Ninth verus tenth resulted in a dour scoreless draw.
Although Frank Farina was appointed as Ian Crook’s successor midweek, he decided to allow interim Steve Corica to take control of this game. ”As big a game as it is tomorrow, you don’t want to be confusing them,” said Farina. “So I said to Steve, ‘You continue on from what you’ve been doing all week’.”
That, coupled with absentees as a result of the Socceroos’ East Asian Cup qualifiers, meant Corica made four changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Adelaide last week. Hagi Gligor and Vedran Janjetovic made surprise starts in midfield and goalkeeper respectively, while Joel Chianese replaced Brett Emerton on the wing. Rhyan Grant was at right-back.
John Aloisi also suffered from Socceroos call-ups – Ben Garuccio, Sam Mitchinson and Jeremy Walker replaced Richard Garcia, Aziz Behich and Michael Marrone at right-wing, left-back and right-back respectively. Fred was in the hole behind Josip Tadic.
A tepid game that failed to produce a breakthrough, although both sides will be pleased with a point: the Heart because of their inexperienced side, and Sydney because this was just their second clean sheet of the season.
Sydney again played the 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation that Coricadeployed against Adelaide, with the middle three alternating in their roles. Sometimes they’d switch between a 1-2 and 2-1 midfield triangle, and sometimes it was noticeably flat, designed to prevent the Heart from playing passes through the centre. Crucially, the team was more structured, shifting across the pitch in accordance to where the ball was in possession, and moving forward quickly to close the ball down when the Heart midfield came into possession, generally around the halfway line.
The Heart have constantly used a basic 4-2-3-1 system in which the wide players are instructed to drop deep. Although they have shown to be an excellent pressing side on occasion this season, they tended to their natural strategy of focusing on a strong shape, and keeping it compact between the lines.
This was the overarching factor for why this was such a conservative affair, but there were a few points of strength for either side.
As a broad point, considering the formation match-up, where neither side had a significant advantage in any zone, it made sense that each side would have a ‘spare’ man with no direct opponent. In the first half, this was quite clearly the centre-backs for either side, and the game was reliant on them playing positive passes forward. In any other game this might have contributed to an ever dourer affair, but fortunately all four are actually capable passers, and they combined for 70 passes in the first half alone. Bosschart, perhaps technically the best of the four, had the most telling contributions, including a splendid tthrough-ball to release Yairo Yao down the left flank.
Sydney left-sided bias
That last example accounts for another interesting trend in the match – Sydney’s tendency to play down the left. Yao was positioned on the left, and he enjoys a decent partnership with the left-back, Fabio, who pushed forward aggressively to combine with the Panamanian. Ali Abbas positioned himself on the left of Sydney’s midfield trio and drifted to the wing to create overloads, and Alessandro Del Piero’s tendency to move into positions in the left channel accentuated this trend.
The frequency of these overloads caused problems for the debutant Walker, who seems a fine prospect, but even the best full-backs would struggle with pratically four players moving into their zone. Ahead of him, Garruchio provided some support in tracking the runs of Fabio.
To create better chances, Sydney needed Chianese to make early diagonal runs into the centre to meet crosses – similar to how Marco Rojas and Archie Thompson combine for the Victory – and McFlynn was obviously instructing the young striker to make those runs midway through the half. Midway through the half Chianese and Yao swapped for a substanial period of time, but Chianese didn’t link up as well with Fabio.
The aforementioned Victory system works because of Ange Postecoglou’s use of Marcos Flores as a false nine, and the similarly subtle Del Piero played a similar role here, dropping deep from his centre-forward position to collect possession near the halfway line. As I discussed earlier this season, Patrick Gerhardt and Simon Colosimo, both converted defensive midfielders, tend to rush up quickly, leave space in behind and isolate their partner. That weakness has been improved in recent weeks, but here Del Piero targeted Gerhardt’s rashness to open up space for the wide players to come inside. Chianese and Yao can both play centre-forward and would have been comfortable moving into central striking positions from the flanks but simply didn’t make that movement enough during the game, meaning Del Piero was forced deeper and deeper, spending too much time on the ball and being forced into ambitious passes.
The Heart were uninteresting from a tactical point of view – their system is heavily reliant on Garcia in as he is a tactical leader for both their pressing game and their short passing game as he drifts from flank to flank to combine with the wide players. In his absence, Williams and Garucchio were too isolated, and although it looked promising when they could enter one-on-one situations with their opposing full-backs, these situations weren’t created enough, mainly because of Sydney’s improved structure. Fred is a clever playmaker but struggled to get on the ball: he was actually taking up good positions in between the lines of Sydney’s midfield and defence but his teammates couldn’t find him quickly enough, due to the fact that Gligor and McFlynn took turns to close down Jason Hoffman and Matt Thompson when either had the ball.
That Heart midfield duo also struggled because of their extra duties in closing down Del Piero, as the Italian’s vertical movement required them to get back quickly and concede scrappy fouls.
There was little development in the game’s tactical pattern with like-for-like changes dominating the substitutions. In fact Aloisi didn’t make a substitution until the enforced removal of Garruchio in the 80th minute.
On the other hand, Corica was more proactive and introduced Jason Culina on the hour mark. He played as the deepest of the midfield trio and pushed McFlynn to move forward to close down Hoffman quicker, who had started to find time on the ball in more advanced positions. Aloisi also gave MacAllister and Tadic a rare chance to play together, which saw Fred move out to the right, but with only eight minutes left, any impact from this tweak was always unlikely.
Del Piero’s hamstring injury in the 70th minute robbed Sydney of their biggest attacking threat, and substitute Blake Powell struggled to make an impact down the right. Chianese moved into the middle, but interchanged with Yao on the left – in fact, the attacking three were all willing to switch positions throughout the game.
There was a slight raise in the tempo and intensity immediately after the interval, but nothing significant enough to properly open the scoring.
Farina’s first game was in effect Corica’s last, but the spectacle (or lack of it) will have given Farina with an idea of how he can deploy his side. Sydney had conceded fifteen goals in their previous four goals so a return to a semblance of solidity is a testament to Corica’s coaching this week, even if their focus on direct play down the flanks yielded little result.
The use of Del Piero as the lone centre forward is an interesting experiment, but one feels the Italian is better when deployed in the hole, with an extra striker deployed in front. The one constant in Sydney’s attackers is pace, and combining that threat in behind with Del Piero’s outstanding vision might be a more suitable formula.
Aloisi indicated he was pleased with a point considering the circumstances, but there is much work to do. Does he want his team to be a proactive pressing side, or has the club philosophy been permanently shelved in favour of a more practical, rigid approach? Neither approach is inherently wrong and nor is a balance between the two, but the constant switching of strategy is surely an explanation for their inconsistent performances this season.