Newcastle’s record of only winning when Emile Heskey scores continued in a 2-1 win.
Gary van Egmond continued to reshuffle his back four, with Sam Gallagher starting for the first time since February 2011 at left-back, while Connor Chapman and Dominik Ritter was a new centre-back partnership. The Ryan Griffiths-Emile Heskey partnership returned up front when James Virgili and Craig Goodwin supporting the attack on the right and left respectively.
Alessandro Del Piero started for the first time under Frank Farina as the central striker in a 4-4-2 formation, with Brett Emerton used in support. Rhyan Grant was shifted to right-back while Sebastian Ryall moved centrally to cover for the absence of Pascal Bosschaart. Ali Abbas returned to the starting XI on the right wing while Jason Culina was left out, meaning Terry McFlynn returned from suspension in midfield.
Both sides suffered hugely disappointed defeats last week, and the amount of changes reflected that, but the home team made their period of domination in the first half count.
Newcastle closed down well from the front – there was a very clear emphasis on preventing Sydney having time on the ball, with Ruben Zadkovich energetic in pushing forward from midfield to prevent either McFlynn or Terry Antonis having time on the ball.
Furthermore, Goodwin and Virgili moving up quickly towards Sydney’s full-backs at goalkicks, meaning Vedran Janjetovic’s was nearly always forced to go long. Sydney had no target man to aim for, as Del Piero, obviously an outstanding footballer, is rarely going to win aerial battles.
By contrast, Newcastle had the option of finding Heskey with a long ball, although they were still guilty of taking this route too early, and Brillante in particular showed his frustration when Birghitti went long instead of playing it short.
Ryall and Griffiths passed more accurately than they have in recent weeks, but the majority of their play was still based around hopeful passes towards the channels.
The Sydney pressing was more reserved: they sat closer to the halfway line in two banks of four, with Emerton and Del Piero further advanced and attempting to close down from the front. Newcastle could easily play around this initial pressure, and they dominated possession for the majority of the half, settling quickly into a fast tempo.
With the ball, there was a very obvious focus from Newcastle on playing down the right. This was hardly surprising – Yairo Yao sporadically tracks back and leaves Fabio exposed, as was obvious against Adelaide United, Western Sydney and the Melbourne Heart.
Scott Neville stormed forward quickly to offer support, while Heskey often also drifted out to that side to help overload in that zone, and Virgili was easily the best player of the first half. The intent was clear as early at eight minutes in when Virgili set up Brillante for a long range shot. Then, he won the foul that lead to the opening goal, before playing in a fine cross from the byline for Heskey to tap in.
To be fair to Yao, he was tracking back occasionally – the problem was with the fact he positioned himself poorly and Neville constantly burst ahead, and eventually Fabio received a yellow card after being drawn into an obvious foul. The problem was excaberated by the fact that Ryall played on the left side of the defence. As a right footed player, he was clearly uncomfortable in moving out to the channels, as illustrated by his indecision for the second goal.
Farina reacted after half an hour by hooking Emerton – who was ‘ill’ – and introducing youngster Peter Triantis, who played deep in central midfield. Terry Antonis went right wing, with Abbas switching to the left, and Yao moving up front. Sydney were still playing a 4-4-2, but with players deployed in more natural positions – clearly, Farina likes an energetic player as his second striker, but Emerton was completely unsuited to the role and played poorly.
Now Sydney had a more natural strike partnership. Del Piero could drop into midfield find space between the lines and receive passes to feet, while Yao could threaten with his pace in behind.
Furthermore, Abbas offered more protection to Fabio on the left and helped track the runs of Neville (although the Brazilian eventually had to be removed for Nathan Sherlock, with Grant moving across to the left), while Triantis played a clever role in midfield. He positioned himself so he could intercept balls in towards Griffiths, while shuttling forward to prevent the Newcastle midfield getting time on the ball. His tactical awareness was outstanding in an excellent debut.
The goal was the best example of these changes: Triantis won the ball in midfield, and then Del Piero came deep to play a pass over Newcastle’s high line for Yao to chase. The rebound was fortunate, but the move summed up Sydney’s improvements.
After a brief period working out what Farina had changed, Van Egmond’s side adjusted accordingly. The defensive line sat deeper, and the pressing became more conservative. The flipside of this was that they became more direct and the wingers were increasingly isolated from Heskey, but they defended with the security of a 2-1 lead.
Therefore, the rest of the match was mainly about Sydney chasing the game. Last year, they were the comeback kings of the A-League, but decidedly less so this season, having recovered just three points from losing positions. The quality of the second half was especially poor: sloppy passing, little movement and too many aerial balls from both sides.
Del Piero + Yao
The most promising trend was the link-up play between Del Piero and Yao – the former Juventus striker was at his best for the Italian giants when floating in a ‘trequaristra’ position, and he continually dropped off into areas behind Brillante to turn on the ball and play Yao in behind.
Van Egmond’s concern was elucidated when he briefly considered introducing Josh Mitchell, before deciding instead on Jacob Pepper in place of Brillante. This wasn’t a particularly effective move in a defensive sense – although Pepper showed good awareness to slow the tempo of the game with some calm, measured distribution – and Del Piero continued to find space, but Yao’s finishing was wayward.
“Tonight I thought we had two full-backs who had real intent getting past people, we had midfielders who really wanted to work, we had wide players who wanted to take people on, and strikers who wanted to win their duels and score,” said Van Egmond: an exaggeration, but Newcastle did play very well in the first half.
It forced Sydney into a change – and Sydney’s recovery in turn forced Van Egmond to react. Pace was the key attribute – firstly, down the right where Fabio was overrun by Virgili, and then Yao ran in behind the Newcastle defence.