The Wanderers leapfrogged Melbourne Victory into 3rd place.
After rotating for the trip to Perth, Popovic returned to his more recognisable eleven, although Iacopo La Rocca started in place of the suspended Aaron Mooy.
Postecoglou’s only change was to re-introduce Adrian Leijer for makeshift centre-back Leigh Broxham.
This was a Shinji Ono goal-scoring masterclass, but also an intriguing tactical battle between two sides with a defined way of playing.
This was basically 4-4-2 v 4-4-2. Western Sydney are often described as a 4-2-3-1, but out of possession, they defend in two banks of four, with Ono pushing up alongside Kresinger.
The key in terms of positioning was not necessarily the formation battle, but how high the defensive lines were playing. There are, broadly speaking, two options to take against the Victory – play aggressively and deny Flores and Finkler space between the lines, or sit deep and reduce the space in behind for Rojas and Thompson. Wanderers set their line excellently, deep enough to be able to cover for the pace out wide, but high enough so that one defender could move out of position and close down the South American playmakers quickly.
But then Finkler had to go off injured, replaced by Andrew Nabbout in a like-for-like swap. However, Nabbout is clearly better suited to one of the wide positions with his pace and finishing, and was clearly uncomfortable when asked to orchestrate the play. He dropped deep into midfield to collect possession, but didn’t have the ball-playing skills to find Rojas or Thompson – as illustrated when he made a poor decision to shoot instead of find a player in a better position twenty minutes in – and looked far more comfortable when drifting to the flanks.
Finkler’s injury also increased the onus on Flores to be the creative spark, but the Argentine has been hugely disappointing since his return to Australia, and this was his poorest match yet. He frequently gave the ball away by choosing the wrong pass or holding onto it for too long. His positioning was also shocking, and he was easily tracked by Mateo Poljak.
Although Postecoglou’s Brisbane was suggested to be Australia’s Barcelona, the Victory are more like Real Madrid – their gameplan is all about attacking on transitions with decision making at speed, and te first pass immediately after winning possession is nearly always forward (a huge contrast to an obsessive focus on retaining possession at Brisbane). Here, the accuracy of those balls was wayward, due in part to the home side’s defensive discipline, and the absence of Mark Milligan, who has evolved into a fine passer, was important.
Edge of the box
Milligan was also missed defensively – he works hard to close the gap between midfield and defence, whereas Jonathon Bru tends to be drawn up the pitch.
As noted against the Newcastle Jets, Melbourne look weak when defending against midfield runners, a direct causation of their ambitiously attacking gameplan. Here, Wanderers attackers frequently dropped off into the space just outside the penalty box to find space to either shoot or pass, something that was as obvious as the second minute when Ono collected a knock-on from Kresinger, only to completely miscue the shot.
Later, La Rocca fired in a shot from a similar position that was only just palmed away by Coe, and then Hersi had room outside the penalty box to open up Ono for a shot, who then scored two minutes later with a wonderful piece of improvisation.
The trend continued throughout the match – Mark Bridge burst forward from the left to fire in a shot from the ‘D”, and had another opportunity after ghosting in behind the Victory midfield (see above). Finally, Ono scored the winner with a near identical situation – but with a better finish.
Wanderers focus down right
The second area of superiority from the home side was their right flank, where Jerome Polenz continually stormed forward to find space in wide areas. Archie Thompson played narrow on the left wing (although he sometimes switched with Rojas or Nabbout, which exaggerated the problem), and this provided Polenz with the space to motor forward. He engineered a fine passing move only undone by a shocking cross by Hersi, while he also won a free-kick in a dangerous position from which Ono nearly scored, as well as winning a mass of corners on the right from which the Victory looked shaky.
Thompson’s narrowness also limited Victory’s attack, because they didn’t have anyone actively stretching the play on that side. Adama Traore has become less of an attack-minded fullback under Postecoglou, and has enjoyed a fine run of form, mainly because he has had less responsibility to get forward. His attacking intent left the side exposed in the opening rounds, but he’s now free to focus more on his defensive duties.
After the half-time break, Marco Rojas took up a more permanent position on the left, and Polenz’s influence was distinctly less prominent, probably (and understandably) because he was concerned with leaving space for the A-League’s most in-form player.
Instead, the most interesting feature of the second half was Western Sydney’s pressure. As mentioned earlier, Bridge and Hersi are encouraged to move forward and close down the opposition full-backs, but the two deeper midfielders rarely stray from their position. The obvious space, then, is the gap between the wingers and full-backs, because it forces either Polenz or Cole to move forward, or one of the midfielders to come across and cover.
Western Sydney closing down excellently and forced Victory to pass backwards – which is contrary to their style, and it was unusual to see a Postecoglou side struggle so much to play out from the back – and this was a testament to the tactical awareness instilled in the Wanderers by Popovic.
Still, there were flaws in the way they pressed, as noted above. Victory’s best chance of the game, when Thompson fired over from inside the area, originated from a chipped pass to Foschini, which released pressure on the back four. It was notable for Spase Dilevski’s goal that the Wanderers were defending with six players, as Bridge and Hersi are nowhere to be seen.
That goal came after a double change from Postecoglou, who substituted both his deeper midfielders at the same time, which didn’t fix the problem in defending around the edge of the penalty area, and they conceded the winner shortly after.
“We’ve got certain basic principles in our game that we’ve been good at following and our discipline at doing that but tonight was just poor,” the Victory coach lamented. “We just didn’t follow some of the basic fundamentals of our game and we got punished for it.”
While the Wanderers game plan is simple, focused around hard work and positional discipline, Postecoglou’s is more about individuals. Losing Finkler had huge ramifications for Victory’s ability to play their style, especially with Marcos Flores in such poor form, and it’s unclear how the side will react if he is ruled out for a long period of time. Postecoglou was limited by his bench tonight, but he might consider a change in formation.
There were three key areas in this game: 1) Polenz finding room down the right 2) Western Sydney’s pressing and 3) Melbourne’s defending on the edge of the area, which lead directly to the two goals they conceded.