Shinji Ono scored one and created one in a scrappy derby.
The big team news was that Alessandro Del Piero wasn’t even fit for the bench after being injured in last week’s 4-0 loss to Brisbane. There were, therefore, a slew of changes – Mitch Mallia and Rhyan Grant started for the first time this season, as did Tiago Calvano, with Sebastian Ryall shifting across to right-back. Nick Carle, meanwhile, moved forward into the number 10 role as Farina inverted the format of his midfield triangle to a 4-2-3-1.
Tony Popovic, by contrast, had little selection drama. After replacing him against the Phoenix, Iacopo La Rocca started in place of Aaron Mooy. Tomi Jurić continued upfront.
This wasn’t a particularly high quality game. There was little creativity in open play, and the game was broken up by repeated fouls.
The game’s overriding feature was tempo – or rather, the lack of it. It was almost all about fouls and stoppages: 39 in total, the most for the round and the season, bar the round one fixture between Adelaide and Perth.
The problem was exacerbated by the lack of time on the ball for any of the four deep-lying midfielders. Western Sydney haven’t pressed as intensely last season, and the format of the two sides – with Ono and Juric able to block off passes into Grant and Ali Abbas – didn’t help. Western Sydney, meanwhile, weren’t particularly fussed about getting Mateo Poljak and La Rocca on the ball: although they’ve attempted to play out from the back more this season, their distribution is more direct than short and neat. That was certainly the case here, with Juric leading the line with powerful hold-up play.
In turn, this made it difficult for Shinji Ono and Nick Carle to properly influence the match. The latter particularly struggled, often forced into wider positions by the compact nature of Western Sydney’s deep-lying midfield. It didn’t help that the format of Sydney’s attack was unclear: Mallia started as the central striker, but quickly swapped with Richard Garcia, who then often drifted out towards the left. Presumably, the wide forwards, Chianese and Mallia, were meant to provide the threat in behind from wide – but both were underwhelming, and contributed little.
Instead, Ono was far more successful in dictating attacking moves. As well as providing the assist for the opening goal, and his wonderfully improvised finish for the second, Ono often found room between the lines. He tended to move towards the right, helping to create overloads down that side.
Wanderers right side
The Wanderers strength down their right flank has long been obvious, but it’s especially obvious this season, with Jerome Polenz overlapping superbly down that side. As I wrote in a column for FourFourTwo,
Last week against the Wellington Phoenix, the full-back frequently exposed Kenny Cunningham’s lax tracking to become the most dangerous attacker in the opening 30 minutes: he provided a stream of crosses into the middle, and his goal, although unorthodox, was befitting of his influence.
Here, he again got forward to good effect, and his movement created 2v1 situations against Marc Warren that significantly troubled the Sydney left-back. The main beneficiary was Youssouf Hersi, who had a few opportunities to drive down the inside of Warren – inside two minutes, he hit a clever low ball across the face of goal that Juric was just unable to get onto the end of. Juric’s tendency to move towards the right to win long balls was also important: he won the free-kick for the opening goal from that position.
Warren compounded his defensive troubles with sloppy giveaways in possession, twice hitting simple passes straight to a Western Sydney player. In fairness, he wasn’t helped by the positional rotation ahead of him, which consequently meant there was no-one protecting him from Polenz getting forward. Ali Abbas, the left-sided central midfielder, sometimes came across to help cover, but that in turn left the centre exposed to midfield runners – a factor in the second goal, and when Poljak had a good chance to finish the game off in the 80th minute.
It’s instructive to contrast Polenz and Hersi’s combination play with Sydney FC’s right flank, Chianese and Ryall. The latter rarely linked up, staying very conservative with his positioning and perhaps cautious of leaving too much space for Bridge to counter-attack into. It certainly doesn’t help that Ryall has publicly stated he prefers playing in the centre.
Both sides were forced into changes by the start of the second half, with Matt Thompson replacing Rhyan Grant and Brendon Santalab on for Youssouf Hersi, both due to injury. Farina also chose to bring on Yairo Yao, with Mallia going off – Garcia took up a more dedicated position on the left, with Yao playing off Carle in the centre.
Yao’s incredibly quick, but with the Western Sydney back four sitting relatively deep, there was little space for the Panamanian to move into in behind – and as he’s limited technically, he struggled to link up play. It exemplified Sydney’s disjointedness, and they struggled to break down the away side’s comfortable defending. They also, of course, counter-attacked, with Santalab getting a few opportunities to drive towards goal from the right.
We’re yet to see a ‘tactical’ battle in a Sydney derby. In fact, this was relatively easy to predict: Sydney disjointed, Western Sydney organised and dangerous on the break, and Shinji Ono finding space between the lines, as he did in the same fixture last season.
La Rocca’s header is the third goal in three games Sydney have conceded from set pieces – but concerningly, there are much bigger, widespread problems with the side.