Last night’s game between the Western Sydney Wanderers and the Melbourne Heart was a scrappy, stop-start affair eventually settled by Patrick Gerhardt’s unfortunate own goal.
The nature of the goal meant Gerhardt was ultimately at fault with a terrible clearance, but that was not the crucial flaw in his game. Rather, it was his tendency to challenge the attack by moving aggressively up the pitch towards the ball possessor. This has been a common theme for the Wanderers this season, and the result is generally space for the opposition in behind, or a clumsy foul. Both Colosimo and Gerhardt have been guilty of the offence on more than one occasion, and it perhaps does not come as a surprise that both are converted midfielders.
This came early in the match – Joe Gibbs dribbled away from goal with Colosimo close in behind (white circle), while the space beside Gerhardt is indicated by the orange square. The second frame shows the eventual result of the play, where Colosimo has tracked the ball even as Gibbs passed it onto Ono and is forced into a risky sliding challenge that perhaps was unfairly called for a foul. Still, this shows the vulnerabilities that emerge from Colosimo’s combativeness, and looking closely at the defensive line in the second image shows how Gerhardt is essentially covering the width of the penalty area.
The first frame is a reasonable depiction of an appropriate defensive shape – Marrone is tucked in narrow, while Gerhardt is sticking tight to Gibbs and preventing him from receiving the ball. Yet as D’Apuzzo intercepts the bounce and the ball falls to in front of the left-back, Gerhardt inexplicably moves forward to close down the loose ball, leaving Gibbs unmarked. The orange square in the second frame shows Gibbs motioning for the pass, but a foul results instead as Gerhardt commits to a poor tackle.
Example three – goal
The Wanderers broke forward quickly meaning the Heart midfield were stranded in attacking positions, but that’s no excuse as to why Colosimo charges forward towards Mooy, especially when Jason Hoffman is coming across to cover. Instead, Colosimo’s rash movement allows Mooy to slip a pass into Gibbs channel, who turns the ball into Bridge’s path, thus teeing him up for the first time shot. This is the strongest example of the fallacy of this mistake, as Gerhardt is forced to account for both Gibbs and Bridge, and it’s also important to note the additional presence of Shinji Ono in the box.
Brett Taylor of Behind the Goals has noted a similar issue in the Heart’s game against Perth Glory, and has drawn up a series of images illustrating a similar event from that match where Gerhardt was drawn out to the flank.
What’s interesting to note is that on one occasion, where Mateo Poljak moved forward on the break in the fortieth minute, both Gerhardt and Colosimo held their ground, and although he was limited by the numbers of the Wanderers attack, it was telling that Poljak was forced into an ambitious long shot.
The obvious retort is to suggest that the preferred midfield pairing, Matt Thompson and Richard Garcia, should be offering more protection to the centre-backs, but that ignores the point: with no-one covering in behind, these are elementary mistakes which leave the covering centre-back exposed. If you look at the images above, you’ll see that the ‘spare’ centre-back is often forced to cover the entire central zone, as the full-backs don’t have the time or awareness to tuck in narrow and deny runners from midfield or the wings. This kind of ‘sweeper’ system, with an advanced central defender and a narrow three-man defence, is not necessarily an impossible strategy, but it does require quick thinking and superb team chemistry, something that’s clearly lacking as a by-product of enforced changes to the Heart backline.
This is not intended as an attack on Gerhardt, or Colosimo. Both are fine players, good passers and look capable of forming a strong partnership. But both, and particularly Gerhardt, keep making the same mistake – it cost the Heart last night and cost them again in the future – both are too eager to fly into challenges high up the pitch when they should be keeping their position in the centre of defence. A central defender can’t be making these kinds of positional errors, and Aloisi will be hoping new signing Vince Grella, when fit, can provide some tactical maturity to the side.
This could well be a consequence of Aloisi’s specific tactical instructions, but that doesn’t diminish the dangers of such a tactic. It is clearly not working, and as long as Gerhardt and Colosimo continue to defend in this manner, they will concede goals.