The Wanderers scored six in an extraordinary night for the A-League newcomers.
Tony Popovic made three changes to the team that started the Sydney derby, with Aaron Mooy, Dino Kresinger and Mark Bridge replacing Iacopo La Rocca, Joey Gibbs and Shannon Cole respectively, the latter unlucky to be excluded from the squad altogether.
John Kosmina was delighted with Adelaide’s 3-1 win over the Wellington Phoenix, so he named an unchanged side, meaning Marcelo Carrusca and Dario Vidosic formed an attack-minded midfield.
Popovic’s clever strategy consigned Adelaide to their most disappointing performance this season, and Kosmina was simply outdone in the tactical battle by an organised, disciplined display.
The game was all about a dominant performance in midfield from the Wanderers. The midfield shapes were identical in a clash between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, so theoretically, Osama Malik would pick up Shinji Ono, and Marcelo Carrusca and Dario Vidosic would track Mateo Poljak and Aaron Mooy.
The latter sit deep in line with the Wanderers’ overall strategy of compactness and organisation, while the former press high up the pitch and try to win the ball back quickly, leaving Malik alone in front of the back four. That was the dominant feature of the first half, and has been the dominant feature of Adelaide’s recent switch to 4-3-3. Against Sydney, Terry Antonis and Alessandro Del Piero dropped into spaces either side of Malik, while the Mariners wingers came narrow to create 3v1 overloads in the centre of the park.
The Wanderers used a mixture of both those strategies. Sometimes the midfield players would storm forward quickly into the room on either side of Malik, and sometimes Bridge and Hersi targeted the space between the Adelaide full-backs and centre-backs. The home side worked the ball into these situations with quick, first time passes that bypassed Adelaide’s pressing game, effectively cutting five players out of the play in one simple move.
Ono was the biggest beneficiary of this space in midfield, and a ten minute spell early in the game summed up his influence. He had a threatening shot from range, and then played in Polenz on the right which resulted in a good chance for Kresinger, before Hersi was set up for a shot in the eleventh minute. Finally, in the eighteenth minute, Western Sydney made their superiority count after Mark Bridge finished off a move that started from a clever Ono pass.
The Japanese playmaker wasn’t just excelling in central positions – aware that Malik would sometimes doggedly follow him, he drifted wide to open up more space in the centre, encouraging Mooy and Poljak to break forward. The latter fired in a shot from outside the penalty area, while the recently capped Socceroo found room to release Hersi down the right, who crossed from Kresinger in the middle for a fine chance. Adelaide was as culpable at Sydney were last week at giving him too much room in creative positions, and were made to pay.
The wide players also tried to move quickly into the zone on either side of Malik, illustrated best by Mark Bridge’s third goal when Hersi found room in the channel to find his teammate in a good position.
By contrast, Mooy and Poljak sat deep in front of the back four when Adelaide had possession, which gave Topor-Stanley and Beauchamp good protection and limited the ability of Vidosic and Carrusca to find space between the lines. Both turned in superb performances last week as the beneficiaries of Wellington’s tendency to be drawn quickly up the pitch towards them, but with two disciplined holders, the Wanderers replicated the Mariners strategy in Adelaide’s last defeat. It will be interesting to see if other sides adopt this approach.
The Wanderers knew Adelaide’s recent success has come not only from midfield rotation but also from playing out from the back, and had a very clear gameplan to counter this threat. Ono and Kresinger worked as a duo to close down from the front, one pressing, the other occupying Malik to prevent an easy pass into midfield, and Hersi and Bridge shuttled forwards quickly to close down the full-backs. No Adelaide player could find time to play the ball forward, making it even more difficult for the attacking players to influence the match.
For the first ten minutes, Malik dropped in and split the centre-backs to create a back three, similar to how Erik Paartalu used to for the Brisbane Roar. This gave Adelaide an extra man at the back and allowed them to play out of defence, but strangely, he stopped doing so around the ten minute mark and started played higher up the pitch, perhaps in an attempt to try and pull Ono deeper. Instead, it triggered the aforementioned spell of Wanderers dominance.
Even Galekovic received close attention, and attempted chipped passes towards Cassio to bypass the pressing, but his brave attempts at accurate distribution was undermined when it gave Ono a chance to fire in the fourth goal.
Still, Adelaide was competitive in the first half, thanks to a very obvious focus on executing long diagonals towards Fabio Ferriera on the right flank. The Portugese has a good combination with Carrusca and the two repeatedly tried isolate Adam D’Apuzzo at left back, and he received a yellow card for a brutal challenge on Ferriera directly after a switch of play.
The risk of a red only intensified Adelaide’s focus on playing down the right and one move down that side lead to a particularly good chance for Kotstopoulos that was headed off-target. Eventually D’Apuzzo had to be replaced by Iacopo La Rocca following a calf injury, but Popovic might have considered the change anyway – it was clearly his side’s biggest weakness in an otherwise fantastic first half performance, and he wouldn’t wanted to have risked an unnecessary red card.
3-0 was a fair reflection on the balance of play.
Unsurprisingly, Kosmina made a half-time subsitution by withdrawing Kostopolous for Jeronimo Neumann. Carrusca sat slightly deeper while Vidosic moved to the left wing as Adelaide adopted a system approaching 4-2-3-1, presumably intended to give the defence more cover.
But the pattern of the first half continued into the second, mainly because Carrusca is better in advanced positions and was slow to get back into position alongside Malik. He’s clearly not a central midfielder you’d play in a midfield two, but the Adelaide coach would have been reluctant to pull off one of his star players considering they were chasing the game. Still, the first substitution failed to have a significant impact on the game, and the Wanderers extended their lead.
Popovic made fairly obvious substitutions, and although it might sound simplistic to say that they took their foot off the pedal, Hersi’s lax tracking drew Mooy out of position and gave Jeronimo room between the lines to slip Vidosic in for a consolation. The Argentine continued to find good spaces between the lines, but the damage had already been done.
A highly impressive win for the Wanderers.They set up in their standard system with two major tweak: first, increased pressing to prevent Adelaide playing out from the back, and secondly, overloading the isolated Malik in the final third. As mentioned, it was similar to the Mariners approach three weeks ago, and the league leaders make for a fair comparison with their focus on compactness and quick counter-attacking. The subtle tweaks to neuter Adelaide’s threat shows good tactical awareness not only from Popovic, but from the players. The general proximity of where their shots were taken from is little surprise.
But one shouldn’t underestimate how poor Adelaide were. Their passing and pressing was ponderous, and Kosmina failed to rectify the Malik problem – his major change was inherently flawed and simply allowed the home side to extend their lead. They are enjoying a good season but tonight was the clearest illustration yet of the inherent flaws in their system.