Adelaide United’s start to the season has not been filled with the beautiful flowing football that many had imagined, and in the case of coach Josep Gombau, who’s promised to deliver. Instead the reds have suffered from a lack of organisation at the back, incisiveness at times, as well as being profligate in front of goal.
If we start looking at the back first, United have one of the A-League’s best keepers in Eugene Galekovic, with his shot stopping and distribution both being top notch. However he has been left over exposed this season, with goals conceded often as a result of poor marking (or in the case of the Perth game in round six, non-existent marking).
Players being played out of position ahead of proven defenders (example: Osama Malik over Anthony Golec) is costing Adelaide. Malik is primarily a holding midfielder who shields his back four effectively when deployed in his natural role. He is not however someone who can play at centre-back on an ongoing basis. Golec is a natural centre-back, who has yet to play a single minute this season, despite being fit.
Before the season began, Gombau stated: “We want to work with the local and youth players so in the future we can play the A-league with them inside the team”. This statement must be called into question when considering Jordan Elsey has seen limited game time, playing just 26 minutes so far this season. With Malik protecting the 19-year-old in front, and with the guidance of veteran Galekovic in goal, he could blossom and fill a need for United.
Another issue is Gombau’s insistence on playing a high defensive line in an attempt to always give the man in possession a short option. Centre-back’s Jon McKain and Nigel Boogard are not the paciest duo in the league and have often been exposed when up against quick strikers. This lack of pace can also be said of Malik when he has played in central defence, who also looks unsure of his positioning. If Archie Thompson timed his runs better in round two, he could have filled his boots against United. Adam Taggart profited from the space in behind during round five, as did Kosta Barbarouses in round seven.
Tarek Elrich and Michael Zullo have both been found out defensively this season, with Elrich culpable for both goals conceded against Western Sydney in round four. Elrich allowed Tomi Juric to open up space for an effort on goal with his stronger right foot, and also failed to attack the cross that Juric scored the winner from. He was also the man Archie Thompson kept getting goalside of in round two. Zullo’s attacking threat has been a great positive for United so far although he has often been forced into a more central position when defending crosses. This is due to the central defenders inability to deal with aerial balls meaning Zullo’s man is left open when he’s forced inside, creating another problem for Adelaide’s defence.
The final problem with a high defensive line is Galekovic. A superb shot stopper, at 32 years of age he is in his prime as a keeper, but not as a sweeper. His skill in distribution suits Gombau’s preferred passing style, but the high line provides him with a distinct lack of protection. This was clear for all to see during Adelaide’s round 8 matchup with Melbourne Heart, where United could have conceded four of five by half time.
Have the reds been that bad defensively this season? The stats suggest they have. Zero clean sheets this season and tied for the most goals conceded along with the hapless Melbourne Heart does not make for good reading, especially for a side whose minimum target each season is the top 6 and a finals berth.
But delve deeper into United’s results under Gombau and a worrying trend appears. Adelaide played a total of ten pre-season matches, with six of these against state league opposition. While winning some of these games very comfortably, United kept just two clean sheets during these hit outs. Of the four games against fellow A-League sides, United failed to keep a single clean sheet. Sunday’s game with Melbourne Heart marked twelve games running now in which the reds have conceded.
Adelaide conceded 37 goals during the 2012/13 regular season. This total put them 5th in the league, and they also had the 5th best goal difference. United finished about where the stats say they should’ve, in 4th place. They currently have the 2nd worst goal difference and sit 3rd from bottom, four points off the Mariners in 6th place, although Central Coast have a game in hand.
When combining last season’s defensive stats and the results under Gombau, one can see that there has been a significant change in Adelaide’s solidity. The A-League season is a very short one when compared to most leagues around the world and the reds need to address their issues at the back before it’s too late.
Moving further up the pitch, Jeronimo Neumann is top scorer so far this season for the reds, finding the back of the net three times so far. However the Argentinean frontman has as poor a record away from home as one could have – he has never scored for Adelaide on the road. Of his three goals, one came about from a lucky deflection and the other as a result of a goalkeeping mistake. Neumann’s total of 26 efforts on goal is the highest number in the league. He has not scored for six games running.
Jeronimo is by no means the only United player struggling to find his shooting boots. Adelaide have hit the target just 37 times in seven games, from a total of 103 attempts. In other words, the reds work the opposition goalkeeper roughly 4.5 times per game, not enough for a side with the attacking flair that they possess.
The reds also seem to have benefited hugely from slices of luck this season, having scored a large number of their goals from rebounds and deflections. If this luck turns, who do United look to for goals? Jeronimo does his best work with a partner up front, but there are questions over Bruce Djite’s pedigree, as well as his suitability to Gombau’s style.
An important issue that affects United’s goalscoring is their distinct lack of creativity in the final third. Only Jeronimo has more than one assist so far this season for the reds, and his assist for Marcelo Carrusca away to the Wanderers was hardly intentional, coming from a deflected shot. This suggests the likes of Carrusca and Sergio Cirio have not been as effective as Adelaide need them to be.
Despite this lack of penetration, the talented Awer Mabil has yet to start a game this season. The only time Mabil has played more than 32 minutes was against Melbourne Victory, and that was as a sub after an early injury to Daniel Bowles. Mabil was also left on the bench against Newcastle when United were chasing an equaliser. Awer is a pacey, direct player who gives the reds a different option out wide, and it is a wonder that he hasn’t featured more often this season.
Adelaide’s players seem to have taken Gombau’s mantra of ‘playing out from the back’ quite literally. In three games out of eight this season they have failed to dominate territory. Once against a 10-man Victory side, in their clash with Newcastle, a game in which they were forced out of their shell by virtue of going 2-0 down, and against a deflated Melbourne Heart, who were content to sit deep in the first half. A lack of confidence or an inability to control midfield have let United down in this area. Perhaps both.
Do they really play great football? On Sunday, United played twice as many long balls as Melbourne Heart. In fact, the reds have played more long balls than their opponent in every game this season. When you account for their defensive woes, surely this is not ‘great’ football for Adelaide fans to watch.
Six games without a win would dent the confidence of any side, especially one with a new coach and a new playing system. Adding players in positions they aren’t entirely comfortable with and new imports trying to adjust to the league, and Adelaide United could be headed down a slippery slope. Adelaide’s fans are patient when it comes to results, but Gombau’s side seem intent to test that patience. Throwing away a two goal lead against Melbourne Heart has certainly not helped. A huge game against Brisbane Roar looms on Friday night, and Adelaide must show improvement or it could be a very difficult season for them.