The second Sydney derby, the weekend’s marquee fixture, will be a fascinating gauge of either side’s season to date.
In the ten weeks that have passed between the two derbies, it is Sydney FC that has been through the more tumultuous period, with a change in coach and the introduction of some new personnel disrupting any logical tactical strategy.
By contrast, the Wanderers have enjoyed a relatively low-key start to life in the A-League, with Popovic electing for a settled side to execute a simple system, making for an intriguing contrast in this contest.
The away side will come to Allianz in a 4-2-3-1 formation centred on a good structure and defensive organisation. Popovic likes his side to defend in two banks of four, so the wide players – likely to be Mark Bridge and Youssoff Hersi for the derby – are instructed to track back and keep disciplined positions on either side of the central midfield duo.
That zone has been crucial for Western Sydney – Aaron Mooy and Mateo Poljak is a balanced and intelligent partnership, with the former receiving high praise for some outstanding performances. They keep controlled positions in front of the back four and distribute possession cleanly, with Mooy particularly skilled at launching counter-attacks – a fair comparison, tactically speaking, would be with Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta or Everton’s Darron Gibson – disciplined players with outstanding ball distribution.
The Wanderers struggles have come up front, when the central striker position is effectively a two horse battle between Dino Kresinger and Joey Gibbs. The former started the first three matches of the season but it took the Wanderers until round four to score, when Gibbs was handed a first start.
Since then, the two have alternated, but Popovic has struggled to find the right combination. Kresinger is clearly far more of a hold-up player and there is a clear correlation between his selection and the amount of Wanderers crosses, while Gibbs is a more technical striker who likes to work the channels and get into positions for Shinji Ono passes.
On paper, that would make the decision somewhat easier (given the onus on Popovic to get the best out of Ono), but it hasn’t really worked. Gibbs form is sporadic, and inconsistency is marring his ability to link up with the Japanese playmaker.
Following a substitute appearance in which he won the decisive penalty, Kresinger is likely to be given the start here, which means the Wanderers XI will be exactly as it was for the inaugural derby (with the exception of Haliti for Hersi). Their primary focus, as it is in most matches, will be to keep it tight and narrow the space between the lines, while they will try and play the ball quickly into the box from wide positions.
It is decidedly harder to summarise the home team’s approach, which isn’t surprising considering the calamity that has engulfed the club. Farina’s first match was away to Wellington last Sunday, and he used a 4-2-3-1 system that unusually featured Rhyan Grant in the hole. One suspects that Del Piero will take that position should he be fit for the derby, but Sydney’s overall approach remains unclear.
They scored from a set piece and took advantage of a poor tactical decision from Herbert to double the lead, but with another full week of double sessions under the new management now complete, one would hope there are more signs of a coherent strategy this week.
That hope becomes even more significant when you consider that realistically, the nature of this contest relies on how Sydney play. If they press, it will likely be a more open affair – especially when you consider how poor their initial attempts to press under Ian Crook were – but if they pack the midfield and focus on shape, this will be a cagier, combative affair.
If the latter is the case, then both sides will look to get their respective marquees to instigate the play. Ono will likely sit higher and try and prompt counter-attacking opportunities, whereas Del Piero will likely drop deep and try to overload the midfield.
That assumes that the Italian will be used in the hole, but Farina might opt for a different strategy and place him in the no.9 position, as interim Steve Corica preferred. This would mean Grant would continue as a ‘destructive’ no.10, and that would allow him to track Mooy and prevent him playing his usual passing game, similar to how certain opponents have handled the aforementioned Arteta – Oscar man-marked him for Chelsea as did Wayne Rooney for Manchester United. It would be an unusual move, but not unlikely. This theory might take on even greater significance if Del Piero doesn’t start.
Neither side boasts particularly attacking full-backs, but Jerome Polenz has shown himself to be a worthy asset at both ends of the pitch for the Wanderers. Down the right, he’ll be in direct confrontation with Yairo Yao (assuming the Panamanian starts), who can lose focus and leave Fabio vulnerable to overloads down the left. Popovic would have noted this trend in Sydney’s match against Adelaide United, and he would have also seen how Sydney used the bias to their advantage against the Melbourne Heart. Those two consecutive home games showed both the strength and weakness of the left side, and if Popovic is brave, Polenz will be given a brief to push past Hersi on the overlap.
A side with a clear identity verus one struggling to establish their own.
Yet despite the contrast, just three points separates the fourth placed Wanderers from Sydney, who sit bottom. It seems ridiculous that a win could take Sydney level with their neighbours, but it sums up how tight the A-League really is, and a cagey derby encounter would be a fitting microcosm of this trend.