Travis Dodd scored a double as Perth ended a six game winless streak.
Liam Miller, Scott Jamieson and Michael Thwaite returned to Iain Ferguson’s starting XI as he reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 with Steven McGarry playing just behind Shane Smeltz, and Dean Heffernan returning to his usual left-wing position, after recent experimentation with 4-4-2. Billy Mehmet was on the bench.
Gary van Egmond continued to tweak with his side, although they remained in their now customary 4-2-3-1. The entire band of three behind Emile Heskey was re-configured as Adam Taggart was rewarded for his good Socceroos form with a start, Adam Griffiths returned at right-wing, while James Virgili was used down the left. Mitchell Oxborrow was surprisingly used in the centre of midfield, while Josh Mitchell and Tiago Calvano were restored as the centre-back partnership that featured prominently in the opening rounds.
Both sides played direct football but Perth clearly had the more coherent gameplan and deserved their win.
Before analysing the contest as a whole, it’s worth considering what was different about Newcastle tonight. They continued in the same shape as recent weeks, with the wide players tracking back into defensive positions alongside the central midfielders, but Taggart interpreted his ‘playmaker’ role differently to Bernando, pushing higher up the pitch as more of a second striker, close to Heskey. Meanwhile, James Virgili kept good width on the left and tried to isolate Josh Risdon in one-on-one situations, but the fullback had a good game.
But the real story was about the directness of both sides. Starting with the away side, this site discussed the role of Emile Heskey this week, suggesting his arrival had prompted Van Egmond to compromise his principles of a short-passing game in favour of using the marquee’s burly frame to bypass midfield. That was a very clear theme here, with Mitchell and Tiago playing lots of long aerial balls towards Heskey immediately after regaining possession, as is clear in the left chalkboard below.
But interestingly, this felt more like a deliberate strategy from Newcastle rather than a last resort. Matthew Nash was particularly keen to play quick aerial punts up-field to try and launch counter-attacks, although these were less successful – his chalkboard is on the right in the image above.
There were two problems with this strategy: firstly, both Bas Van Der Brink and Thwaite are tall, athletic defenders, and made sure to stick tight to Heskey when Perth lost possession to prevent him from winning easy balls. Van der Brink was the more domineering and Thwaite sometimes swapped to the right side of defence to allow Van der Brink to track Heskey, which illustrates the good understanding the two share – the two combined conceded just one foul in the entire 90 minutes.
Secondly, Newcastle had trouble giving support to Heskey when he did bring the ball down. The usual problem of having the wingers too deep was a prominent issue yet again, but Taggart’s positioning was especially poor – he tended to the left, whereas Heskey tends to the right, meaning they were sometimes on opposite sides of the pitch when the ball was played long.
This counter-attacking strategy was generally very poor: Newcastle created just the one opportunity on the break, when Taggart set up Virgili one-on-one with Vukovic following a fast transition from a corner.
Perth also played direct but was simply cleverer about it, aiming long balls into the channels for Smeltz to collect, while there was a notable focus to wait for McGarry to move close to Smeltz before the ball was played – a subtle move, but one that simply gave the striker a player to lay the ball down to. A well worked combination between Risdon and Smeltz in the thirty-sixth minute was a good example of how Perth were trying to play.
But Perth didn’t need to go long as often, because they were comfortably winning the midfield battle. Their pressing was excellent throughout. Perth knew they could allow Mitchell and Tiago time on the ball, because neither is a particularly good passer, but when the ball was played forwards, McGarry closed down the deepest Newcastle midfielder, and Burns and Miller took turns to press the other – generally Miller tracking Oxborrow – and this sustained pressure certainly played a role in Newcastle’s directness.
The trio of Burns-McGarry-Miller is a fine combination of talents, but the latter was especially dominant in this contest, switching the ball to either flank with good skill and controlling the tempo of the match. Van Egmond briefly instructed Taggart to man-mark him in the first half, but this exacerbated Heskey’s isolation.
The pressure on Newcastle’s midfield deep inside their own half proved crucial as it had a key role in the opening goal, where Oxborrow, under pressure, gave Dodd a shooting opportunity inside the box.
The youngster was promptly removed at half-time, with Josh Brillante moving into central midfield. Van Egmond also switched Virgili to the right and moved Griffiths centrally.
Now Newcastle were reprising the good partnership between Heskey and Griffiths and had a good spell to open the half, but they were undone by poor marking at corners – a clear theme of the first half, chiefly in the opening ten minutes which saw Newcastle struggle to clear their lines.
They continued to play in their 4-2-3-1 system but still struggled to manufacture chances, so Van Egmond made a drastic move (as he had done a fortnight ago when behind against Brisbane). Connor Chapman came on (with Craig Goodwin already on in place of Taggart) and Newcastle switched to 3-5-2.
Newcastle conceded almost immediately after the switch. Probably the greatest factor in the concession of the penalty was the confusion of changing from a back four to back three, but also of importance was the fact with no-one tracking Harold’s run on the outside, Neville was slightly off-balance in trying to cover for the lack of a wide defender, thus allowing Smeltz to gain half a yard and force Mitchell into a desperate, lunging challenge.
The roles of the attacking four didn’t really change, with Heskey and Griffiths still working in tandem up-front, and a good piece of build-up play where the former held up the ball and then played Griffiths in behind emphasised the importance of support for Heskey.
Virgili and Goodwin were effectively the wing-backs, which underlined just how attacking the system was – and the defence was now a crude diamond shape, with Chapman sitting in front of an extremely high line. The obvious weakness was down the sides, which is exactly where Perth’s final opportunities came, with substitute Chris Harold occupying the space behind Virgili. Zadkovich, as the right sided midfielder, was forced to move out into that zone to close down the winger.
A constant theme of Iain Ferguson’s tenure at Perth has been their radical improvement when playing 4-2-3-1 rather than 4-4-2. The defensive base of the side doesn’t change in either formation, but the use of McGarry behind Smeltz means Perth can either play with an extra midfielder or a support striker. The pattern of the past three weeks only serves to exemplify this theory further.
Another game, another sobering defeat for Van Egmond. It is easy to point at Heskey’s late arrival and the exuberance of youth as excuses for their poor form, but the reality is that Newcastle lacks a clear identity and that far too much experimentation is compromising their ability to play cohesively.