has yet to have a sustained run at it at A-League level; most of his production coming in the ranks of City’s NPL and Y-League sides.
The 19-year-old found the back of the net seven times in six games for City’s Y-League side during the 2018/19 season and followed that up with 10 goals in 15 games in the 2019 NPL2 Victoria season.
Nonetheless, the youngster's ability to make the leap represents an unknown for Mombaerts, one he – if previous A-League trends are indicative – may be disinclined to take with other, veteran players available.
Dropped for the game against Western United, Najjarine started against Adelaide in round two of the season before being substituted by Mombaerts due to concerns over defensive work rate and was then restricted to a late substitute appearance against the Reds in the FFA Cup Final.
Though he is undoubtedly more comfortable out on the wing, a move into the middle of the park would provide Najjarine with slightly less defensive work to do and empower him to tap into the creative, attacking prowess that made him such a hot prospect.
The Young Socceroo found the back of the net 13 times in 14 appearances for City’s NPL2 Victoria side in 2019, so while it’s unlikely, the 19-year-old could fill in in a pinch.
If Momaerts is really looking to mix things up – or gets desperate enough – there are a number of highly rated, uncapped youth players that could serve as attacking options in the coming weeks.
Stefan Colakovski, 19, though normally deployed on the wing, has on occasion been deployed as a striker by City’s youth sides in the past, has already featured on the bench for the senior side this season and appears ready to make his first senior appearance in some capacity.
Gianluca Iannucci, 18 – the kid from Cobram – was also deployed as a number nine on a number of occasions by City NPL Head Coach Petr Kratky during the 2019 season and carries a Young Socceroos pedigree.
Raphael Borges Rodrigues, 16 – the son of former Adelaide United import Cristiano – was recently awarded a scholarship contract after he impressed City staff in training during the early months pre-season.
And young striker Sam Morrison has made a miraculous recovery from a sickening leg break suffered during the 2019 NPL2 Victoria season, but will likely remain focused on returning to play during the upcoming Y-League season.