Brisbane Roar are the defending champions of the A-League, yet they sit ninth on the table, one point above cellar dwellers Sydney FC. Now Rado Vidosic has been replaced as head coach by Mike Mulvey, who has only ever been in charge of four A-League matches. It’s an astonishing turnaround for a side that was the pinnacle of the competition for two consecutive years, so what has gone wrong this season for the Roar?
The immediate and obvious answer is Rado Vidosic, the successor to Ange Postecoglou. It is a tough job for someone to succeed a dual-championship winner responsible for establishing arguably the most attractive and efficient tactical system in A-League history, but given the speed at which the Roar have reshuffled the club hierarchy, it is clear they are not happy with the current form.
There are suggestions that Vidosic isn’t as a good a motivator as Postecoglou and struggles with man management, but this is a tactics focused site, so it is more suitable to concentrate on the tactical changes he has made.
Broadly speaking, Vidosic didn’t have to make wholesale changes to his squad when he took over. “It would be suicidal to change anything,” he said. “We have developed a game that really works and which makes it so hard to compete against.” True to his word, stability was key for Vidosic despite the change of coach, with six first-team players all signing long-term contracts during the off-season.
Less set patterns of play
As the Brisbane preview noted, the biggest change from Postecoglou and Vidosic has been the absence of clear patterns of play, both offensively and defensively.
Last season, Brisbane had very specific moves to counter opposition defences – for example, Erik Paartalu would often drop into the back four and becoming a third centre-back, the by-effect of which being to allow the full-backs to advance high up the pitch – a similar tactic to how Pep Guardiola used Sergio Busquets at Barcelona.
(As a sidenote, Victory’s recent success stems from a very obvious focus on releasing the wide forwards in behind the defence, which is another good example of how Postecoglou likes rehearsed attacking moves.)
Furthermore, Brisbane has always been fluid since their radical shift in style, but it was structured fluidity: one player would move out, another would replace him. That kind of tactical understanding is hard to put into words, but it is crucial, as it ensures the side has a good shape both when they lose the ball and when they have the ball.
Now there is more freedom and attacking is more about improvisation and individual skill, with players given greater licence to express themselves on the ball. While this can benefit those with the creativity to work in those situations, it also harms the team’s general shape, as players tend to drift away from their designated positions without anyone occupying the vacated space, which creates opportunities for opposition counter-attacks.
There is no clearer example of this than in midfield, where Erik Paartalu has been liberated by a more unrestricted role. Under Postecoglou, Erik Paartalu was a static holding midfielder, instructed to hold his position and play simple passes to recycle possession.
Under Vidosic, he’s been far more willing to move forward this season into attacking positions. With Massimo Murdocca intelligent enough to cover for Paartalu when he moves forward, the theory has some grounding, but it does mean that they have a poor defensive shape, as was clear against the Melbourne Heart.
Curiously, this tweak wasn’t the touted change one expected when Vidosic took over. Instead, the pre-season focus was on a rejigged 4-2-3-1 formation which would see Broich and Paartalu sitting as deeper midfielders to accommodate a quartet of attackers.
“We’ve been playing with two number sixes for quite a bit of the pre-season,” said Matt Smith before the opening round. “It’s no real secret to Perth that we’re probably going to be starting with two number sixes. Erik’s very much sitting there to win battles and pass, while Thomas is creative and very good on the ball.”
Yet for all their promise and practice in pre-season, Brisbane ended up abandoning the 4-2-3-1 system midway through that Perth match, returning to their standard 4-3-3 formation. This suggests Vidosic wasn’t completely convinced on the idea, which raises questions of why Brisbane had even prepared it to use in the first game of the season in the first place.
Only recently has Brisbane returned to that brief experiment, with the loss to the Western Sydney Wanderers featuring a double pivot of Paartalu and Murdocca taking turns to get forward. This allows Broich to take a central role as an attacking playmaker, where he has been at his best. Against the Victory, he dropped into unusually deep positions in an attempt to escape the attention of Mark Milligan, which had a flow on effect on Brisbane’s abilities to create chances high up the pitch for Berisha.
Berisha false nine
Besart Berisha proved himself as an outstanding striker under Ange Postecoglou, combining fantastic finishing with a good work ethic – highly suitable for their demanding pressing game.
Berisha’s link-up play was always quite good, but he was generally always found in central positions close to the penalty box. Now, Berisha is now encouraged to move all over the pitch, dropping deep and pulling wide as well as making runs behind the defence, making him an extremely mobile and dynamic player, as well as a useful out-ball when the midfield is under pressure, as he effectively becomes a fourth central midfielder. He is the embodiment of Vidosic’s increased freedom.
This doesn’t really suit Brisbane, however, because they don’t have players working in sync with Berisha. For a false nine system to be successful, the ideal is to have inverted wide forwards making diagonal runs in behind the defence. A perfect example of this principle is Melbourne Victory (again), who use Marcos Flores and Guilherme Finkler as deep-lying forwards in order to open up space out wide for Archie Thompson and Marcos Rojas.
Whereas the latter duo have developed a good understanding of their roles in Postecoglou’s system, Henrique and Ben Halloran rarely make those kinds of runs, preferring instead to stay wide and receive passes to feet, which naturally makes defending easier. Besides, Berisha doesn’t really have the vision or passing range to able to execute the kinds of passes executed by the Victory’s South American duo.
It’s unclear whether the problem lies with either: a) Berisha, b) the wingers or c) Vidosic, but there is little disputing the fact that the false nine system doesn’t work for Brisbane – for now, at least.
Keeping with the theme of misfiring attacks, it’s been interesting to observe that Ben Halloran’s tepid form hasn’t been the focus of much debate.
That is due in part to an outstanding performance in round 2, where Brisbane continually used his pace as an outlet for quick, direct passes down the right, exposing Adama Traore’s lack of protection. In that match, the added variety in Brisbane’s usual short passing game easily overpowered a Victory defence that had already been struggling with a high line.
But playing with high line hasn’t exactly been a prominent feature of A-League sides this season, which means Halloran is forced to receive more passes to feet, when under pressure. In these situations, his slow decision making becomes obvious, and without being able to offer enough beyond his pace, he is fast coming of as a one-dimensional player. A common scenario in Brisbane Roar games is Broich come inside and looking for passes through the defence, but too often Halloran won’t have made a run into the channel or behind the defence – instead, he’ll still be close to the right touchline.
Loss of ball-playing defenders
Although Brisbane retained the majority of their Championship-winning squad, they did lose centre-back Sayed Mohamed Adnan, the tall lanky Bahrian that was a permanent fixture in the heart of defence for Postecoglou.
Although Matt Jurman is a capable replacement defensively, his passing is slower and more ponderous than his predecessor. Adnan had an outstanding passing range (as well as some spectacular free-kicks!) which, against deep defences, was important, as sides choosing to pack the box couldn’t also deal with the threat of Adnan’s creativity. That secondary attacking measure has been missing under Vidosic, and recent selections indicated that the coach harboured similar concerns, as Jurman has been dropped in favour of the slightly more technical Ivan Franjic.
Obviously, the problem isn’t completely tactical, with psychological and motivation issues all crucial but intangible elements to winning football games.
Additionally, conditioning, although not directly measurable, is important to all teams. It is especially crucial to those trying to play a high-pressing game, and Brisbane’s subdued pressing has been a key feature of their season. Normally, they close down with ferocious energy all across the pitch, but now pressing generally starts closer to the halfway line, which in turn harms their ability to monopolise possession, which, of course, is central to everything they do.
And even when Brisbane do press – and they attempted to do so for periods in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Melbourne Victory – it’s not as cohesive an effort as it used to be. For example, Berisha might quickly move forward to close down the centre-backs for example, but there’ll be no-one moving up in support when the ball is transferred to the other side of the pitch.
But, as Massimo Murdocca explains, a reduced intensity now will result in an increase in the latter part of the season.
“The training sessions this season haven’t been as hard as what we are used to,” he says, “and that’s come down to trying to ensure we have a bit more left in the tank when we go into Asia at the end of the season.”
“It’s a case of trial and error and if it means sacrificing the first couple of rounds to ensure we are ready for the Champions League, maybe that’s the way to go.”
And that – the Asian Champions League – is probably what informed the surprise decision to ‘elevate’ Vidosic to technical director and introduce Mike Mulvey. The former Gold Coast United coach will now have the chance to implement his own ideas and familiarise himself with the squad before Brisbane’s continental campaign begins.
How Mulvey sets up the side – either continuing n the Vidosic fashion or the more demanding Postecoglou template – will be crucial.