Adelaide mix up passing game in 4-0 win over Central Coast Mariners

Josep Gombau’s side put four past the defending champions in one of the season’s shock results.

The previous clash between these two sides, a 1-0 Mariners win back in late October, is an excellent example of the general pattern of Adelaide games under Gombau: they dominate possession, as is the former Barcelona coach’s mantra, but struggle to break down opponents who are happy to play on the counter-attack, who target the space in behind Adelaide’s high defensive line.

Surprisingly, though, the Mariners didn’t really test Adelaide’s high line here – with Gombau steadfastly sticking to his philosophy despite poor results (which, of course, lead to the “harden up scandal” involving an Adelaide Mail journalist on Friday), it’s never a question of whether he’ll adapt to opponents, but whether opponents will adapt to Adelaide – even though Mitchell Duke, the key player in the reverse fixture with his movement towards the right flank into the space behind Michael Zullo, again featured in the starting eleven.

Why, then, was this the case? Broadly speaking, you have to praise Adelaide’s defensive structure – they pressed with more compactness and narrowed the space between the lines, making it difficult for Marcos Flores to get time on the ball – but the key factor was profligacy, with Daniel McBreen squandering a number of fine chances.

Centre-back passing

However, the main feature was Adelaide introducing long passes into their usual possession game, a contrast to their usual approach. Compare the passing chalkboards of the two centre-backs in the two fixtures between these sides this season – Jon McKain and Nigel Boogard were the partnership in the first clash…

Boogard and McKain passes completed v Mariners R2

…and McKain and Osama Malik for Saturday’s game.

Malik and McKain passes completed v Mariners

Most significantly, firstly, is theĀ numberĀ of passes – a decrease of around 25% illustrates the increased possession the Mariners had in the second clash, and in fact, with “only” 45% of the ball, this was one of the few occasions this season Adelaide haven’t dominated possession. Considering they had a staggering 66% against the Mariners back in October, it represents a significant change in the pattern of the game.

Penetration from deep?

One of the main problems that dominance of possession created in the first fixture was that it meant Boogard and McKain had lots of time on the ball, always receiving the first pass at the transition of possession, but meaning the Mariners could get numbers behind the ball and prevent them from playing penetrative forward passes. Against the side with the best defensive structure in the competition, this was a huge issue – very rarely did Adelaide actually get into dangerous areas, always being forced wide by two banks of four.

The caveat here, though, is that Graham Arnold has left. This is no discredit to Phil Moss, who has a difficult job in succeeding one of the league’s finest coaches, but the Mariners simply don’t feel as “solid” under his tenure, and are slower to recover their positions in the defensive phase of play. Furthermore, they seemed under instructions to press Adelaide here, and with Adelaide still looking to retain the ball when it was turned over, it was perhaps intended as a ploy to test their passing in deep positions – but unlike the first fixture, when Adelaide always looked to keep the ball even in risky situations, they were happier to hit the ball long upfield and bypass the midfield zone altogether. In effect, they were using short passes to draw the Mariners upfield, before quickly switching the point of attack with a sudden long ball – something that’s been otherwise missing in all their games this season.

It’s important not to confuse “hitting the ball long” with “Route One” – it is a direct form of football, but not, as Douglas Kors of Leopold Method put it, “a complete transformation in their possession based philosophy, but a slight tactical change that gave them the upper hand.” There is an instructive video at that link that shows this trend.

It can also be illustrated statistically:

Adelaide att. third passes and chances created v Mariners

Again, a comparison with the reverse fixture is telling.

Adelaide att. third passes and chances created v Mariners R2

Adelaide get in behind

Passes hit in behind the Mariners’ full-backs, especially Josh Rose, were particularly promising. Fabio Ferriera ran onto balls hit over the top into the space down the left, first coming close with a long-range strike having cut towards goal with the ball, creating a close range chance for Cirio with a cross, and doubling Adelaide’s lead with a goal in the first half. In the second half, Liam Reddy had to rush out to force Tarek Elrich into a disastrous attempted chip when he got in behind once more from a McKain pass, again down the right. Ferriera in particular seemed to thrive more with Adelaide’s added directness, probably because it reduced the number of players he had to take on when he received passes wide on the right – he was simply driving at goal.

Ferriera passes received and shots v Mariners

Bruce Djite starting upfront ahead of Jeronimo Neumann was also pertinent – the former is one of the league’s tallest and strongest strikers and proved useful in holding the ball up in advanced positions, using his physicality excellently to shield the ball. There was an excellent example of this in the 60th minute, when Cirio plays the ball into him on the edge of the area, Djite uses his back to hold off Trent Sainsbury, and laying it off for Cirio to shoot on goal.

End notes

There is the tendency in football analysis these days to discredit certain types of attacking – crosses, for example, are considered inefficient and widely frowned upon by statistics. However, a key part of successful attacking is momentum, and pressure – continuing with the crosses example, repeated balls into the box can force a defence deep, opening up space to attack from different angles.

It was a similar theme here. Adelaide’s long balls were the key, helping them to get in behind the Mariners, but it wasn’t the long balls in isolation – they worked, rather, because it was mixed with the usual short passing game, which tempted Moss’s side into pressing and thus opening up the space in behind. A more accurate way of describing this spectacular 4-0 win could be to say that it was the variety in Adelaide’s attacking play that was successful. Indeed, it will be interesting to see if Gombau pursues with this approach for next week’s clash against Perth Glory, another side looking to (but having difficulty doing so) transition to a possession-based approach.

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