Sydney FC seem to be reverting back to type, both with the ‘Bling FC’ image but also with the disorganised, chaotic attempts to progress towards a more ‘modern’ brand of football, which they attempted to implement under Ian Crook last season – to disastrous effect.
They had a lot to be thankful to marquee Alessandro Del Piero for. Not only was he a boon in marketing terms, but his on the field contributions were significant in almost propelling an otherwise dysfunctional unit to the finals.
Often deployed in a ‘free’ role, Del Piero drifted all across the pitch, sometimes even into centre-back positions – but he’ll have a more ‘fixed’ role in the final third, theoretically leading the line but most likely dropping deep to create a diamond shape in midfield.
Like Adelaide, Sydney will be using a false nine, which should suit the likes of Corey Gamiero, Yairo Yao and Joel Chianese, all quick, direct attackers. It doesn’t, however, seem to suit Richard Garcia, a more traditional wide player who offers lots of energy but doesn’t quite offer the directness required to complement Del Piero’s movement. It might emerge that Pedj Bojic becomes the key attacking threat down the right flank.
It’s also questionable whether playing alone upfront suits Del Piero. The Italian was at his best throughout the nineteen years at Juventus playing off another striker, and the ‘trequartistra’ term – widely used in Italy to describe a “three-quarters” player (someone who plays in the third quarter of the pitch), is often attributed to Del Piero. The risk is that if someone from out wide or centrally isn’t moving into the space Del Piero vacates, central defenders will be happy to follow him out into awkward positions and prevent him turning on the ball.
However, the major issue in pre-season has been the transitioning from defence to midfield in possession, as Kate Cohen discussed at length. Despite the redeployment of Nicky Carle into a deeper, holding midfield role, the problem doesn’t seem to have been fixed.
The thought of Carle playing as the deepest of a midfield trio in a 4-3-3 originally prompted thoughts of Juventus’ 4-3-3 system, which accommodates Andrea Pirlo’s excellent ball-playing skills and lack of defensive ability by using two energetic, physical players further ahead in the triangle. Rhyan Grant and Brett Emerton are not Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio but the energy they would theoretically provide higher up the pitch, to push back opposition midfielders – and thus creating space in deeper positions – felt like an appropriate way to compensate for Carle’s defensive weaknesses.
However, pre-season has seen Carle dropping extraordinarily deep into defence, so much so that he’s effectively becoming a third centre-back. It is admirable ambition, but fundamentally suicidal: if Sydney lose the ball trying to play out from the back, Carle’s not able to help at all in winning it back – and this has happened far too enough, largely because the positioning of the rest of the side is too spread out, making it difficult to construct flowing passing moves.
It’s probably worth referring to the A-League’s epitome of a possession-based system: under Ange Postecoglou at Brisbane Roar, Paartalu played the role expertly – splitting the two centre backs to form a deep triangle which helped play out from the back, then controlling the tempo of matches with calm, measured distribution from flank to flank, and helping break down deep defences with a sudden forward pass. Importantly, he’s strong and defensively skilled, but was rarely ever even caught in a position where he had to perform centre-back duties, because the rest of the side stayed compact and offered passing options, before moving high up the pitch in unison to create attacks.
Sydney’s most significant contribution this season might be to illustrate just how good Brisbane were at their peak.