As Corey Gameiro’s glancing header in the 82nd minute levelled the game at 2-2 on Friday night, there was a familiar sense of frustration around Coopers Stadium. Adelaide had repeated their early season troubles by throwing away a lead late in the match. United’s failure to repel a ten-man Sydney FC was met by frustration from coach Josep Gombau after the match, stating: “Happy with the team (performance), yes…happy with the result, no.”
And nor should he be. This was most definitely a case of two points dropped for United, and it is not the first time that they have thrown away points late in a game. Eighteen of the 19 goals that the Reds have conceded have come in matches that ended in a draw or in defeat. Eleven of these 18 have come in the final half an hour of the game, and nine of the goals have been conceded when Adelaide were in a position to claim a point or three. The two goals excluded came in the shambolic display in round seven away to the ten-man Melbourne Victory.
The telling statistic is this: If Adelaide had not conceded any of those nine goals, the Reds would have an extra 13 competition points. In other words, United would be just three points off competition leaders Brisbane Roar. Whilst it is unrealistic to expect a side not to concede in the final half an hour of any game, particularly when the opposition are pressing for an equaliser, the purpose of this article is to highlight just how costly this problem has been for the Adelaide, and how they can combat the problem.
The second goal on Friday night came from a needless free kick conceded by Jon McKain, and poor defending from Isaías. At this point I should point out that Isaías had a very good game, however the Spaniard failed to attack the ball when it was delivered and allowed Gameiro to get across him and nod home. Once again it was an avoidable goal late in the game which cost United valuable points in their pursuit of finals football.
A win against Sydney was crucial to Adelaide’s hopes of hauling in the teams above them, as Gombau stated: “But with the result, I am unhappy because after 80 minutes, we are winning 2-1, and to win this game was very important.”
Claiming all three points against the Sky Blues would have not only pulled United closer to the top six, but also continued their momentum heading into two of the toughest fixtures they could hope for.
Next up for United is the best side in the competition, Brisbane Roar, and perhaps a few things can be learnt from the two-time champions, especially in regards to protecting a lead through possession. A completely different test awaits the following week with the visit of the Wanderers, where United’s defensive ability against the counter will be thoroughly examined.
Holding onto a lead is clearly not Adelaide’s strength and the side cannot become something they are not overnight, but perhaps there is a different way for United to avoid conceding costly late goals. If the team can’t defend late in games, the solution might just be to make sure there is no need to defend. United’s ball retention has been good all season and could hold the key to closing out games. Keep the ball away from the opposition and they have a chance.
As time ran down during Friday night’s match there was a temptation to play the ball long with an ‘anywhere will do’ mindset. This frame of mind is perfectly fine from a team that is defensively solid, compact and denies their opponents chances, but that is not United’s game. They are adept at keeping the ball and are patient in their build up. So why can’t they use their skill in recycling possession to shut out opposing teams?
Keeping the ball can be as much a defensive tactic as an attacking one. Barcelona have been widely regarded to have a shaky defence for a few years now, but it is rarely a problem for them due to the fact that their opposition hardly get a kick. Swansea secured points in their first season in the Premier League by keeping opponents at bay through ball retention. Jose Mourinho’s Porto side even popularised ‘resting with the ball’ on their way to European glory.
One of Gombau’s favourite training drills is to have two sides play on a small field where instead of regular goals, ten passes equals a goal. This training drill represents what United should be doing late in games, rather than thumping the ball long. By all means they should still be open to the possibility of hitting a side on the counter and killing the game off through scoring another goal, but retaining possession is the best way for them to lock up points when they have a lead.
Adelaide were unfortunate to lose both Bruce Djite and Sergio Cirio through injury before halftime against Sydney, perhaps hampering their ability to retain the ball. Young substitutes, Awer Mabil and Anthony Costa, are more direct players who provide a different attacking impetus. The absence of Marcelo Carrusca also hurt, but this is the way of modern football and the reason that A-League sides need to invest beyond a first eleven.
Djite’s groin injury and Cirio’s hamstring problem are big concerns. Djite’s hunger and strength has been there for all to see recently, and Cirio was beginning to add some end product to his play. However, with the return of Jeronimo Neumann from suspension and Carrusca from injury the Reds should have a greater ability to control possession.
Whilst midfielder Isaías may have been at fault for the goal, he has been one of the keys to Adelaide’s revival in the last month or so. His distribution has improved, as has his awareness of when to speed up and slow down the play. He is an integral cog in the United midfield.
Steven Lustica is perhaps the most unheralded member of Adelaide’s line-up, his work rate without the ball and calmness with it often going unnoticed. The former Hajduk Split midfielder has harried and pressed opponents when not in possession, and used the ball well when the opportunity presents itself. He may not be as skilful as his midfield accomplices but he rarely makes mistakes and that is just as crucial, especially late in games when the team have struggled.
When Carrusca, Isaías and Lustica are played together, United’s midfield can control the flow of most games. United just need to remember that this controlling ability can be used to defend a lead, as well as create one.
United have already thrown away 13 points by conceding unnecessary late goals, and can’t afford to continue to do so. They need a new mantra heading into the second half of the season, and it should be something like this- Keep the ball, keep the points.