Perhaps the predominant reason behind the Wanderers’ success has been their rigid adherence and understanding of structure. Popovic was a superb defensive leader in his time on the field and has proven equally capable in his time on the sideline. Critical to the success of this defensive structure is the influence of Mateo Poljak, another wise utilisation of the limited visa spots.
Poljak is the anchor of the midfield, sitting deeper than anyone else, just in front of the back four. Alongside La Rocca in the Sydney Derby, the determined Croatian primarily sat in space while his Italian compatriot pressed more aggressively and got into nitty-gritty challenges to break up Sydney FC’s play.
For many observers, it would almost appear as if Poljak was lost defensively, unsure of whom to mark. However, his positioning against Sydney FC attackers was smart, blocking off passing options – particularly effective against a Sky Blues side that showed little creativity up front. His decision not to mark tightly, sitting in space between opposition attackers, while covering the back four, suffocated Sydney FC’s opportunities.
The organisation which has become a Western Sydney trademark over the last season explains their ability to win despite rarely holding the ball for longer than their opponents. In fact, they have never won a game where they’ve achieved more possession. La Rocca explained after this Saturday’s derby that everyone knows exactly what they need to do and where to do it – this is why they are so rarely faulty.
A superb example of the team’s understanding of positioning can be seen in the following example, where Sydney FC was breaking with the Wanderers midfield briefly out of formation. Poljak was caught too far forward, not deep and covering Carle as planned. Realising this, Beauchamp burst forward from his defensive line, against momentum, to apply pressure on Sydney’s number ten, closing down the Sky Blue’s most potent option and preventing them from breaking forward.
In the second half, Sydney FC applied more offensive pressure and were slightly more adventurous in the Wanderers’ final third. Poljak was forced to move out of his passive position in front of the back four and track the runs of Carle in particular. A similar thing could be observed from Wellington in the previous round, where the introduction of another midfielder drew Poljak into a more reactive role.
Fortunately for Wanderers fans, Mateo is up there with any in terms of marking and chasing down opposition. He is quick and aggressive, not easily bullied off the ball, while eagerly doing just that to opponents. The Croatian is absolutely essential to the Wanderers’ defensive fortifications and will also play an important distribution role this season as Popovic looks to play out of the back more often.
It will be interesting to see how he performs against an Adelaide side that will be looking to swarm the midfield and not allow Poljak to sit deep, drawing him forward into the game. In the two side’s preseason clash in Penrith, Poljak became visibly frustrated and described the game afterwards as one of the worst they had ever played.