Five for Round Four

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Will Perth click?

Perth have benefitted from this season’s draw. After playing away to Adelaide in the opening round, they faced the sides that finished 7th, 8th and 9th last season – or, going off the current table, the 8th, 9th and 10th placed sides. It’s in that context that a 0-0 draw with Newcastle and a 1-0 win over Melbourne Heart can be considered slightly disappointing: with their youth-driven recruitment drive and the promise of Alistair Edward’s more proactive style of play (at least compared to Iain Ferguson’s direct tactics), there were great expectations surrounding their fortunes this season.

In fairness though, it’s only been three games, which is still ample time to assess how they’ll setup this season. Edwards’ preference for 4-2-3-1 is patently obvious, as is his preferred front six: Steven McGarry and Jacob Burns have started as the central midfield pairing in all three fixtures, and the attacking quartet is similarly predictable. You get the feeling, too, that you can quite comfortably predict the back four, especially once William Gallas is fit to play.

A surprising development has been their tendency to sit off out of possession in two solid banks of four. Edwards might simply be focusing on structure and organisation in the early weeks of the season, but he’s faced three of the A-League’s relatively weaker sides: you might have expected a bit more ambition. It certainly hasn’t suited his son and central playmaker, Ryan Edwards, who’s struggled to get on the ball and influence matches.

A struggling Sydney might be an ideal time to loosen the shackles. Off the back of the first three points of the season, in front of a new grandstand, a home crowd, against a disorganised, disjointed side and with Shane Smeltz set to return off the bench – this match could be a tipping point for the new look Glory.

Franjic the jack of all trades

In Shane Brady’s ‘The Far Post’ column for the Sydney Morning Herald this week he argued who he believed would be the starting eleven for next year’s World Cup. Most of the inclusions were reasonable, aside from the fact the side featured one natural central midfielder, and the fact he made specific mention of Ivan Franjic as having “taken his game to a new level as an attacking fullback for the Roar this season.”

Many people are calling for Franjic to be part of Ange Postecoglou’s new look Socceroos, but it’s worth pointing out he’s yet to even play right-back this season. Quite remarkably, the 26 year old has undergone a positional renaissance under Mike Mulvey, starting when he was only moved forward into right-wing because of an injury crisis.

Yet unlike what you’d expect from most right-backs moved forward, he was an inspired attacking threat (although, in fairness, Franjic is one of the best overlapping full-backs in the league). He was pivotal to the side’s late revival, and featured there this season in the 4-0 thumping of Sydney FC – but he wasn’t an out-and-out winger, instead varying his movement so that he drifted into clever playmaking positions between the lines. It speaks of an intelligence and versatility that wasn’t so obvious at full-back.

It’s not just down that right flank he’s impressed, though, and Franjic turned in a fine performance in the opening round against Wellington. Again, he changed his approach to suit the new position, constantly moving towards the channels and driving forward purposefully; he scored a late winner with a clever run from deep. After Luke Brattan’s injury against Melbourne Victory, he moved into a deeper, holding role, making it three different positions in three games this season. The fact he’s played well in all three speaks volumes of his talent.

Victory weaknesses?

The first, and obvious, weakness, is the change in coach. Ange Postecoglou’s departure was pre-empted by the widespread agreement that his assistant, Kevin Muscat, would succeed him as Victory coach. The new Socceroos boss endorsed the idea.

“He’s done his apprenticeship and worked very hard this last 18 months,” Postecoglou said last week. “We’ve spoken a lot about young players these last few days, it’s no different with coaches, at some point you’ve got to throw them in there.” Unsurprisingly, Muscat was confirmed as Thursday.

In theory, it’s the ideal way to ensure continuity and Muscat has naturally pledged to build on the existing style. “I believe I was integral in implementing the football philosophy (here) at the moment and I intend to improve that as time goes on,” he said at Thursday’s press conference. It’s refreshing news – the Victory play some of the best football in the A-League at their peak and their unique formation has provided the most tactical interest this season.

However, as always, as there are strengths to the systems, there are weaknesses. There is no formation that can effectively cover all the space and in the 4-2-2-2 the largest gaps often appear between the wingers and the full-backs. There’s a reason for this: by keeping the advanced players high up the pitch, they’re already naturally in the position for a quick transition when the ball was turned over. It does, mean, though that Jason Geria and Adama Traore can be vulnerable to opponents who receive possession in space in front of them and have the freedom to dribble directly at their marker, as Brisbane sporadically threatened to do so last Friday. It’ll be interesting to see if opposition coaches look to exploit this vulnerability.

Merrick’s new Muscat

The Wellington Phoenix’s clash against Melbourne Victory is also made fascinating by the reunion between Ernie Merrick and Muscat, the latter having been captain for the former’s six year reign in Melbourne. In fact, Merrick tipped Muscat as a future coach the day he retired.

“He has technical knowledge and his ability to communicate and get the most out of people is first-class,” said the Scotsman. “He’ll be an outstanding coach and I’m sure somewhere down the track he will be coach of Melbourne Victory.” Inevitably, the prediction proved true.

Somewhat strangely though, Merrick’s continued to have a Muscat in his side since taking over the Phoenix – although Manny is no relation to Kevin. They share an unnerving similarity in their style of play, however, even if the latter is a midfielder whereas the new Victory coach was a defender (it’s worth noting, mind, that Manny was originally signed in 2008 as a defender). Weirdly, both have also represented Sunshine George Cross and share a Maltese heritage.

They’re also both aggressive, combative players, and it was rather amusing to see the Phoenix Muscat perform a series of cynical, tactical fouls in the opening round against Brisbane, much like Kevin did in his playing days. Merrick clearly likes this kind of no-nonsense, tough approach, and Muscat’s tackling in the centre of midfield has proven a useful platform for the more creative Carlos Hernandez – much like the Costa Rican benefitted from Kevin’s hard defending back when they played together at the Victory.

Wanderers could exploit Zullo

The first match of the weekend – now, crucially, the free-to-air match for the round – is a rematch of one of the great games of the last A-League season, when Western Sydney hit their stride to run rampant against Adelaide United, triggering the Reds’ slide towards a chaotic second half of the season.

It’s unlikely it’ll be quite so one-sided. Josep Gombau’s new system isn’t necessarily less attacking than John Kosmina’s, but it’s certainly more structured than the at-times comical ‘chaos’ formation he deployed, and feels far more capable with dealing with the Wanderers counter-attacking threat. However, there is a clear area of advantage for the home side, down their right flank. It has long been a strength but twice now in consecutive games against Wellington and Sydney FC it’s been key to them taking an early lead, with Jerome Polenz overlapping the clever Youssouf Hersi (although the Dutchman is injured for this one), as well as Shinji Ono and Tomi Juric drifting across to that side.

Last week against the Mariners, Michael Zullo struggled up against Nick Fitzgerald: he was repeatedly drawn towards the winger’s infield positioning, which opened up space in behind for Mitchell Duke to collect passes into the channels from deep. Zullo might again struggle against another side that has a particular bias towards their right

Tim Palmer

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