Some people say that the hardest thing in football is to win something twice, and that might prove a challenge too much even for the fairy tale that is the Western Sydney Wanderers.
So much of last season’s extraordinary success – in their inaugural season, the A-League’s newest club won the Premiership and made the Grand Final – was indebted to Tony Popovic. With what must be admitted is an underwhelming, uninspiring squad, he devised a tactical system that suited them perfectly. In a 4-2-3-1, the front four pressed high up the pitch, and then broke forward as soon as the ball was turned over. They averaged the least possession of any side, but were the most effective with it.
While pure counter-attacking is a perfectly viable strategy for underdogs – and a glance at wider footballing trends corroborates this – the key for ongoing success is to evolve. It is always fascinating to see how a winning side adapts to being the team to beat, and compared to 2011/12, the Wanderers’ opponents this season will probably play deeper and more cautiously. The Premiers will have to mature in their approach, and probably become more complete in possession, happier to spend longer periods with the ball.
Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen. Tactically, Popovic has changed little from last season. It’s a fairly standard 4-2-3-1, with the wide players charging up to support the forward, yet dropping back level with the holding midfielders without the ball.
There’s little doubting their work rate and energy, and that should be sustained this season especially with Mark Bridge and Youssouf Hersi, remaining first choice. However, the patience of the deeper-lying midfielders, Aaron Mooy and Mateo Poljak will become pertinent. They’ll probably have to become calmer in possession, conducting passing moves that sweep across the width of the pitch as to stretch defences. Distribution from central defence will also become important – the Grand Final showed that neither Michael Beauchamp or Nikolai Topor-Stanley are comfortable when asked to dictate attacking moves, and this could be an area of weakness teams will try and exploit. In that regard, the addition of Matthew Špiranović is intriguing, and if his passing is palpably more incisive than the regular central defenders, he might break into the side.
On that point, it’s probably worth pointing out that it’s highly unlikely a change to a back three will occur – it doesn’t seem to suit the rest of the side, as it would force the wingers (Bridge and Hersi) into narrower positions, which wouldn’t suit their ability to dart into the channels between opposition centre-back and full-backs. Besides, last season owed so much to the detailed pressing structures Popovic drilled into his team – suddenly changing the format to accommodate a new signing two weeks out from the season would be a drastic change of direction.
Instead, the main change has been upfront. The Wanderers’ troubles at centre-forward were well documented, as Dino Kresinger and Joey Gibbs only managed three goals between them. Both have promptly left, with Popovic now able to choose between Brendan Santalab and Tomi Juric. The former has been in fine form in pre-season, but Juric will probably be first choice. Kresinger was preferred over Gibbs because of the intensity of his pressing from the front and because he could act as a target man – Juric’s tall stature and work ethic makes him a similar, but probably more prolific, option.
That said, rotation will be important – with additional Asian Champions League commitments this season, keeping the entire squad happy and fresh will be crucial.