Henrique’s second half goal was enough for Brisbane’s first win under Mike Mulvey.
True to his word of not reacting drastically to last Friday’s 6-1 defeat to Western Sydney, John Kosmina made just two changes, with Daniel Bowles returning at right-back in place of Cameron Watson, and Jeronimo Neumann replacing Evan Kostopoulos.
Mulvey gave former protégé Ben Halloran a first start under the new leadership, with the speedy winger allowing Thomas Broich to move into a central midfield role alongside Mitch Nicholls. Massimo Murdocca was on the bench.
This was an uninspiring game. Both sides had very clear flaws in their structure, but neither took proper advantage of the others weakness, leading to an open match, but little entertainment.
Starting with the home side and the more obvious weakness, John Kosmina’s attacking ambition has very notably created a ‘broken’ team of five defenders and five attackers, with Osama Malik, the holding midfielder, given a very difficult job of protecting the back four.
Sydney were the first to exploit the flaw, and Adelaide’s last two defeats against the Central Coast Mariners and Western Sydney stemmed from an obvious focus from the opposition on exposing the space between the lines.
Kosmina did make a slight structural change – he instructed Marcelo Carrusca to sit slightly deeper in midfield (as he did in the second half against the Wanderers), while Dario Vidosic was deployed on the left with the freedom to drift inside. Jeronimo played close to Bruce Djite, meaning without the ball, Adelaide’s shape best resembled a 4-4-2. They also sat much deeper than in previous weeks, pressing more reservedly and allowing Brisbane freedom on the ball inside their own half.
Still, there were pockets of space all across the pitch, the two most obvious being just in behind Carrusca, who was lax with his tracking, and on the left hand side where Vidosic’s roaming left Cassio exposed.
The most recognizable weakness for the away side was a lack of confidence. They simply don’t seem as comfortable on the ball this season – due in part to Vidosic’s reduced focus on set patterns of play – while their physical preparation, tailored around the Asian Champions League at the end of the season, has also restricted their ability to play at 100%.
Tactically speaking, here they played aggressively, pressing high up the pitch and defending with a high line, meaning their weakness lay in the space in behind, where well-timed balls over the top was the obvious strategy.
Mulvey recognised the flaws in Adelaide’s system, and set up his side accordingly by moving Broich centrally, which meant the German playmaker could take advantage of the room on either side of Malik. He also took a cue from Western Sydney by closing down Adelaide from the front – Nicholls pushed forwards alongside Berisha and tracked the runs of Malik, preventing the easy pass and forcing Adelaide to frequently go long.
It was very similar to how Shinji Ono and Dino Kresinger worked to prevent the Reds playing out from the back, and a lack of vertical movement towards the ball from the advanced midfielders only exaggerated the problem further.
By contrast, Kosmina’s side frequently attempted to exploit Brisbane’s high line with a number of balls over the top, but the timing of their forward runs was extremely poor as was the quality of the final pass. Jeronimo and Vidosic positioned themselves very poorly – they weren’t an option with a short or long pass, while the timing of their runs in behind was poor.
On the other wing, Fabio Ferriera kept good width but was easily tracked by Shane Stefanutto, while Bowles rarely got forward, as he was pinned back by the danger of Henrique.
Therefore, it seemed far more likely that Brisbane would score – they were dominating possession and the space between the lines was perfect for the likes of Broich and Nicholls. The problem was that they weren’t getting the ball to that duo quick enough, as they focused on keeping possession immediately after winning the ball.
That meant, instead of choosing the risky forward pass, they’d opt for the safe sideways option, ensuring they monopolised the ball at the cost of allowing the home side time to assume their structure. By the stage where Brisbane would work the ball forward, Adelaide had dropped into their 4-4-1-1 shape, which reduced the openness in midfield.
But still, there were spaces in between the lines, and the off-the-ball movement of Nicholls was perfect: he continually positioned himself Berisha in a pocket of space behind Carrusca, free of any marker. Too often though, Brisbane failed to find him, focusing their passing instead towards the flanks (as Mulvey prefers). This allowed Henrique and Halloran to become more involved in the game – with the latter losing out frequently in one-on-one situations down the right – and the two switched in flanks midway through the half, presumably to see if Henrique would have more success in the open spaces down that side.
But on the balance of the tactical battle, the better option would have been playing through the centre.
When Kosmina took off Jeronimo and introduced Kostopoulos, he reverted to his ‘usual’ 4-3-3 system, with Carrusca and Vidosic floating ahead of Malik. This formation, with two natural wingers in Kostopoulos and Ferriera, made Adelaide even more open through the middle – given that the creative midfielders tried to press high up the pitch – and immediately after the change, Brisbane created a good chance by working the ball across the park towards Henrique.
Not long after that, the game’s only goal arrived, with Nicholls the creator by dribbling his way into the box after collecting the ball unmarked outside the area. The assist was a good reward for the man of the match, and the nature of his goal – with Malik in no-man’s land to the right of him – was a fitting reward for the clever awareness he displayed throughout the game.
Kosmina immediately reacted by replacing Malik with Watson – it was the right player to bring on, but the wrong player to take off. Granted, the Adelaide coach was obliged to chase the game, but the switch didn’t help solve the issue in midfield, and the late Fitzgerald chance created from a fine pass from Broich only highlighted it further.
Just like last week, Kosmina well and truly lost the tactical battle. Structure has been sacrificed for his attacking ambition, and while clever movement and outstanding technical ability temporarily papered over the cracks, he now needs to find a balanced system. And for all the exciting attacking talent he squeezed into tonight’s team, his side mustered up just one shot on target.
It is still difficult to assess Mulvey’s impact so far. Brisbane were discernibly trying to play down the flanks more – especially towards the right – but this doesn’t play to the strengths of Halloran, who continues to appear one-dimensional with his tendency to dribble down the outside. He is more suitable to a counter-attacking side, and integrating him into the more patient, probing Brisbane style will be a big challenge for the new coach.
Mulvey will, however, be pleased with the formation of his midfield tonight: Broich was good in a slightly deeper, central role, while Nicholls was the game’s key player: by tracking Malik, Adelaide were forced to go long, while his intelligent movement in attack was undermined by his teammate’s slow passing.
He should have had a more tangible impact on the scoresheet beyond his lone assist – although that was all that was really needed in an unexciting fixture.