Shinji Ono’s spectacular goal was the highlight of a 2-0 win for Western Sydney, that takes them into the Grand Final.
Of his first choice lineup, Tony Popovic was without Aaron Mooy and Adam D’Apuzzo, meaning Yianni Perkatis and Shannon Cole started in midfield and defence respectively, with Dino Kresinger leading the line.
Thomas Broich was deemed fit to play, and he was used in his usual position on the left wing. Mike Mulvey has preferred a combination of Ivan Franjic and Jack Hingert down the right flank, but the latter was injured, so Ben Halloran started instead.
This was billed as a clash between possession and counter-attacking styles, and the pattern of the match reflected that.
Western Sydney’s approach and shape is always obvious – a basic 4-2-3-1, featuring two ‘split’ teams of attack and defence, and a midfield pivot to connect the side. They also defend using this shape, with the four attackers closing down from the front, and the back six sitting deeper.
In the past, Brisbane’s formation has also been similarly predictable, but less so under Mulvey, who has been keen to introduce more flexibility and versatility into a side that had become stale. Here, he went with 4-2-3-1, using Mitch Nichols in an advanced role at the tip of the midfield triangle, close to Besart Berisha. It was two similar formations, and as a result, there was no real advantage for either side in any particular zone.
Pressing high up the pitch is a cornerstone to the Brisbane philosophy – it means they can win the ball back quicker, and therefore hoard more possession. Tony Popovic was in the stands at the sudden death match between Brisbane and Adelaide, and would have clearly noticed the intensity at which Mulvey instructed his side to press.
Adelaide were given little time on the ball, and constantly gave the ball away in dangerous positions. Furthermore, the away side’s attempts to match this level of pressing were disastrous – Brisbane continuously passed quickly through their lines towards goal.
Therefore, Popovic’s decision to also press high up the pitch was brave. He could have easily told his side to sit deeper in two solid banks of four, but instead, the front four of Bridge, Ono, Hersi and Kresinger pushed up onto the Brisbane defence. There was no more obvious example of this than the kick off, where Kresinger’s eagerness to win the ball, resulted in an immediate Brisbane free-kick. Seven minutes later, his hard running forced James Donachie to give away a cheap throw in.
The Croatian has had a poor season in front of goal, but his work-rate has never been questioned. It is why he is constantly selected up front despite a poor goals return, because his desire to work for the team sets the tone for the Wanderers pressing. In that respect, he’s similar to Besart Berisha, who hassles opponents with ferocious running, but the Albanian wasn’t quite at his usual standard here. He spent a lot of time close to Michael Beauchamp, and had Nichols moving up behind him, but was less energetic than usual. Overall, Brisbane’s pressing was more disjointed, and not as fluid as it has been in recent weeks.
Still, it contributed to a combative opening period, and little time on the ball for either side. This meant lots of long passes from deep positions, and of the two sides, it was the Wanderers who were much better equipped for this tactic. Kresinger uses his body well to hold up the ball, and frequently came short towards the play to collect long balls, which helped relieve pressure on the Wanderers backline. This was not the first time he has unsettled Brisbane – he infamously won a match-winning penalty back in Round 10, through his sheer physical presence in the penalty area.
By contrast, when Brisbane were forced long, Berisha was simply overpowered by the physicality of Michael Beauchamp and Nikolai Topor-Stanley.
The first goal illustrated both these features. First, Kresinger brings down a lofted aerial ball from Beauchamp, and although Brisbane briefly won it back, Hersi sprinted quickly and dispossesses Donachie before darting directly towards the goal, where Mark Bridge provided a good assist for Kresinger. The second goal is mainly about Ono, but it only came about because Kresinger flicked a goal kick on. It was fitting Kresinger was on the scoresheet for just the second time this season.
Predictably, Brisbane dominated the ball, because as well as the two ‘pivot’ midfielders, they had Nichols dropping deep from the hole, and Broich drifting inside quickly from the left. The problem was that this was probably too many passers, considering that the Wanderers weren’t actively trying to hold possession for possession’s sake. They struggled to break down the strong Wanderers defence, creating few genuine chances throughout the match.
Part of the problem was that Berisha was up against two strong, in-form centrebacks and struggled to impose himself. The problem was only exaggerated by the fact Broich was clearly struggling for fitness, and couldn’t provide the creativity Berisha needed.
This meant Halloran was the only real threat in attack for Brisbane. The rest all wanted passes to feet, and only the winger was comfortable making runs in behind Western Sydney’s back four. Halloran’s strongest attribute is his raw pace, which has compensated for his poor decision-making, something that was alarmingly obvious here. He was frequently released into the space behind Shannon Cole, but the quality of his deliveries was poor, and he didn’t complete a single cross.
Cole simply wasn’t fast enough to keep up with Halloran in a footrace, and was nearly embarrassed on several occasions, but he was helped by the fact Topor-Stanley and Poljak were aware that they had to cover in behind him.
Mulvey needed his full-backs to get forward more, to stretch the play. Shane Stefanutto was clearly concerned about leaving space for Hersi, while on the other side, Ivan Franjic was sporadic in his bursts forward. Again, he might have been concerned about being caught out on the break.
But having gone behind, something had to give for Brisbane. Mulvey’s only change in the first half was to briefly switch Nichols and Broich, but in the second half both their fullbacks got noticeably further forward, with Broich and Halloran both coming narrow to open up room down the flank. This was important, as it meant Brisbane had more numbers in and around the penalty area, and began to come into the game more.
Nichols was key in all of this. He is clearly talented, but like Halloran, has struggled for consistency. His best game this season came in the away win at Adelaide, where he repeatedly exposed the flaws in the Reds structure by positioning himself in between the lines, and although he was let down frequently by his teammates slow passing, he provided the game’s only goal with a slalom into the penalty box.
He wasn’t anywhere near as effective here, but he took up broadly similar positions, targeting the pockets of space in and around Yianni Perkatis. This was just the youngsters’ second start of the season, so targeting him made sense, and Brisbane were particularly keen to close him down quickly when he was on the ball. Initially, he gave the ball away cheaply and improved as the game went on. Quick vertical passes from Luke Brattan into the feet of Nichols’ feet was Brisbane’s most effective path to goal, and in the second half, Brattan dropped deep into right-sided zones to find room to play these passes. Nichols was taking up the right positions, but he only had Halloran, whose problems are discussed above, and Berisha, who was up against two centre-backs, as a target for through balls.
Mulvey’s first change was to remove Broich, and introducing Stefan Nijland, who was used out of position on the left flank. It was surprising that the Dutchman wasn’t used centrally, because Kresinger’s influence on the game at the other end was clear, and Nijland was the best compromise for a target man Brisbane had in their squad. Instead, his role out wide was unclear, and he was eventually moved centrally to play in tandem with Berisha. The only other significant change was Mulvey’s decision to shift Brattan to right-back, allowing Franjic higher up the pitch to swing in crosses, but this had little impact.
Brisbane increasingly became more desperate, and started pushing more players further forward in search of an equaliser. The game became more stretched, which suited Western Sydney’s counter-attacks, as the three attackers behind Kresinger were all able to break quickly towards goal. It put more pressure on their defence, however, and there a few moments where the midfield pivot was expected to cover too much space between the attacking four and back four – Broich’s clever pass over the top for Berisha was a key moment (and another example of Cole getting beaten for pace, albeit by a different player).
Broich finds space in between the Wanderers 4-6 ‘split’ (as does Nichols, who is closer to Topor-Stanley), which gives him the room to play Berisha in on goal – one of Brisbane’s purely creative moments
Ono’s goal was a beautiful piece of technique, but he had space in the first place because Kresinger, Hersi and Bridge were all sprinting off the ball into the penalty box – and in fact, the same thing had happened a few minutes earlier, except the move ended with Bridge scything the ball across the face of goal.
In both scenarios, simple forward runs off the ball unsettled the Roar defence, and left the central defenders in two minds about whether to close down the player in possession or not. It doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t, but it was the difference between Western Sydney and Brisbane – the latter just didn’t have enough players forcing the home side back towards goal.
The impact of Hersi’s suspension for the final will be discussed at length elsewhere, but in this particular encounter it simply meant Ono had to play right wing for the final ten minutes. Some managers might have left things ‘as they were’ to see how things panned out in 10 v 11, but Mulvey was quick and decisive, electing to shift Halloran wide left.
Ono isn’t particularly disciplined defensively, and Tarek Elrich (who had replaced the injured Jerome Polenz) was instantly more exposed at right-back by the direct running of Halloran, who had two good chances to cross in the short period between the red card and Kwame Yeboah’s introduction. Yet again, the youngsters’ final product was underwhelming.
Here, Ono has run valiantly to get back in support of Elrich, but it’s too late to stop Halloran storming into the penalty area
Both sides stayed true to their philosophy. Brisbane hoarded possession but lacked a target for both aerial and through balls in attack. While the Wanderers simply played to their strengths, combining the strength and work ethic of Kresinger with Ono and Hersi’s finesse.
Brisbane have dominated the A-League over the last few years with their patient possession game, but their defeat here to a more structured, counter-attacking side feels symbolic. At the start of the season, it felt like every coach, fan and player wanted to play “fluid, attacking, possession-based football”, so not only is the Wanderers [and Mariners] success with a more rigid style refreshing, it could also be a keystone moment for Australian football – perhaps now this will become the template for success?