United Haven’t Turned the Corner Yet, but the Indicator is on

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It was almost a party atmosphere at Coopers Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Fresh from family celebrations and with one eye on the new year, a crowd of 10,778 fans turned out on what was a gorgeous summer day to witness a hotly contested game where Adelaide prevailed 1-0. There was a sense from those in attendance that the Reds – the goalless draw in Perth excused – have begun to get things right in recent weeks.

United’s style of play has been the focus of much media attention recently. Adelaide played some lovely football on Sunday and combined fluently in the final third on many occasions. Yes, it was a physical game but “that’s the nature of the sport” as Jets coach Gary Van Egmond said post-match.

Gombau did have grievances with a tackle from Taylor Regan on Marcelo Carrusca, and rightly so. It was a cynical foul that could have easily produced a red. But more than that, Gombau was protecting one of his most important players. It wasn’t whinging or complaining about refereeing as some have noted, but man management and a reminder to future referees. If it was Jose Mourinho, the press would be lauding his mind games.

Van Egmond had complaints about Carrusca’s challenge on his skipper Ruben Zadkovich that could also have been deemed worthy of a red card. It was the sort of game where both sides had reasons to gripe about the refereeing against them, but in reality both coaches would have been relieved and felt somewhat fortunate to have kept eleven men on the pitch.

United’s defensive line was somewhat deeper against Newcastle in an attempt to deny space to the Jets’ front three. There were a few instances where Nathan Burns got behind his man but United managed to deal with the danger. Credit to Gombau for realising the error of employing the high line and making the necessary adjustments.

Eugene Galekovic celebrated passing Travis Dodd’s Adelaide United appearance record by keeping a clean sheet, although he enjoyed a relatively comfortable afternoon, the Jets only managing to hit the target three times.

Isaías also dropped into the defence at times to help when United were under pressure, and made a telling clearance from a cross while six yards out and facing his own net. The longer the Reds go without conceding, especially from a set piece, the more confidence they will develop and that can only be a good thing.

Isaías ran the game for the Reds, delivering the kind of performance that many have been waiting for. He seems to have learnt when to retain possession and when to shift the attack up a gear. His switches of play and probing passing allowed United’s wingers to get in behind the Jets’ defence.

Sergio Cirio played a part in United’s goal, charging forward on the counter and freeing Jeronimo Neumann down the right before his cross and the resulting scramble led to Bruce Djite’s 26th minute goal. He nearly repeated the trick three minutes later, only for Jeronimo to shoot straight at Mark Birighitti. Cirio is always an outlet for United’s midfield and his end product has improved in the last few games, despite his poor finish late on when he also fired straight at Birighitti.

Young striker Anthony Costa didn’t make his debut despite being named on the bench, but he will surely feature in weeks to come with Adelaide suffering a lack of out and out striking options.

A young player who did come off the bench, and did so to good effect was Awer Mabil. The flying winger is yet to start a game this season but can’t be too far away from featuring in the starting line-up. The reigning National Youth League Player of the Year possesses a combination of pace and skill that frightens defenders, and his intent to run at players stands out in a league where directness is a rare commodity.

The Reds showed a more clinical side to their game on Sunday, registering only five shots, but hitting the target with each effort. This is an improvement on what they’ve shown in front of goal so far this season, often struggling to remain calm and confident when presented with chances.

Gombau’s side have found a balance between his preferred style and what the players are comfortable with. One must remember that this is not the squad that Gombau wants, it is the squad he inherited with only a few of his players added to it. Building the side he wants will take a few years, and the recent progress that United have shown will grant him the patience required.

The results of late, allied with the performances produced, have gotten the United fans even further on-board with Gombau’s vision for the team. They are certainly improved since round five, when they went down 2-1 to the Jets.

Adelaide’s poor start has left them chasing the top six sides in an attempt to secure finals football in back to back seasons. Their poor start has left them less room for error than they would like, but the improvement shown gives the players, staff, and the fans hope that they will be playing knockout football come the third weekend in April, when the finals series kicks off.

So an increase in defensive solidity, better decision making in midfield, and a more ruthless streak have seen United pick up seven points from their last three games. They now sit three points outside the top six, although sixth-placed Central Coast do have a game in hand, playing Perth Glory at home on New Year’s Eve.

So it all sounds great down at Coopers but there are still some problems that need to be addressed. Jeronimo is United’s top scorer but has got his name on the scoresheet just once since round two. The Adelaide midfielders don’t contribute enough goals, and there are concerns over Tarek Elrich’s defensive capabilities. Perhaps there was a reason he featured only periodically under Tony Popovic at Western Sydney last season.

Questions also remain about Adelaide’s solidity from dead ball situations, as well as aerial deliveries. That goes hand in hand with one of the sides’ centre backs being a midfielder by trade but Osama Malik has improved in recent weeks and received a rousing ovation when substituted on Sunday after picking up an ankle injury. He is making fewer mistakes in distribution and looks far more comfortable playing as a centre back.

Adelaide’s clean sheet against the Perth Glory is perhaps a misnomer, as they were barely challenged defensively for much of the game. However it can only add to the belief throughout the side. United did more to earn their clean sheet against the Jets being limited to the three shots on target as a result of a combination of the Jet’s lack of penetration and improved marking from the reds.

The signs are good but Adelaide can’t afford too many more slip ups, certainly not of the nature of their collapse against the Melbourne Heart in round eight. But confidence can do wonders for a side and they head into Friday’s clash against Sydney FC with the belief that they can tame Alessandro Del Piero and company.

Adelaide are eliminating the defensive mistakes that cost them points earlier in the season, but it will be interesting to see how they cope against the league’s top two when they face Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers in back to back weeks during January, which will be a make or break month for the reds.

Adelaide United have shown they have they quality to be playing finals football this season. They now need to continue their improvement and make sure they turn the corner.

Andrew Cussen

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