It’s difficult to discuss Alistair Edwards without reference to the ignominious spat between him and captain Jacob Burns, and although Perth sit aside the top six, it’s clear this is not a “football”-motivated sacking.
Tactically speaking, though, Edwards has been one of the league’s more interesting coaches, although it’s worth pointing out that is partly because of the lack of variety across the league, with only two sides (Wellington and Melbourne Victory) not playing some variant of 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, the latter being a particularly predominant formation.
Edwards, too, is a 4-2-3-1 man, starting with that setup when he first took over in February, but stylistically, the key change came in philosophy. In contrast to the more direct style favoured by Iain Ferguson, he encouraged a possession-based game, moving Steven McGarry into a deeper midfield role to help Perth retain possession better in the midfield zone. The passing of time tends to revisionism, however, and it’s unfair not to point out that Ferguson was moving the squad more towards this style of football in the signing of Michael Thwaite and in Perth’s overall possession statistics – in short, Edwards’ changes were more evolution than revolution.
With thirteen points from seven games, though, Edwards’ impact was significant, and their season only ended through an unlucky semi-final defeat to Melbourne Victory – more on that later.
However, the off-season saw widespread change in Perth. As discussed in the season preview, Edwards’ focus on youth was tangible in the squad turnover, with the average age of incoming players 21.8 and no player (Evan Berger aside) under the age of 25 released. Edwards’ two sons, Ryan and Cameron, illustrated the shift in transfer philosophy, with a particular focus on bringing Perth-based talent back to the club. Edwards’ philosophy, too, was palpable in his much-stressed motto of “football, not fightball”, and much of the pre-season, which included a trip to South Africa, was built around developing a new style.
However, while Edwards’ would have obviously been keen to exaggerate the change in philosophy, he has a pragmatic side. In fact, he often swings widely between the two ends of the “tactical spectrum”, dominating possession in one game, playing heavily on the break in the next. Against the Victory in that aforementioned semi-final, for example, his side sat deep in two disciplined banks of four, breaking quickly on the counter-attack – even though they’d had 57% of the ball against the same side just a few weeks earlier. Edwards’ long-term goal might have been to implement a club-wide model of playing, but he’s not afraid to adapt his approach to certain opponents.
The first game of the season, against Adelaide, was indicative of this. Against another side attempting to shift towards a possession-based brand of football, Perth sat off, only closing down when the ball was played beyond halfway. Edwards’ asked his son, Ryan, to man-mark Adelaide’s deepest midfielder, Isaias Sanchez, but this meant Jamie MacLaren, the no.9, couldn’t cover the distance between the two centre-backs, giving Nigel Boogard and Jon McKain lots of time on the ball to stride forward and hit dangerous passes into the attacking players. Perth were ultimately too reactive, and didn’t restrict the space inside their own half enough to make their defensive tactics successful.
The following games saw more of the new style that had been preached, with a jump of 8% possession in the next match against Newcastle indicating the shift in approach. In that game, Perth were very keen to work the ball out from the back, with Jacob Burns and McGarry taking turns to drop into the back four to get freedom to spread the play calmly. Their distribution was heavily focused down the flanks, working the ball towards the wingers into positions where they could attempt 1v1 dribbles – this clearly suits the directness of Sidnei and Ryo Nagai, but Perth were working the ball forward too slowly, and giving Newcastle time to get numbers behind the ball. Sidnei has performed far better in ‘open’ games, or against teams where it is a ‘pure’ 1v1 situation against the opposition full-back, as has been the case in both fixtures against the Wellington Phoenix.
That match showed the first glimpse of Edwards’ secondary formation – Plan B, if you like – a 4-3-3. After an hour, he withdrew McGarry, using both his sons (Ryan and Cameron) ahead of Burns, who was now anchoring a fairly attack-minded front five (though, in light of recent events, you wonder what he had to think of being asked to sit behind two Edwards’ boys).
If 4-3-3 is Plan B, then the 3-4-1-2 that featured against Brisbane Roar was a very unorthodox Plan C. Using three at the back caused great excitement in a league that features little of that sort of formation, but the execution was disastrous – Brisbane’s front three dragged the back three all across the pitch and should have scored more than their lone goal. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a poor tactical decision, and unsurprisingly, Edwards returned immediately to 4-3-3 for the following match against Wellington.
Final two games
The final two games of Edwards’ tenure were a neat microcosm of his overall approach – against Wellington, he went with an incredibly young, attacking team, with lots of passes down the flanks to Sidnei, who burst past defenders with his powerful, forward running. Then, he swung wildly in the opposition direction against Melbourne Victory, switching back to 4-2-3-1 that appeared 4-4-2 for the long periods Perth spent without the ball, with the front two (Jamie MacLaren and Ndumba Makeche) dropping back to occupy the Victory midfielders – practically auxiliary midfielders themselves.
As had been the case against Adelaide, the opposition centre-backs (Pablo Contreras and Adrian Leijier) finished as easily the game’s highest passers, given freedom to stride forward on the ball and hit purposeful forward passes – again, it worked to nullify Victory’s attacking game, pushing them wide, but came at the consequence of their own counter-attacks, because they were winning the ball in such deep positions it was difficult for them to transition into dangerous attacking areas.
It’s a shame the Edwards’ era ended in such tumultuous circumstance. There was the genuine belief he was building an exciting, young, attacking team, and importantly, a flexible one – too many coaches in the league this season are naive in their approach to certain matches, and even though Edwards got his tactics wrong in certain fixtures, it’s important that he recognised the need to change. To fall on cliches, the thought was there, but not quite the execution.
He wasn’t dismissed for underperforming, but nor were they were overachieving. It would’ve been fascinating to see how things unfolded in the second half of the season – at the time of his departure, Perth had been somewhere in the middle, as reflected in their table position.