Steven McGarry’s wonder strike was enough to separate last season’s grand finalists.
Mike Mulvey’s first ever Brisban Roar team surprisingly didn’t feature Ben Halloran, with a front three of Thomas Broich, Besart Berisha and Henrique preferred in a standard 4-3-3 formation. James Donachie started at centre-back with Ivan Franjic moving out to the right, replacing Jack Hingert.
Iain Ferguson unsurprisingly kept with the same team that defeated Newcastle 3-0 last Friday.
This game had two broad phases: an even period before the goal, before a classic battle between attack and defence in the second.
It would be remiss to ignore what was the biggest talking point – Mulvey’s strategy for his first game in charge. Given he’d only taken control of two training sessions, wholesale changes were always unlikely. Rather, this was a more classic Brisbane performance: dominance of possession, positional rotation in attack and a focus on patient build-up play.
That’s not to say that Brisbane didn’t play in that style under Rado Vidosic, but the hallmarks that made Postecoglou’s side so efficient were more noticeable here: Erik Paartalu was a defined holding midfielder, while the two central midfielders ahead of him, Mitch Nicholls and Massimo Murdocca drifted wide to the touchline, allowing the wingers to come narrow and attack more directly on goal.
Furthermore, there was more structure to the interchange of positions: sometimes Broich would move centrally, but Nicholls would be aware and shift out to the left as to ensure that the 4-3-3 shape was maintained.
At the start of the match, Brisbane pressed extremely high up the pitch, closing down Perth’s back four immediately after losing the ball, before they settled into a more conservative approach, sitting closer to the halfway line.
Perth were also committed to pressing from the front for the opening period, with Steven McGarry playing close to Shane Smeltz as a second striker, and perhaps in an attempt to target his own experience, the Scotsman was particularly energetic at closing down Donachie. Eventually, though, a cagey contest emerged, with Brisbane inevitably dominating possession.
It was McGarry who had the key role at this point – he could have continued to played high up the pitch and allowed Paartalu to become the spare man, but instead, he began to drop onto the midfielder and prevent him from dictating the tempo.
Aware that he was now being tracking more carefully, Paartalu began to rotate cleverly with Murdocca, briefly confusing McGarry, and the former played two excellent passes over the top of the Glory defence given he had more time on the ball.
Shortly after, Perth realised what was happening and so Burns began to move forward quickly to prevent Paartalu playing those passes – occasionally leaving Miller isolated in front of the defence – but it reduced the influence of Brisbane’s rotation in midfield.
Perth kept their wingers deep and formed the standard two banks of four and tried to break directly down the left hand side (as can be seen on the right), where Scott Jamieson pushed forward manfully in support of Dean Heffernan. But the majority of their attacking play was based around long passes towards the channels for Smeltz, and the goal was a good example of this – Risdon playing direct to Smeltz, who laid it down for McGarry outside the penalty box.
Berisha false nine
Another interesting feature of the game – and Brisbane’s season as a whole – was Berisha’s movement into deep positions akin to the traits of a false nine. In recent weeks, his vertical movement hasn’t been met with the diagonal run into the space he vacates that is so paramount to a successful implementation of the system. Instead, Henrique and Halloran stay wide and receive passes to feet, rendering Berisha’s movement useless.
But here, Henrique was used on the right, which altered his style – he made more natural runs towards the centre of the penalty area, and he smashed the bar after a particularly good move that stemmed from a fine Berisha pass from near the halfway line.
That was probably Brisbane’s best chance in an otherwise unproductive second half, which was predominantly a battle between the home side’s attack and the away side’s defence. In fairness, Perth started brightly and switched Dodd to the left in an effort to increase his influence, but at around the fifty-five minute mark, they began to sit very deep in two compact rows of four, very similar to how they reacted to going ahead in the Grand Final.
McGarry began to play deeper as an extra midfielder, although he shuttled forward manfully to support attacks, and he played some good long passes to switch the point of the attack. He was Perth’s key player at transitions, and overall, he had a fine game, and was a deserving match winner.
Mulvey’s first change was inevitably the introduction of Halloran, who replaced Henrique. Although this was a reasonable change to make, it actually removed one of Brisbane’s key threats as Halloran, true to form, stayed wide on the right rather than attempting to run beyond defenders as Henrique had done to good effect.
In fairness, there was little room in behind the Perth defence, as they were now defending on the edge of the penalty area, and Ferguson’s substitutions – Chris Harold and Billy Mehmet as fresh legs – indicated he was happy with the shape of his side.
It’s not really surprising to see Perth defend a lead, but there has to be some concern about how early they go conservative – they invited a lot of pressure here, and as they learnt in the Grand Final, they can prove costly.
But this is a different Brisbane – they really struggle to break down sides that defend deep, and there is less of an aura about them now. “We’re just a little bit low on confidence at the moment. We need one of those chances to go in and once that happens we’ve got players who will score goals on a regular basis,” says Mulvey, and the key for him will be turning possession – of which they had 62% – into meaningful attacks.
Meanwhile, Ferguson will be delighted with ‘revenge’ and more importantly, the three points. The 4-2-3-1 formation with McGarry in the hole is now surely his first choice side – it gives them the flexibility to switch between different approaches, even if it means Mehmet must remain on the bench.