Despite Youssof Hersi’s 37th minute red card, the Wanderers held on to their slender advantage for an important away win.
Iain Ferguson kept with the same side that drew with Adelaide Unitted, with Steve Pantedlis on the bench. The surprising decision was the complete omission of Shane Smeltz because of ‘personal matters’ – Nick Ward kept his place as the advanced midfielder.
Following a 2-1 defeat to Newcastle, Tony Popovic made three changes, with the absence of Shinji Ono the biggest surprise. This meant Jason Trifiro was handed a first start of the season in midfield alongside Iacopo Da Rocca, who was moved further forward after filling in for Michael Beauchamp at centre-back last week. The latter returned to his usual position, while Dino Kresinger was also back in the side, replacing Joey Gibbs.
The red card was no huge surprise given the aggressive nature of the first half, and it shaped the complexion of the game. Perth had just over forty-five minutes to break down the Wanderers defensive unit, a task made more difficult by the stubborn Ante Covic.
This was, on paper, a simple 4-2-3-1 v 4-2-3-1 battle: both sides had three central midfielders competing for possession, and two wide players who would come inside into narrow positions to support a lone target man.
Neither side actively seeks to monopolise possession, but they were both pressing high here and forcing the other into long balls up field. The Wanderers were more effective at doing so, with Aaron Mooy and Kresinger working as a pairing to pick up Michael Thwaite and Bas Van Der Brink when Perth were in possession. The full-backs were an outtball, but Mark Bridge and Hersi worked hard to close them down quickly, so more direct balls towards Billy Mehmet characterised the opening period.
Perth tended to stand off a little bit more in defence, which meant Trifiro and La Rocca enjoyed some periods of possession deep in midfield. Neither is particularly adept at forward passing, however, which meant the Wanderers struggled to build up attacks after long spells on the ball.
One might have expected Aaron Mooy, who normally plays in the midfield pairing, to drop deep and help carry the ball up field, but he was reluctant to do so. He concentrated on staying goal-side of the Perth pivot as to prompt counter-attacks.
Perth’s own designated ‘playmaker’, Ward, was more dynamic in his movement, sometimes moving to a right-of-centre position and playing some quick switches to the left flank to change the point of attack.
Once Football data tells us that Perth generally focus their passing down the right flank, towards the combination of Travis Dodd and Josh Risdon, but here it was the left-sided players that created the majority of attacks, with Scott Jamieson brave in his positioning and constantly motoring forward to support Heffernan.
Midway through the half, Popovic became concerned with the shape of his side, and audibly instructed his players to keep a ‘flatter’ line. This, coupled with their tendency to adapt a ‘low block’ during games and Perth’s desire to attack, made the game more open, as Perth pushed forward and left spaces at the back for the Wanderers to counter into. There was a particular good moment when Bridge came in off the left wing to play a pass into the path of Hersi, but the Dutchman’s touch was poor.
As the chalkboard on the right shows, the Wanderers’ wingers like to come in narrow and allow the full-backs to overlap. The flipside of this is that if D’Apuzzo and Polenz can’t move forward quickly enough, the tendency is for the attack to became too narrow. Hersi is more guilty of this than Bridge, as was evident when he moved into a central attacking position, restricted the ball possessor’s options, and was evidently frustrated when the attack inevitably died.
There was an attack directly before the red card where Hersi kept a wider position and made a run down the right channel, leading to a good chance. Mooy could play in Hersi, who had the time and space to play a low cross to Bridge, who wasted the opportunity.
Hersi also tends to move narrow in the defensive phase: the Wanderers form the ‘two banks of four,’ and this left Polenz exposed against the double threat of Jamieson and Heffernan.
As it turned out, Hersi’s weaknesses became a mute point after his dismissal. The manner of the red wasn’t surprising – Hersi and Jamieson had been in direct confrontation throughout the match and had already contributed to seven fouls before the red card.
As had the Patrick Zwaanswijk’s red card in the Mariners v Victory changed the complexion of the game, so it did here. Perth were now charged with attacking the Wanderers, who could sit on the safety of their one goal lead (courtesy of poor set-piece marking).
Popovic shifted to a 4-4-1 by moving Mooy onto the right wing, his only real option. Mooy actually did a good job of moving into position to help Polenz match up evenly with Perth’s double threat of Wilfred Zahra (who had replaced the injured Heffernan) and Jamieson.
Popovic clearly wasn’t completely happy with the shape of his side, however, as indicated by his half-time substitution, with Shannon Cole replacing Trifiro. Cole moved into the right wing position, while Mooy moved into his customary centre midfield role. He actually leads the league in tackles completed, so was a fine option in the middle of the park.
Ferguson made more subtle changes, telling both his full-backs to play higher up the park. He also switched Zahra and Dodd, which temporarily confused the Wanderers, before they settled into an extremely conservative shape, which effectively had eight players behind the ball.
They did have a few good moments when breaking forward on the counter-attack, and they very nearly took advantage of Perth’s ball-watching when Bridge lashed in a tight volley, only to be denied by Vukovic.
With the extra man, Perth had to stretch the play, bend the Wanderers out of shape and exploit the advantage. They actually did this reasonably well, with the full-backs key to moving down the line and overlapping the respective wingers. However, there was too much of a tendency to cross, and up against Topor-Stanley, who is a fine header of the ball, the attacks were too one-dimensional. Better moments came from quick interchanges of passes inside the penalty area, or when McGarry and Miller spread the ball from side to side.
His only change in the second half was to introduce Chris Harold for Nick Ward, but this had little effect, while Popovic made relatively obvious changes, including switching D’Apuzzo into midfield after La Rocca had succumbed to fatigue. Ono made a late, but insignificant, appearance.
The day before, Melbourne Victory had struggled to break down the Mariners’ 10 men, and so was the case here, where Ferguson bemoaned the side’s inability to open up the Wanderers. “We worked on getting down the side, we definitely worked on down the sides and probably a little bit more inside as well, he said. “We just sort of struggled a little bit to find that sort of cutting edge or that little bit of maybe X-factor that could split the defence open.”
That’s a fair analysis, and one that pays testament to Ante Covic’s splendid performance. More than anything, this game highlighted how a four-man bench limits a manager tactically, as Ferguson essentially only had one attacking option to chose from when trying to press his advantage.
Popovic was pleased with his side’s performance, and especially so with their defensive discipline. They’ve become more ambitious in recent weeks, but they remain difficult to score against – a fitting strategy for a fledging side.