A game that pitted two counter-attacking sides against each other was a tight battle, before a classic counter-attacking goal settled the game.
John Kosmina made just one change to the side that defeated Newcastle 2-0 last Sunday. Fabio Ferriera was handed a first start after Dario Vidosic’s enforced absence through injury.
Tony Popovic had to choose whether to play marquee signing Shinji Ono from the start – he did, playing the Japanese in behind Dino Kresinger. Mark Bridge moved to the left, with Labinot Haliti dropped to the bench.
The first half was a cagey, tension-filled affair, and although the intensity was raised after half time, there was a clear lack of creativity in open play, a by-product of both side’s reactive tactics.
Last week’s game against the Central Coast Mariners was the first opportunity to observe what system Tony Popovic has put in place at the A-League’s newest club. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, his side is supremely organised and looks to break forward quickly through the pace of the wide players. They kept it tight between the lines and look for Aaron Mooy to spring quick transitions, although with Ono in the starting lineup for the first time tonight, there was more of a focus on playing through the centres and to the feet of the Japanese. Generally, Ono looked to play reasonably high up the pitch, staying goalside of the two Adelaide midfielders, while sporadically dropping into midfield to close down the man in possession.
Adelaide play a similar style: Osama Malik and Cameron Watson patrolled the midfield zone, while Jeronimo Naumann played in a more advanced position behind lone striker Bruce Djite, who played a target man role and looked to bring the wide players into the penalty area by holding the ball up in the penalty area.
Both sides were evenly matched across the pitch,with a spare man at the back for either side: for Western Sydney, this was captain Michael Beauchamp, as Djite generally looked to close down Topor-Stanley. This was key: Topor-Stanley has a strong passing range and by contrast Beauchamp plays a simpler passing game, and he was often caught playing underhit short passes to his right back, Jerome Polenz. This prevented the Wanderers from being able to build up play quickly.
Adelaide also had a similar problem, but rather than having one player free, they were forced into playing the ball across the backline. Ono and Kresinger worked as a pair to shut down passing angles (similar to what the latter did with Bridge last week), and with clear 3v3 matchups in midfield, the opening twenty minutes were characterized by poor passing and sloppy play.
The aforementioned battle between Topor-Stanley and Djite was also interesting when Adelaide were in possession, with the Wanderers defender keen to prevent the ball behind played to the strikers feet. He also competed well in the air, and prevented Adelaide using Djite as a hold-up player, thus funneling their attacks out wide, to where Ferriera and Aaron Ramsey were looking to stretch the play. Both sets of wingers played similar roles, dropping back to form a bank of four in defence before breaking past the opposition fullback on the counter attack. Out of the four wing pairings, it was Ferriera’s right side that looked the most dangerous, with Daniel Bowles moving forward manfully to support the Portuguese. Periodically, Ferriera would switch wings with Ramsey, but this had little effect on the game, which was solely focused on structure. Both sides held their shape well and prevented either playmaker from playing between the lines, and with the fullbacks understandably wary of leaving space in behind, there was little creativity in open play.
As Tony Tannous and Brett Taylor noted earlier today, this was always going to be a low scoring affair. Therefore, the low number of shots in the first half wasn’t the issue for either side – rather, the quality of transitions had been poor, and Ante Milic noted this at halftime in his interview with Fox Sports.
Still, the opening period of the second half was characterized by greater attacking intent, with both sides coming out with greater urgency and pressing slightly higher up the pitch. Most notably, Polenz was given greater licence to move forward, allowing Hersi to vary his movement more. The Dutchman started to come inside into the penalty area, and with Ono slipping into a pocket of space in the inside-right channel, the Wanderers were able to effectively create overloads down that flank, with Polenz crossing in some good balls from his left foot.
If the Wanderers right wing was their point of strength, then Adelaide’s was surely the left flank, with Ferriera and Bowles again linking up well to drive inwards towards goal. They were also assisted by Watson, who is the more energetic of the midfield pairing: Mailk plays static in front of the back four, while Watson shuttles forward to link the play.
But the Wanderers had the greater impetus going forward, and looked the more likely to score. Kosmina’s reaction was to remove the quiet Djite and introduce Marcelo Carrusca. The Adelaide season preview identifies the Argentine as “good in one-on-ones and addding a bit of elegance,” and his impact was felt immediately with a fantastic pass through the middle for Neumann which was incorrectly called offside.
That moment felt significant, as it demonstrated Adelaide’s new system. Neumann had been moved further forward, suggesting a Victory-like false 9 system interchanging with Carrusca, but rather, the playmaker stayed high up the field and looked to get in behind the defence, similar to what Cesc Fabregas did in the Euro 2012 final. Having elected to start with strength, Kosmina was now opting for sophistication, looking to take advantage of Topor-Stanley’s tendency to be drawn out of his line.
The change also signified a formation switch: Malik went deeper, between the lines, and Carrusca moved into midfield, and Adelaide adopted a 4-3-3 formation, which placed a midfielder in the zone where Ono was operating. Ferriera played higher up while Ramsey began to track Polenz’s runs, making Adelaide appear lopsided. Instructing Ferriera to stay in more advanced positions paid off after the controversial penalty was won in that zone, and Adelaide’s threat on the counter attack was clear. The goal came from a Wanderers set piece, and it was unfortunate that Topor-Stanley was the man who gave the ball he away as he had been impressive all night. Ramsey’s assist and Neumann’s finish were the highlights of the move, but Ferriera’s clever diagonal running was crucial in opening up space, and was similar movement to Jermain Defoe’s in Tottenham’s 3-2 win over Manchester United.
After the goal, the game became increasingly about whether the Wanderers could break through: Adelaide had their goal and were happy to drop back into their half and attempt to pick out passes on the counter attack. The onus was on Popovic. He had already made his first move just moments before the goal, with Haliti replacing Hersi, which was surprising, given the strength of that flank. With Hersi and Haliti similar types of players, he presumably had simply wanted to introduce fresh legs. His second change was to remove Mateo Poljak and bring on Tarek Elrich. This was a roll of the dice, with Elrich moving to right wing, Haliti shifting across to the left, Bridge moving up front with Kresinger and Mooy becoming the single holding player in a 4-1-3-2. The biggest effect of this change was to actually grant Mooy more space – with Adelaide sitting deep, the no.10 had time near the halfway line to pick out Pirlo-esque passes into the box, and Haliti’s free header from Elrich’s goal stemmed from a long Mooy diagonal.
Kosmina’s final two changes were like for like, with Jake Barker-Daish replacing Watson’s energy in midfield and Evan Kostopoulos brought in to waste time in the corners.
Two reactive sides, and a goal from the counter attack. It would be drastic to suggest Kosmina’s fomration change was the decisive factor, but it did nullify the Wanderers biggest threat, down the right wing. In a league so full of sides looking to play open, proactive football, Adelaide’s counter attacking threat could propel them to the top of the table, while they also have intelligent passers to play a more proactive, possession based style.
The Wanderers are not the finished article, and although they’ll be tough to score against, they also won’t score many goals. Dino Kresinger works hard and was more mobile tonight, drifting into wide positions to link up play, and making clever off-the-shoulder runs, but he lacks support. In midfield, Poljak sits deep as a holding midfielder, and both Mooy and Ono like to play balls to feet rather than breaking into the box from deep, while the wide players are instructed to play crosses rather than drive towards goal. The Wanderers lack verticality in the attacking third, and as long as they remains a problem, they’ll struggle to score goals.