With a number of injuries depleting his squad, Alistair Edwards turned to an unorthodox formation for Perth’s clash against Brisbane Roar.
First, it’s worth considering why this is so noteworthy. A back three isn’t a completely radical formation, although no major club side in the A-League or across the globe uses it as their predominant formation – we’ve seen recent incarnations at Liverpool (where Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez were used in tandem upfront in a 3-5-2) and in Pep Guardiola’s last two clubs, previously Barcelona but now Bayern Munich (who drop a holding midfielder into the defence to allow the full-backs forward), yet it always feels like a fad, and never a long-term solution.
Closer to home, Jon Van’t Schip at Melbourne Heart is probably the closest we’ve ever come to a side dedicatedly using a back three (generally using it when against a front two, and switching to a back four against one striker so there was always a ‘spare man’ at the back), although you could argue Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar – with Erik Paartalu the holding midfielder as per the aforementioned example of Barcelona – were essentially a back three when in possession. Meanwhile, Ernie Merrick sometimes used it during his six-year spell at Melbourne Victory (although it’s yet to feature at his new club, Wellington), while Miron Bleiberg at Gold Coast United used it infrequently (but his switches of shape were so frequent he coined the term “chameleon team”).
Amongst the current managers, Gary van Egmond’s probably the closest you’ll come in terms of a back three – he even used it in a massive tactical surprise during the 2007-08 Grand Final (which they won), and has repeatedly spoken about using it as a default formation, although that’s never been the case due to his long-standing preference for 4-2-3-1. Instead, Van Egmond uses 3-4-3 as a desperate late ploy when behind in matches, effectively the ‘Plan B’.
Here, though, Edwards used 3-4-1-2 from the outset. Losing both William Gallas and Scott Jamieson to injury in last week’s match against Adelaide would have forced a defensive reshuffle anyway, but this was a drastic change of approach and had a decisive influence on the Roar clash.
In short, it failed miserably. This was one of the most lopsided 1-0 defeats you’ll ever see – Brisbane created chances at will, and the Perth players seemed completely uncertain of their roles within the new formation. The use of Sidnei and Ryo Nagai as the nominal wing-backs made the selection seem particularly adventurous, but they were quite ‘advanced’ wing-backs, and tracked back to create a line of four that sat ahead of the clear back three, which comprised of three out-and-out central defenders in Michael Thwaite, Jack Clisby and Steve Pantelidis.
In terms of the individuals, there were immediate problems – Clisby played very narrow on the left-hand side of the defence, tucking in close to Thwaite and often leaving the space in behind left wing-back, Sidnei, completely bare. Pantelidis took a wildly different approach on the opposite side – he was keen to race out of position to try and win the ball back quickly, as somewhat statistically corroborated by the frequency of their tackles.
Brisbane dominate possession and focus down left
As the second half progressed, it became more and more of a back five, with holding midfielder Steven McGarry dropping in and Sidnei and Nagai taking turns to fill in at the back – the other generally stayed a little higher up and tried to get into positions for counter-attacks. However, Brisbane’s dominance of possession was easily the game’s key feature, and they eventually completed a staggering 406 passes (compared to 171), finishing with 65% of the ball.
Perth’s lack of possession was largely because the back three were easily marked by Brisbane’s front three, who stayed high up the pitch, prevented the short balls from Danny Vukovic, and forced the goalkeeper long far more often than he has been in the Edwards’ era.
In fact, the top ten passing combinations were between Brisbane players….
….and the frequency of which left-back Corey Brown received the ball is clear, and Brisbane’s bias towards him illustrated their emphasis on wing play. Matt McKay also moved out into wide positions close to the touchline to play passes, while Thomas Broich stayed ‘wider’ than usual, still drifting inside to slide passes in between the lines, and getting into some clever positions to invite Brown forward on the overlap in space to cross the ball. Many of these were low and cut-back from the touchline, which was far more effective in ‘getting in behind’ Perth’s back three – swinging in high balls for Besart Berisha to attack aerially might have played to the strengths of three central defenders.
The game’s only goal came from Brown bringing the ball forward, Broich moving inside, and supplying Berisha with a sublime pass – it was a fine reflection of the game’s overall trend.
It’s unclear whether it by design or simply by accident, but this was a very effective way for Brisbane to attack, because they could push their full-backs forward and create 2v1 situations down the sides. Perth’s troubles were exacerbated by the fact Brisbane easily passed around their initial press, because Nagai and Sidnei were so focused on retreating back into their defensive position, leaving Shane Smeltz (later, Chris Harold after the former was injured) and Jamie MacLaren isolated against Brisbane’s easy sideways balls towards the full-backs, Jack Hingert and Brown, who frequently carried the ball forward into the attacking third. There was one moment where Brown simply carried the ball forward a good distance of 50 or so metres – the freedom he had was ridiculous.
The key issue with a back three v back four formation battle is the positioning of the wide players (who, with a lack of natural width high up the pitch, are responsible for an entire flank) – do they move forward to push back opposing full-backs, or stay at home to counter the potential overloads? In the end, Sidnei and Nagai did neither (understandable, as neither have particularly defensive tendencies) and Brisbane created a staggering amount of chances from the flanks. In this regard, their long switches of play to either side proved very useful in changing the point of attack, and dragging Perth’s defence out of shape. Henrique had a shot flash just wide after receiving a McKay diagonal early on, and the Brazilian was often in acres of space wide on the right.
At times, Perth’s defence was completely shapeless – it was surprising, then, to hear Edwards declare the game “very even” post-match, and despite only making one ‘real’ change (the Smeltz substitution was enforced), with Riley Woodcock replacing Clisby in defence with thirteen minutes remaining.
They managed just three shots on target, of which only one was truly convincing – the Thwaite header from a corner cleared off the line by Luke Brattan. It reflects their lack of creativity in open play – it was too much to expect Sidnei and Nagai to be able to beat Brisbane players in 1v1 situations when their starting position was as deep as it was, and there was a good example of this when McKay was booked – Nagai beat him with his dribbling, yes, but the location, near half-way and with Brown still ahead of him, was significant.
It’s worth remembering that this was against, at the moment, the best side in the competition (this win took Brisbane four points clear), and on paper, Brisbane’s formation, with it’s front three and attacking full-backs, was perfectly suited to countering the 3-4-1-2 – which, of course, asks the question of why Edwards opted for it in the first place.
From a tactical point of view, it would be fascinating if Perth persisted with this formation, but on the basis of this performance, Edwards would surely have been discouraged, despite his words to the opposite effect.