Alessandro Del Piero scored two wonderful goals but it wasn’t enough as Brisbane turned in a superb team performance.
Following three straight losses, Rado Vidosic made drastic changes, dropping Matt Jurman and Mitch Nicholls (the latter from the complete squad), with Besart Berisha and Jack Hingert both returning to the starting XI. Henrique moved to the left to accommodate Berisha in the central striker role, while Ivan Franjic was shifted into an unusual centre-back position.
Steve Corica made just one change from the side that capitulated to Melbourne Victory last Satuday, with captain Terry McFlynn replacing Blake Powell. Sydney reverted to a more standard 4-4-2 shape after last week’s experimentation with a 4-1-3-2, with Ali Abbas moving to the left and McFlynn taking up his usual midfield role.
An excellent first half with high-speed ball movement and intelligent movement meant Brisbane dominated the game, turning the second half into a relative non-event.
Ian Crook preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation for his first four matches, before making the drastic switch to a midfield diamond last week. Here, Corica played a simple 4-4-2 (that could also be termed a 4-4-1-1), and the biggest difference was the positioning of the wide players, who started in deeper positions, forming a second bank of four in front of the defence, before breaking quickly on the counter attack.
The 4-3-3 formation has been a constant of the separate reigns Ange Postecoglou and Rado Vidosic at the Roar, but the key change under the new manager is the freedom afforded to the midfield triangle – Postecoglou instructed Paartalu to stay deep between the centre backs in a rigid, defensive role, whereas Vidosic allows him to move forward, essentially sacrificing solidity for fluidity.
The clear pitfall of playing a 4-4-2 against a 4-3-3 is the spare man in midfield for the latter, but if one side isn’t actively looking to keep possession, that isn’t necessarily a key factor, and with Sydney dropping deeper throughout the first half and looking to play on the break, that could have been the case here.
Brisbane pressing and movement
However, for the opening twenty minutes of the half, Sydney played aggressively, with Paul Reid and McFlynn moving forward quickly to close down the man in possession. That was their downfall in the humiliating 7-2 loss to the Mariners as Tom Rogic ran riot, and it had a similar effect here, with Thomas Broich the beneficiary.
The German had been moved infield to a central midfield role for this game – the #10 of a three man midfield as stipulated by the FFA, if you like – and although he was nominally stationed on the left side of the trio, he constantly floated towards the right, looking to take advantage of the space behind McFlynn. The Roar movement in midfield was devastating, dragging Sydney’s defenders out of position and making a mockery of their attempts to stay compact. There was simply too much space between the lines, as illustrated when Besart Berisha had a goal disallowed following a splendid pass from Broich from the right channel. Massimo Murdocca also had a few good opportunities following quick spells of passing that covered the width of the pitch, pulling Sydney’s midfield four into disarray and freeing up space in central areas.
As McFlynn and Reid became more reserved and sat deeper, the space between the lines was diminished, and the overlapping fullbacks became the game’s key feature. Shane Stefanutto and Jack Hingert are naturally attacking defenders – even if the latter’s movement is somewhat conservative – and they provided good width down the flanks, allowing Henrique and Ben Halloran to move inside and link up play with Berisha. Hingert’s combination with Halloran was particularly impressive, and Brisbane focused their passing down the right flank to press their advantage – Berisha should have scored with a clever near post run.
The opening goal stemmed from some atrocious set-piece defending, but it was a fair reflection on the balance of play.
Sydney were looking to play on the break here, which is a justified tactic, but the front two, Yairo Yao and Del Piero, were far too isolated from the rest of the team, and Sydney were often defending with eight and attacking with two. They, and Del Piero, were struggling, simply because the Roar were seeing so much of the ball and preventing Sydney from building anything meaningful. They pressed much higher up the pitch here than they have in recent weeks – and Murdocca’s comments on their pre-season physical preparation sheds some interesting light on this – and this prevented Sydney from playing out from the back, as was clear as early as the third minute.
“We will keep the ball away from him because we know how dangerous he can be, especially if he’s close to the goal,” said Vidosic when quizzed over how he would deal with the Italian this week, and although this sounds like a simplistic strategy, it was essentially what they did: kept possession, playing high up the pitch and preventing Del Piero from having the ball.
That said, Sydney’s first goal was a splendid long-range strike, following the first time the Italian had any substantial time on the ball. It showcased what makes Del Piero such an asset to the league: his threat on the ball is unrivalled and cannot be left unoccupied in those kind of zones.
Matt Smith quickly identified this at half-time, but Brisbane quickly conceded another again to Del Piero, who worked a clever one-two with Yao inside the box before calming finishing past Michael Theo. There had actually been a similar situation in the first half in a rare Sydney attack which had broken down after Yao had sold his return wall pass short.
That goal came three minutes into the second half, after Corica had made a double change at the interval. Reid and Ali Abbas, both of whom had had a quiet half, were removed, with Powell and Trent McClenahan entering the fray. Zeljko Kalac suggested they wanted “more pace down the flanks,” meaning the decision to introduce Powell on the left made sense.
But the decision to remove Reid, who is Sydney’s best passer current available, was curious, because it meant Rhyan Grant moved into midfield, with McClenahan taking his preferred right-back spot. Grant is an energetic player and provided just that, energy, but it robbed Sydney of the ability to transition defence into attack, and they continue to struggle throughout the second half. Their intent to press higher was clear when Grant charged at Theo when the goalkeeper was in possession, but a high pressing game requires a well-drilled system, something Sydney, without a coach, clearly don’t have.
It was easy for Brisbane to retain possession, and with Berisha taking advantage of more shambolic individual defending to restore the two goal cushion, the second half was devoid of any real tactical interest.
Both managers made changes, but none really had a significant impact on the final result.
Rado Vidosic will be pleased with his side’s performance, and particularly with how well the fluidity of the midfield worked, with Erik Paartalu’s storming run to score the second following an interception in his own half the clearest example of the new system working in practice. However, Vidosic will certainly be aware that this was a good performance against a terrible Sydney, whose conservative system was undermined by poor defending and completely restricted their ability to attack.
The two goals from Del Piero made for fantastic highlights, but as long as defensive issues undermine the Italian’s impact, Sydney will continue to struggle. The identity of their new coach is looming as a hugely critical, crucial decision.