A ludicrous first half involving five goals and a red card gave way to a calmer second as Sydney held onto their narrow lead.
Alessandro Del Piero returned for Sydney, with Joel Chianese making way in the one change from last week’s narrow defeat to Perth.
Kevin Muscat, too, made one change from his last match against Wellington, with Connor Pain replacing Kosta Barbarouses, who was away on international duty.
The nature of the goals – a deflected free-kick, a falcon and some bizarre goalkeeping – summed up the low quality of defending, but high quality of entertainment.
Ange Postecoglou may have left, but Kevin Muscat has kept with the system the new Socceroos coach implemented, where the attacking quartet drift across the pitch (with support from full-back) and look to receive passes to feet from the midfield duo between the lines, in order to play passes into space in behind the opposition defence.
To counter this, many sides tend to allow the defenders time on the ball and look to win the ball in the midfield zone – and Sydney did so here, allowing Pablo Contreras, Adrian Leijier, Mark Milligan and Leigh Broxham lots of time on the ball, but closing down quickly if any of the attacking four gained possession.
The latter duo completed the most passes of the game in their midfield positions, a testament also to the change in the game’s dynamic after Warren’s red card (more on that later).
Having started the season in a 4-3-3 shape, Frank Farina has since returned to the 4-2-3-1 he favoured for much of last season – coupled with the signing of Serbian striker Ranko Despotovic this week, it seems the Del Piero as number 9 experiment is over. Instead, the Italian was used in behind Richard Garcia here, and was often the fulcrum for Sydney’s attacks in the twenty-five minutes they spent with equal numbers to the Victory.
Interestingly, it was often only the quartet of attackers that combined, and the lack of forward runs from the full-backs was particularly obvious when Sydney entered the final third. Presumably, they were keen not to leave space in behind in the wide areas for the Victory’s attackers to break into – and besides, Sebastian Ryall is not a natural full-back, while Warren was under heavy pressure from the Victory’s bias towards his side.
Victory attack Sydney left
The Sydney left-back struggled significantly at the same ground two weeks ago against the Wanderers – Tony Popovic’s side often overloaded him in 3v1 situations, and the opening goal of that derby stemmed from his side. Here, Warren was obviously remonstrating with Nikolai Petkovic in his time on the pitch, visibly asking the Serbian to cover in behind so he could move forward to pressure the man in possession.
As a result, the Victory created numerous chances down their right flank, with Thompson finding room to cut inside Warren twice inside the opening fifteen minutes – Warren was also guilty of letting the forward get goal side of him for the Victory’s first goal. Later, Mitch Nichols played Pain in behind, leading to the red card and subsequent free-kick, which resulted in a goal.
After the red card, Farina rejigged his side so Ali Abbas moved into left-back, and Del Piero ahead of him in a 4-4-1. With no player nominally close to Richard Garcia, the most advanced player, Sydney’s attacking threat for the remainder of the match was minimal. They counter-attacked in small numbers sporadically with ten men, but the overwhelming theme of the second half was their defending.
Although they were suffering a numerical disadvantage, having taken the lead through Del Piero’s penalty, they were in an excellent position to sit back and soak up Victory’s pressure – in fact, considering that the Victory’s best performances this season have come against high lines, and their worst performances against teams that sit deep, like the Melbourne Heart, this wasn’t the worst situation for Farina.
Now effectively defending with all ten players behind the ball, Sydney worked hard to minimise the space between the lines, forced backwards by the waves of Victory attacks but ultimately still looking comfortable defending against the overlapping full-backs and dual no.10s.
It’s worth noting Del Piero’s role in the second half – without the ball, he was simply occupying space, but when he received possession he showed his knack for drawing fouls, which were extremely handy in breaking up the tempo. He was fouled almost four times more than any other player, and of course, the flow-on effect of this is that he can take the resulting free-kick: another goalscoring opportunity for Sydney.
Muscat’s moves were obvious. First, Guilherme Finkler came on for Broxham with Nichols dropping deeper (the standard Victory change this season when chasing a game). Given the context of the match, the other substitutes – Scott Galloway, Rashid Mahazi and Lawrence Thomas – were effectively useless, and Andrew Nabbout came on for Connor Pain with twenty minutes remaining.
The changes, on paper, were the right moves, but it’s worth questioning the timing. It was obvious Sydney were going to drop deep in the second half and allow the Victory lots of time on the ball, and Muscat could’ve probably sacrificed Broxham a lot earlier – Nichols is more incisive with his passing, and Broxham’s defensive awareness wasn’t really necessary.
Overall, the fact the Victory struggle against deep-lying defences was reinforced, and the issue was compounded by some bizarre defending – which, rather unsurprisingly, meant they lost.
Meanwhile, this could be seen as the moment when Sydney turned the corner, but this win was arguably due to luck and disastrous defending – in fairness, they defended well for long periods in the second half, but the problems in the attacking third and the overreliance on Del Piero remain.
This wasn’t an overly tactical battle, although it reinforced several of the tactical issues that have been flagged for both these teams.