Wanderers' unsung hero

Western Sydney Wanderers' flying start to the 2015-16 Hyundai A-League season has understandably caught the eye, with Tony Popovic's men winning six matches in a row.

With Popovic instilling a more attacking, possession-based style of football this term, there has been understandable focus on the influence of midfield recruits Mitch Nichols, Andreu and Dimas.

The impact of that trio and other close-season arrivals cannot be underestimated but it is the revival of one of the old brigade that may be critical to the Wanderers' A-League title bid.

Mark Bridge - an inaugural squad member at Western Sydney and leading goal-scorer in their maiden season of 2012-13 - is perhaps in the form of his life.

The 30-year-old has only started three games this season but his side have won each of them.

A groin injury suffered in the FFA Cup round of 16 saw Bridge miss the opening two matches of the campaign, while he was a late withdrawal on November 29 against Central Coast Mariners.

But on Saturday night, Bridge returned to strike the opening goal against Brisbane Roar as the Wanderers triumphed 2-1 to claim top spot in the A-League.

It was his third goal in as many appearances.

Form of his life

Bridge has not only brought goals to the Wanderers' play this season, with the versatile attacker also chipping in with two assists.

In fact, with just 316 minutes on the pitch in 2015-16, Bridge has been involved in a goal every 63 minutes.

When Bridge led Western Sydney for goals with 11 in 2012-13 - his greatest A-League haul - he only managed a goal involvement every 180 minutes.

In 2013-14 (every 268 minutes) and 2014-15 (every 327 minutes) he was even less involved.

At this rate, if Bridge played every minute of the Wanderers remaining 18 games, he would finish the season with 18 goals and 12 assists.


What makes Bridge such an important piece in Popovic's puzzle is the multitude of roles he can fill.

Against the Roar, Bridge started up front with marquee striker Federico Piovaccari (groin) on the sidelines, while in his other two starts he lined up at left wing.

The former Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets forward can also play on the right and in behind the centre-forward.

Wherever Popovic plays Bridge, he has the ability to influence the match.

If Popovic wants to focus on sharp passing to break down a stubborn opponent, Bridge can lead the line in front of a technical trio of Nichols, Romeo Castelen and Dario Vidosic.

If a defensive midfield trio is called for, Bridge can start wide but drift inside to create, while also remaining disciplined in defence - arguably more so than Castelen or Vidosic.

And if Popovic wants to go for all-out attack, Piovaccari or Brendon Santalab can provide the focal point, while Bridge can mix and match his role as an ancillary striker and/or alternate number 10 alongside Nichols.

Frederico Piovaccari and Mark Bridge celebrate combining for Western Sydney's opener at Pirtek Stadium.

Injury record

Despite his red-hot form, Bridge is likely to be managed this season.

Having ticked into his 30s, Bridge has reached the part of his career where injuries can strike more regularly.

Last season, an ankle injury from the 2013-14 A-League finals series, plus a long-term groin problem suffered in March saw Bridge miss large chunks of games.

Bridge's groin remains a concern, and it would not be surprising if Popovic took a safety-first approach with his versatile attacker to ensure the big-game player is ready for a likely finals campaign.

Bridge has scored in two successful A-League grand finals with Newcastle and Sydney, while his class has also shone through in the AFC Champions League (ACL) with the Wanderers.

In 13 ACL games in red and black, Bridge has scored four goals and set up another three.

If Western Sydney reach the A-League season decider on May 1, do not be surprised if Bridge makes a vital impact.