Terry Antonis’s goal on his return from an eleven month injury lay-off took Sydney back into the top 6.
Frank Farina, not for the first time this season, rejigged his side’s formation, this time to a 4-3-3 that incorporated Alessandro Del Piero on the left of an attacking trident. In midfield, Antonis made a first start of the season alongside Milos Dimitrijević and Ali Abbas, while the back four had to again be reshuffled to accommodate four centre-backs – Matt Jurman and Aaron Calver were redeployed at full-back, with Sasa Ognenovski debuting alongside Nikolai Petkovic in the centre.
Kenny Lowe made three changes from last week’s defeat to Melbourne Heart, bringing Nebojša Marinković, Sidnei and Rostyn Griffiths into the team at the expense of Ryan Griffiths, Chris Harold and Jacob Burns respectively. He retained the 4-2-3-1 formation, however, with Shane Smeltz leading the line.
This was good ammunition for the increasingly widespread argument that the quality of football in the A-League this season has depreciated – there was little genuine quality from either side, and despite some bizarre, unorthodox moments of craziness, an overall lack of excitement in open play.
That said, Alessandro Del Piero did provide several moments of creativity from his left-wing role – a position not unfamiliar to the Italian, but one he’s only sporadically played for Sydney FC. The key was Farina’s use of 4-3-3, with three central midfielders behind the attackers – it meant that Del Piero could be passive without the ball, with his defensive efforts effectively covered for by the energetic Abbas and Ranko Despotovic, who took turns to press and track back down the left (the zone Del Piero was meant to be covering).
Abbas also had an important job going forward, and was the game’s key ‘facilitator’ – the player shackled by Del Piero’s weaknesses, but also allowing him to operate in a free role, which is probably Sydney’s most effective attacking strategy.
Del Piero’s typical movement was to collect possession out on the left then move forward into the left channel, or even into narrower into left-of-centre positions between the lines where he repeatedly caused Perth problems with his cleverness on the ball. Early on, he won a number of fouls which helped Sydney move attacks high up the pitch, establishing their early dominance, and drawing yellow cards from key Perth players – his nearest marker, Josh Risdon, and Griffiths, the right-sided central midfielder were both booked inside the opening twenty minutes.
Space between the lines
That latter booking proved crucial. It meant Griffiths couldn’t commit to the challenge when Del Piero slipped into a pocket of space between the lines, giving him time to feed Despotovic inside the area with a deft through ball that the Serbian duly finished past Danny Vukovic.
It was typical of the game’s major theme – Del Piero moving into dangerous positions in the final third, taking advantage of the huge gaps between Perth’s back four and midfield two. It was something of a combination of the two midfielders not protecting the defence securely enough, and the back four dropping too deep, and was a recurring issue throughout the match. Dimitrijević came close with a long range striker in the 25th minute, and later Antonis was free to drive forward to the edge of the area to score the eventually decisive goal.
Returning to Abbas – with Sydney using a centre-back out of position at left-back (although Jurman became more ambitious going forward as the game progressed), and Del Piero moving inside repeatedly, they needed to create width otherwise absent, to stretch Perth’s back four. Abbas was always there to drive around the outside of Del Piero, twice creating decent chances with his purposeful forward running. There was the early chance for Despotovic from a cross down the left, and the shot that Del Piero skied high and wide after Abbas had cut the ball back from the byline.
In fact, the combination between Abbas and Del Piero accounted for Sydney’s highest of the match – but really, it was the former’s intangible off-the-ball runs that were crucial.
The problem was accentuated by Risdon’s willingness to get forward, often moving aggressively into a position high and wide up the touchline. It was bold to do this when up against the league’s most dangerous player in Del Piero, but it’s typical Risdon – he likes to stretch the play, cut inside on his left and send lofted balls into the area, and he did this on a number of occasions throughout the match.
It meant, though, that Perth’s attacks were very predictable, always flowing down the flanks and ending with ultimately disappointing crosses. They needed more variety in the final third, although they did look to switch the play quickly to the opposite flank, perhaps keen to work the weaknesses made evident in Sydney’s recent diamond formation, where the narrowness has caused problems down the sides. Marinković’s willingness to do this was obvious, particularly to play in Risdon down the right – but his 7 inaccurate crosses contributed to an overall tally of 34, of which only 2 were deemed ‘successful’.
Perth looked more dangerous down their left, where the pacy Sidnei could latch onto balls in behind or take players on 1v1 – he had a good chance when cutting inside onto his right, but failed to connect with the shot convincingly.
By far Perth’s clearest route to goal, though, was via set pieces. There was no consistent theme here, but rather a multitude of factors – including Vedran Janjetovic’s lack of confidence when coming to claim crosses. For example, there’s nothing tactical to discuss about the bizarre indirect free-kick barely metres out from the goal line – although it’s worth considering whether it would have been more effective for Perth to ‘ghost’ a shot to another player from a different angle, seeing how Sydney constructed their wall towards the ‘near’ side.
Perth’s only goal came from a free-kick, seconds after Antonis had doubled Sydney’s lead.
That effectively continued the predominant context, that of Perth chasing a goal as Sydney sat deep and countered with long direct balls towards the wide players, particularly Corey Gameiro down the right (who’d actually indirectly ‘created’ the second goal by benefitting from a lucky bounce, having tried to play the ball off a defender to win a corner, which illustrated his isolation and Sydney’s lack of ambition going forward as the game had progressed).
That said, defending deep and narrow was an entirely practical way to counter Perth’s attempts to chase the game, because of how often the away side were sending crosses into the penalty area. With four centre-backs, it made sense for Sydney to focus on winning aerial battles and clearing their lines, which especially suited Ognenovski – he’s more of a ‘penalty box’ defender, and seems most comfortable focusing on basic defensive tasks inside his own penalty box.
Lowe’s changes were, like his side going forward, uninspiring, with Chris Harold’s introduction for Semas, although nearly proving a masterstroke when the forward nearly struck from range with his first touch, the only significant substitution of the match (with the Griffiths for Burns a simple like-for-like swap). Jamie MacLaren came on late, but in the 91st minute, had little time to effect things – with Calver having been sent off in the 88th minute, it accentuated the feeling that Lowe waited too long to send on extra attackers.
The fact Gallas was clearly struggling with fatigue in the final ten minutes should probably also be noted – it would’ve been a good excuse to change things up as Perth looked for an equaliser.
Farina, for his part, made obvious moves to introduce fresh legs, being forced into two substitutions with injuries to his two Serbians.
This was not a good game, even though it was punctuated by Del Piero’s quality and some strange footballing moments.
It’s tempting to say Sydney were over-reliant on Del Piero, but the Italian wouldn’t have enjoyed such space and freedom if it weren’t for his teammates covering for his weaknesses – which of course gets the best out of the marquee, and by extension, Sydney. They weren’t particularly good here, but against a poor Perth side, did enough to win, benefitting from the fact Lowe’s strategy played into the hands of their strengths.
That should be the biggest concern for the Glory, the fact they appeared so predictable against a side often accused of that very weakness.