Two goals were enough for Sydney to secure a rare win.
Ricki Herbert likes a settled side: he named an unchanged XI here, with Manny Muscat continuing his record of starting in every A-League match this season in midfield.
Frank Farina was without Brett Emerton, Tony Antonis or marquee Alessandro Del Piero, but the main talking point was a start for Jason Culina, his first in over two years. Blake Powell played centre forward, while Sebastian Ryall returned from suspension at right back.
This was a scrappy, stop-start game with little pattern, and both sides struggled to create chances in open play, and a tally of forty one fouls and forty seven tackles summed up the nature of the game.
Sydney under Farina
Last week, Farina chose to sit away from the touchline, allowing Steve Corica to oversee the 0-0 draw with the Melbourne Heart. This was, then, his first game in charge, and he elected to go for a familiar 4-2-3-1 system, with Culina sitting alongside captain Terry McFlynn in the central midfield pivot. Ali Abbas was switched to the right flank, with Yairo Yao on the left flanking Rhyan Grant, who was handed an unusual centre attacking position. Although a 4-3-3 would also be an adequate description of the system, Grant would often push up and support Powell, making 4-2-3-1 a more suitable notation.
This site has barely, and regrettably, touched upon Herbert’s system for the Phoenix this season. He started the campaign with a 4-4-2 system with plenty of width, but has recently switched to 4-3-3 after a successful use of the formation in the 3-0 over the Newcastle Jets in late November. This switch was intended to add an extra man in midfield, a problem area for Wellington – they were frequently being overrun in that crucial area of the pitch, but with Vince Lia, Manny Muscat and Alex Smith all hard-working players, there is more support for the defence.
Jeremy Brockie wasa fan of the change. “Because there is the three midfielders tighter in behind us, it doesn’t relieve us from our defensive duties but we get a bit more opportunity to hang around the attacking third to create more opportunities and get in more goal-scoring situations,” he said. “Those three are real hard workers and get stuck into tackles. People probably don’t like coming up against them.”
In that match, Wellington elected for the combination of Brockie, Louie Fenton and Paul Ifil and played with great width, but here Herbert went with Ifil, Huysegems and Brockie, who constantly switched positions but all prefer to play through the middle, meaning the system tended to narrowness and placed great impetus on the full-backs to get forward.
This was therefore a 4-2-3-1 v 4-3-3 battle, with similar midfield shapes. As tends to happen with two sides pack the midfield, the game can become stilted, with each midfielder given an obvious opponent, with McFlynn/Smith, Culina/Lia and Grant/Muscat the usual battles. Considering the personnel, it was not surprising there was little creativity in this zone, and although Culina is a fine passer and showed flashes here, it would be extreme to suggest he should have had more of an influence.
Sydney’s use of Grant ‘in the hole’ was an unusual decision: as a versatile player able to play in both defence and midfield, he provided energy rather than finesse. Instead, the game’s creative burden fell onto wide players.
This was where the game was lost as a spectacle. As mentioned, Herbert encouraged his three attackers to switch positions throughout the match, but this was basic positional switching rather than outstanding synchronised movement. As a result, a lot of their play was slow, narrow and unimaginative, with Brockie particularly keen to move into central striking positions rather than stretch the play.
Sydney had their own problems with width: as a hugely one-footed player, Abbas often cut inside onto his left foot, while Yao is a striker and tried to stretch the defence rather than the active playing zone. Sydney were better at bringing the fullbacks forward – they looked particularly promising when Fabio overlapped down the left as he had done to good effect in last week’s stalemate, and a surging run forward early on required a superb tackle from Durante to clear the danger.
But defensively, both sides were happy to sit within the width of the penalty box, conceding the space out wide in the knowledge it would rarely be exploited. The majority of the crosses played were from deeper positions closer to halfway, and even the delivery of these was poor.
Sydney looked good when they could work the ball towards Powell on the break – the pacy striker stayed high up the pitch in the defensive phase and was often able to turn and run directly at the Wellington defenders.
But it was little surprise the opening goal came from a set piece. Sydney had very obviously worked on set pieces this week – they often went short at indirect free-kicks, and an early Yao volley originated from clever movement inside the box. Wellington defended with a hybrid man and zonal marking system, but were undone but the flaws in both: three players were drawn out from the near post area towards Culina, and Alex Smith was guilty of losing track of Seb Ryall.
Switch to 4-4-2
Herbert didn’t act immediately at the interval, but nine minutes into the half he made his move: Louie Fenton and Tyler Boyd came on from Smith and Huysegems, indicating a switch to 4-4-2. The Phoenix now had two players closing down the Sydney centre-backs, but had lost their equality in midfield – this was particularly obvious when Grant moved deep towards the ball. Although McFlynn was free and able to play a superb ball in for Grant for the crucial second goal, it probably owed more to Wellington’s confusion at the change in formation rather than to Sydney’s exploitation of their advantage in the formation battle. Simply, who was tracking McFlynn?
Sydney also made an early change but an obvious one, with Culina lasting an hour before being replaced by Paul Reid. The latter played the same #6 role – it was fitting that Culina bore that number on his back – but the more interesting change was the introduction of Mitch Mallia for Grant, which saw Abbas move centrally. Sydney had begun to sit deeper as a consequence of their 2-0 lead, but began to focus their passing down the right at counter attacks towards the pace of Mallia.
Wellington played the final fifteen minutes with greater intensity, and by pushing the full-backs higher up the pitch, the wingers could vary their runs more, particularly through dribbles towards the byline and cutting the ball back into the penalty area. They also won more free-kicks around the edge of the penalty area – one of which resulting in a red card for McFlynn – and the decisive penalty came following a spell of high pressure.
A dull game, and the tactical battle lost by one manager rather than won by the other. Still, Farina will be pleased with the victory. He presumably wants Sydney to play a high pressure game – as double training sessions aimed at increasing fitness suggest – but that will be a gradual project. For now, Sydney will be happy to work good opportunities from set pieces, and the return of Del Piero will be a refreshing contrast attacking-wise. The two consecutive clean-sheets is a testament to the discipline of the midfielders to stay in position in front of the back four as well as the promising partnership between Bosschaart and Griffiths.
Herbert was hugely disappointed with the performance. “We failed to perform anywhere today,” he said. “We didn’t look after the ball, everyone looked flat, we got no rotation out of midfield and ended up going long [with our passes] and [were] not good enough today.” It’s a fair summary, and there needs to be clearer roles for the three attacking players: there needs to be someone either extending the active playing zone, or moving beyond a central striker to pose problems for opposition defenders.