It feels like it’s been said repeatedly, but there’s no getting away from the main story: in the space of half a year, the Western Sydney Wanderers was born, Tony Popovic has built a cohesive and integrated squad with a clearly identifiable system and a realistic chance of success in the finals, meaning thousands of fans have flocked to Parramatta to see what all the fuss is about.
Popovic played under Graham Arnold when the latter was Socceroos coach, and has borrowed many of his ideas in building his side on principles of structure, discipline and hard work. The beauty of such a system is in its simplicity, allowing for rotation and meaning new players can easily adapt to the rigorous demands of life in Western Sydney – which makes perfect sense, considering the majority of the squad are/were on one-year contracts.
This is very much a side built on defence, and they boast the second best defensive record in the league (14) behind the Mariners. The key to this has been consistency. Michael Beauchamp, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Adam D’Apuzzo and Jerome Polenz is firmly the first choice back four, barring injuries and suspensions, and they have clearly benefitted from the harmony that their consistent selection affords. Beauchamp and Topor-Stanley are strong, physical, ‘classic’ central defenders, and cover for each other well – generally Topor-Stanley, as the centre-back with more pace. His height is extremely useful when defending set pieces – in fact, he’s one of the finest overall defenders in the league this season – although there is concern that their passing out from the back can be unambitious. Western Sydney do occasionally look guilty of being too quick to play long balls, but this is in line with Popovic’s strategy – he wants to minimise the risk of losing the ball and being exposed at counter-attacks, so he instructs his midfielders to knock safe, sideways balls to the flanks, and build attacks from those positions.
In the fullback positions, D’Apuzzo and Polenz motor forward and provide support on the overlap, and there is no doubt it’s the latter that is the more effective as a constant attacking threat, and his right flank is where the majority of Wanderers attacks stem from. Polenz benefits from his partnership with tricky winger Youssoff Hersi, who drifts inside cleverly to open up space down the touchline.
In fact, partnerships are perhaps the greatest quality within this side, as I discussed for Leopold Method earlier this season:
“With the natural partnerships that formation affords the most impressive element of his gameplan. All across the pitch, there are partnerships: At the back, Beauchamp and Topor-Stanley lead a defence that has conceded just eleven times. D’Apuzzo and Polenz have struck up a good understanding with their respective wingers, while on the flanks, Bridge and Hersi know if one goes forward, the other has to stay in a covering position.”
Unfortunately recent absentees have disrupted what was perhaps the most promising partnership – the central midfield duo of Aaron Mooy and Mateo Poljak. Originally, they had a very clear distribution of roles: Mooy was the creator, and given licence to attempt ambitious long diagonals, while Poljak was the more destructive, looking to break up play. It is a testament to both that they have gradually become more well-rounded players capable of both defending and attacking, with Mooy’s defensive qualities becoming particularly impressive, while Poljak has become braver with his positioning and increasingly gets forward as an energetic midfield runner.
Further forward, Japanese playmaker Shinji Ono completes the midfield triangle. He is a more defined role as an attacking number 10, and can also break forward to receive passes behind the defence. His awareness of space, intelligence and first touch are extraordinary, and after a solid if unspectacular introduction to the league, he’s become one of Australia’s star players. The double verus Melbourne Victory was particularly thrilling, the perfect microcosm of his marquee qualities. Ono’s influence is also key in allowing the wingers forward, and his recent improvement has correlated with a far more increased focus on drifting wide to link up play.
That’s particularly important, as it can be difficult for wide players who have to track back to form a second bank of four to get forward – you only have to look at their goalscoring troubles at the start of the season to find an example of this.
Mark Bridge and Hersi are firmly first choice on the flanks. Bridge is a striker converted to wide forward and likes to move inside into shooting positions (and has taken the 3rd most shots this season, behind Daniel McBreen and Jeremy Brockie), while Hersi is more creative, dribbling inside from the right towards the channels, and he currently ranks equal third for league assists.
The biggest concern is up front. Here, Popovic effectively has two choices: the static, physical hold-up play of Dino Kresiner, or the runs into the channels provided by Joey Gibbs. Both are hard-working and well suited to Popovic’s system in a defensive system, willing to close down energetically from the front, but their attacking output is poor – they share just three goals between them, and neither is a particularly prolific creator.
Many strikers across world football are now relied upon for their ability to ‘do a job’, but a more prolific goalscorer would be useful, and this is an area Popovic will be keen to address. He’s used Labinot Haliti as a centre-forward recently, and although he played decently, the former Newcastle player is probably better suited to cutting inside directly on goal from a wide position. There’s also the slight possibility that Popovic will integrate new signing Rocky Visconte in the left side of midfield, and push Bridge further forward, but this seems unlikely – in fact, he’s hinted Visconte might be given a run leading the line.
Depth and rotation
Another impressive feature of Western Sydney is their ability to rotate the squad and still grind out results. That might be more of a testament to the superiority/simplicity of Popovic’s approach than the actual quality of his squad, as there are no clear standout players amongst his reserves. A midweek game against Perth Glory illustrated this perfectly – Popovic made six changes to the side that had defeated Adelaide 6-1, and although this was probably excessive, they still came away with a point.
Iacopo La Rocca is the most used ‘non-starter’, and is effectively the back-up for both central defence and midfield, which was a problem when both Topor-Stanley and Poljak were absent against the Central Coast Mariners, and probably explains Popovic’s rumoured pursuit of Ruben Zadkovich, to provide cover in midfield. Shannon Cole is a versatile option on either flank as a defender or winger, while Tarek Elrich is a more direct, risky option in both positions down the right. Jason Triforo is a creative, technical ball-player, while there is youthful promise with Reece Caira and Kwabena Appiah-Kubi.
Popovic is particularly keen to rotate his squad before big games against the Mariners and Mellbourne Victory, knowing that the opportunity for a rest will allow his star players to play higher up the pitch, and force the opposition into mistakes. Conditioning is crucial, as Popovic needs his players to track back into position, and their work ethic has been clear in the two games where they’ve gone down to ten men – in both, they came away with a win.
The tactical tweaks against Melbourne Heart was particularly impressive- as Tony Tabbous noted, he defied traditional tactical notion by persisting with a 4-1-3-1 formation that meant Poljak was the lone anchor, with three attackers ahead of him.
The overall strategy is to sit in two banks of four and then counter-attack. The Wanderers press reasonably high up the pitch – a broad comparison could be made with how Germany played in the 2010 World Cup. Ono moves forward, alongside the striker and helps force the ball possessor to play wide ,where the wide players are then allowed to push forward and close down the full-backs, so that they are in a position to burst past their opposite marker when the ball is turned over.
”It’s not a complicated style that he has them playing, not by any means,” said a former Socceroo in Sebastian Hassett’s excellent piece. ”But he has them well-drilled. He keeps them tight and compact. Every player knows their role and they defend exceptionally well as a team. The players are responding well because they know exactly what’s expected of them. He’s meticulous like that.”
Meticulous, well-drilled and exceptional – it sums up Western Sydney perfectly.