Five for Round Three

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Wanderers right-sided attacks
Youssouf Hersi was one of the A-League’s best players last season, with a tremendous work rate combining nicely with an ability to beat defenders one on one, making him perfect for the right flank of Tony Popovic’s 4-2-3-1. He was so good at tracking back to protect Jerome Polenz, but also making himself available as an out-ball for counter-attacks, he quickly became their most important player. His suspension from the Grand Final robbed the Wanderers of their most consistent source of creativity.

It has been evolution rather than revolution in Popovic’s second season and while he will have been concerned with his side’s slight over reliance on Hersi last season, he also knows how effective it can be. Subsequently, a noticeable feature of their first two games has been a significant bias towards their right flank when attacking. Against the Phoenix, Jerome Polenz stormed past Kenny Cunningham on multiple occasions inside the opening half-hour, increasing the pressure on Wellington’s back four and leading indirectly to the opening goal – scored, rather ironically, by Polenz.

It wasn’t just the full-back’s contribution, Shinji Ono also tended to drift towards the right hand side. Whilst Tomi Juric showed terrific awareness in his bustling hold-up play: twice he used his body to shield the ball from a Phoenix defender, before sliding a neat ball into the channels for Hersi to chase. That sort of combination play can only grow more prominent as the understanding between players develops as the season goes on.

Can Sydney do it without Del Piero?

While Hersi was the Wanderers most important player last season, they retained a varied threat. Something Sydney FC can’t claim when assessing their reliance on Alessandro Del Piero. While it’s difficult for a side not to become dependent on their best player, especially when the player is as good as the brilliant Italian, but the way team fell apart in his absence against Brisbane is instructive of his importance to the side.

Sydney FC play sometimes feel like the play of U11′s  at a local park, when one kid is clearly better than the rest and makes the difference simply because his teammates always pass the ball to him. Frank Farina (or, should we say Rado Vidosic?) devised a plan over the pre-season to not only get the best out of Del Piero, but also instil a team structure upon what has often been a shambolic Sydney FC outfit. When it came to the opening game, however, it all became reliant on Del Piero once more, who wandered all across the pitch from his number nine role to collect possession and promptly scored and assisted the two decisive goals. Sydney, by contrast, were toothless without him against Brisbane.

It doesn’t augur well for the weekend’s Derby against the Wanderers. Although he’s on the bench, Farina’s admitted he’s unlikely to feature, and has instead said Nicky Carle will move forward from deep midfield to replace the captain. Whether that means Carle will play as the nominal striker or if it has triggered a change in formation remains to be seen, but more importantly, Sydney will be keen to show there’s life beyond Del Piero. Even a year after his arrival, that remains to be seen.

Gombau won’t change strategy

The suggestion from Fox Sports commentary last Friday that other teams “might copy the Gombau template” was a ridiculous example of overreaction. It’d be downright stupid to think that one game is enough to assess the success of the Spaniard in bringing the Barcelona template to South Australia. However, it’s easy to see where the comment came from. After all, the principles of dominating possession, working the ball forwards with short, neat passing at a high tempo and getting creative players on the ball in the final third are easy on the eye, and the opening round win over Perth was certainly a showcase of attractive, attacking football.

The consequence of Gombau’s style is you must take risks, and Adelaide’s ludicrously high line against Melbourne Victory illustrates the associated perils. Time and time again Archie Thompson got in behind their back four, and although the home side scored twice, they came against the run of play – in all other aspects of the game, the Victory dominated.

It seemed though, for all the repeated warnings that Gombau didn’t want his side to drop deep – half-time, for example, would’ve been an ideal time to change approach. Instead, Adelaide came out and continued to defend effectively with their back four sitting on halfway. Gombau’s spoken at length about how, in broad terms, results are secondary to the goal of creating Adelaide’s “identity”.

For him allowing his side to abandon their high line would have felt like an admission of defeat. Although they did eventually collapse into their own penalty area, that was probably more due to context rather than coach’s instructions, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them continue to play in that same dicey vein against the Central Coast Mariners.

Heart’s focus on defence

Last season, rather paradoxically, the large amount of sides pledging to play a proactive brand of football – few coaches admitted this, but because they were inspired by the Roar’s success – actually increased the chances of an organised, counter-attacking side being successful.

It’s one thing to indirectly say you’ll play like Brisbane, another thing entirely to actually do it. So many sides struggled to grasp the nuances of possession with penetration, the Western Sydney Wanderers’ high-tempo counter-attacking system worked far more effectively than even Tony Popovic could have imagined.

Again, you won’t hear many coaches say this out loud, but the Wanderers success will have led to some tactical reshuffling across the board, and now, there seems to be more of an overarching focus on defensive organisation. The one side to properly encapsulate this is Melbourne Heart, who also conceded the most goals of any team last season. John Aloisi now has a clearly defined gameplan: ask the two wingers to drop back alongside the midfield pivot of a 4-2-3-1, and defend in two deep, compact banks of four.

It hasn’t quite clicked in attack, but the intent is obvious: by using four incredibly pacy, hard-working wingers into his quartet of attackers against the Central Coast Mariners, it was easy for the Heart to break quickly down the flanks, relying on their sheer speed in wide positions. The jury is out how successful they’ll be this season, but they’ve certainly taken a page from last season’s Premiers.

Postecoglou comes full circle

You probably couldn’t script it better if you tried. For his last game in the A-League before moving into the Socceroos job, Ange Postecoglou’s Melbourne Victory host his former side, Brisbane Roar, in a match even removed of the pre-game context would still be fascinating. These are the two sides that have played the best football in the competition over the past three years, and after a dip in form last season from Brisbane Roar, they looked ominously back to their best in last week’s 4-0 demolition of Sydney FC.

The personnel may have changed but the principles that Postecoglou imposed into the club’s DNA remain ever-present, and the attractiveness of their possession-based short passing game is what made him so appealing to the country’s upper hierarchy.

It would be fitting for Postecoglou to bow out from the A-League with a match between the two sides he coached full of fast-paced, attacking football: which, if last week’s Friday night match between the Victory and Adelaide is anything to go by, should be the case.

Tim Palmer

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