Does Adelaide Really Play Beautiful Football?

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Tiki-taka. Pass and move. Great stuff to watch. You’ve no doubt heard these phrases bandied around this season in reference to Adelaide United’s performances. Having a former Barcelona youth coach in the ranks tends to distort the imagery of what actually occurs on the pitch. In modern football there is an obsession with playing ‘beautiful football’, often to the detriment of results. A balance between possession and pragmatism is always necessary. Teams need to be able to win different types of games and win them in varying ways.

There is nothing wrong with a pragmatic approach. Keep in mind that the Western Sydney Wanderers won the A-League premiership last season with a system based on solidity and counter attacking prowess, and also defeated the possession hungry Brisbane Roar during the finals series.

Passing the ball and retaining it is not the be all and end all in this league with results taking precedence over possession. If clubs are going to play patient ‘Barca style’ football, it takes skillful players, a willingness to buy into the approach, fitness, great coaching with and without the ball and an element of luck for it to come together. But more than any of those aspects, points are absolutely essential. A side’s position on the ladder defines their success or lack of it. If results are coming the coaching staff are afforded time to implement their ideas and philosophy of the club. If the team is struggling changes are often afoot.

Results have not been good for the reds under Gombau. Defensive frailties, poor conversion rates and a lack of discipline have cost them. If promotion and relegation was present in the A-league, Adelaide would be in real danger this season. United sit just two points off the bottom after nine matches, and have not won since the first round.

Do United have the ‘Barca style’ that so many in the media thought would come with appointing a former La Masia coach? Gombau promised to deliver beautiful football when speaking to The Advertiser earlier this season: “A 1-4-3-3 formation and playing this style, trying to keep possession of the ball to try to play beautiful football for the fans, Adelaide United fans. Everybody will enjoy this style.” Let’s take a closer look at this statement and dissect what Gombau said and how it’s matching up with the reality of United’s performances so far.

“A 1-4-3-3 formation”

Gombau has stuck to his guns in this area and has predominantly played with a 4-3-3. He experimented briefly with a back three but seems to have ditched the idea, for now at least. Cassio’s injury means we could see a return to a back three, with Zullo playing as the left midfielder/wing-back, although there has been no suggestion of this from Gombau so far.

“Trying to keep possession of the ball”

United have kept the ball well at times this season but the reds have still played more long balls than their opponent in every game so far, and they also lead the league in backward passes. On Friday night against the Roar, United repeatedly played the ball around at the back, passed it to Eugene Galekovic in goal, who played it downfield. This pattern of play is what has led to those two passing stats.

Brisbane Roar pressed the United centre-backs well when Galekovic was in possession forcing him to look further up the pitch for an option, but that has not always been the case from Adelaide’s opponents this season. Of course the long ball can be an extremely potent weapon as seen with the Carrusca-Jeronimo interchange during the second half of Friday’s game. But long passes are often most effective when not expected, against a defence that leaves space in behind. Matthew Acton was quick off his line most of the night for the Roar, rendering the ball in behind somewhat redundant.

The reds have a tendency to play the wrong ball at the wrong time so far this season. Hopefully for fans of Adelaide, this is just a case of the players adjusting to life under Gombau and making decisions that aren’t perhaps their first instinct. But United can’t keep playing long balls after periods where they’ve retained possession, because they’re essentially robbing themselves of time in the match with the build up going to waste. If they’re going to go long it needs to happen quicker.

Bruce Djite is a strong target man and when the ball is played in the air towards him, he likes to flick it on for a runner. This is an effective tactic when there are willing runners but the wingers that Adelaide play with are not used to working off a target man, and as such don’t get on the end of his flick-ons. The wingers need to adapt and push inside to make the runs when the ball is headed on by Djite, or Gombau needs to pair Djite with Jeronimo up top.

“Try to play beautiful football for the fans, Adelaide United fans”

The football that Gombau is trying to replicate is undeniably spectacular to watch. But implementing and winning with such a style in a competition like the A-League is very difficult. Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar bucked the trend of championship sides being solid at the back first. They were solid because their midfield was so good at keeping the ball, and they won games because their front-line was dangerous.

The reds are not as good in any area as those Brisbane sides were and to make matters worse they don’t help themselves.Midfield’s a problem area with a lack of a true defensive midfielder as Isaías isn’t strong enough to shield the back four on his own. Marcelo Carrusca has been close to his best at times this season but he needs more runners in central areas to play his passes to. The midfield and front players seem to be a little too far apart at times, certainly too far to create the sort of interchanges that Gombau wants to see from his side.

Gombau has a good squad to work with at United but his insistence for his defenders to play such a high line has come under fire. It has not been working so far although there were some signs of improvement last Friday. Fans of the reds will be hoping improvement continues because if there’s one thing that’s most definitely not beautiful, it’s watching your team concede a preventable goal.

“Everybody will enjoy this style”

This was a very bold and confident statement from Gombau and good to see from a new coach, although it showcases a little naivety on his part. He believed he could walk into Adelaide and have them playing a fantastic brand of football right away perhaps showed his ignorance of the A-League’s nature. An incredibly even competition in almost every season excluding a couple of outstanding or poor teams, the parity between clubs means it is often very difficult for a side to dominate a game in multiple aspects. Perhaps this is why Adelaide always have plenty of possession but comparatively little territory.

Adelaide doesn’t seem to be creating too many clear cut opportunities of late. Yes they scored three goals recently against Melbourne Heart but that was down to large slices of luck in the form of rebounds and deflections. The one golden chance they created in open play on Friday saw Fabio Ferreira denied brilliantly by Acton in the Roar goal, although the Adelaide man arguably should have found the back of the net. This comes back to the lack of runners that Adelaide have from midfield as well as the quality of the final pass. For example, Sergio Cirio was excellent on Friday until it came time for some end product. His crossing wasn’t up to standard and his shooting lacked any semblance of belief.

Adelaide actually looks better when not playing from a position of strength as they pushed for a winner against the Heart, and sought an equaliser against the Roar. The reds attacking intent and desire for a goal meant they played at a higher tempo and looked to play more incisive passes. United could benefit from a slight shift in tempo earlier in games although this could present another problem, with their fitness being called into question this season. Gombau’s assistant Pau Martí has taken over the duties of fitness coach this season and one wonders if a different approach has meant that the reds are not as equipped to last the ninety minutes, especially in dry Australian conditions where Martí has not worked before.

Adelaide United fans might be enjoying some aspects of the side’s play but there is no doubt that they are not satisfied with the defensive mistakes or the sides penchant for giving up late goals, with 10 of their 15 last conceded coming in the final 30 minutes.

What is beautiful football? Is it goals? Results? Work rate? Passing? Skill? Like most things in football it’s a balance. Football cannot be beautiful if the fans are watching their team lose every week. But on the other hand a team that wins every week is not necessarily playing beautiful football. There is no doubt that Adelaide possesses flair and passing ability, but the doubts surrounding fitness and defensive solidity are yet to dissipate. The results have been very poor under Gombau and this means that at least so far, the reds have not played the beautiful football that he promised when taking the job.

Andrew Cussen

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