Sydney came from behind to win an action-packed derby.
Frank Farina only made one change from last week’s 2-1 defeat to Central Coast, bringing Richard Garcia in for Corey Gameiro.
With Tomi Juric out through injury, Tony Popovic went with Brendon Santalab in front of the familiar attacking trident, while opting for his more combative midfield pairing of Mateo Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca. Captain Michael Beauchamp had a rare start in light of Matthew Spiranovic’s midweek Socceroos duty.
In a typically scrappy Sydney derby, the key player was Del Piero – but not because of his talent, but because of his inability to defend.
AS has previously discussed Sydney derbies with reference to their lack of tempo, with the game being broken up by fouls and stoppages. It was the case again here, with five fouls in the opening three minutes setting the tone for a stop-start match – although, in fairness, this was an improvement on the previous two games between these two sides.
This ‘problem’ was exacerbated by the tendency of Sydney’s centre-backs – and Vedran Janjetovic – to play more direct, hitting long balls towards the flanks, with Sasa Ognenovski in particular hitting long, straight balls to players high up the right. Often, this was Aaron Calver, the right-back, pushed high up the pitch, with the winger (Garcia) moving inside and the right-sided central midfielder (Antonis) dropping close to the defence to cover for Calver’s advanced position.
The pattern was repeated on the other side – Jurman often pushed very high up the pitch, but Sydney didn’t actually make much use of this when building up play.
Kate Cohen does an excellent job summarising Farina’s constant formation switches to accommodate Del Piero in her analysis, but in short, Sydney currently play 4-3-3 because it best accommodates the Italian in a prominent attacking role, but with Ali Abbas on the left side of a midfield trio so that he can cover Del Piero in both directions – going around him in attack to provide width and an overlapping passing option, but also tracking back diligently and protecting the left-back down the flank. It’s a demanding role, but Abbas, a hugely energetic player, is ideal.
Still, problems remain. Football has become increasingly about universality – attackers must defend, defenders must attack – and it’s impossible to completely cover a player who doesn’t contribute in one of those phases. That’s actually been the case for the majority of Del Piero’s time at Sydney, but importantly, his creativity has always outweighed the lack of defensive output – a trend that’s slowly been depreciating, however. In this game, particularly, Del Piero caused Sydney more harm than good, and was the key player for the wrong reasons.
La Rocca free
In the first half, with Del Piero on the left, Abbas sliding across to defend against Jerome Polenz’s forward runs, Antonis drawn towards Poljak and Gligor picking up Ono in attacking midfield, it left La Rocca free from his right-of-centre midfield role – to reiterate the previous paragraph, it’s impossible to truly compensate for a ‘missing’ player, especially in the defensive phase. In theory, it’s 10 v 11, which leaves an opposition player free.
Indeed, La Rocca had the most time and space of any player throughout the match, finishing as the Wanderer’s highest passer, and often being free to receive passes inside from Polenz (who was forced back by Abbas).
Still, this was probably the ideal situation for Sydney, given Del Piero’s shortcomings. La Rocca wasn’t particularly incisive with his passing, and their two most dangerous routes of attack – Ono, and Polenz down the right, were well marshalled by Gligor and Abbas respectively.
Chances – first half
The first half saw few chances, but the most promising situation was when Sydney got players between the lines, and could slip in attackers running off the shoulder down (Sydney’s) right – both Despotovic and Garcia had shooting chances from this sort of position. Later, Garcia was in acres of space behind Adam D’Apuzzo, but Del Piero played a pass to the other side instead – it was a good opening, and a rare misjudgement from Del Piero on the ball.
D’Apuzzo becomes free
At the break, Farina acted upon his side’s most obvious weakness at the break, switching Garcia and Del Piero so the latter went over to the right – presumably, he was concerned about the Wanderers’ right (understandably, given it’s easily their stronger flank), and wanted Abbas to be free to press La Rocca.
Now, in theory, the free player should have been Poljak – but because Antonis didn’t interpret his role quite as cleverly as Abbas, Sydney now found themselves with a shortcoming out wide on their right, where Calver, with no-one protecting him, was exposed to the forward runs of D’Apuzzo.
It only took five minutes for D’Apuzzo to have an impact. He swung in the two decisive crosses – first for the opening goal, where Antonis couldn’t close down the pass from Poljak to D’Apuzzo, whose ball fell to Ono in the box. Then, again, Antonis was stuck between pressing Antonis and covering D’Apuzzo, which gave the left-back another chance to send in a dangerous swinging cross from which Garcia conceded the foul.
Chances – second half
Still, though, the overall pattern of the game wasn’t great – all four goals came from set plays (the third coming from a disastrous back pass by Beauchamp off a Covic goal-kick), and Western Sydney only really looked threatening from indirect free-kicks. There was little creativity in open play, and Ono struggled to find space in playmaking zones.
It’s unclear whether Del Piero went off because of injury or because of Farina’s boldness, but either way, it helped Sydney – his replacement, Gameiro, was more diligent defensively, doing a better job in front of Calver on the right. The only other Sydney change was to bring on Alec Urosevski, a fairly irrelevant substitution.
Popovic, meanwhile, was hampered by the immediate ACL injury to Golgol Mebrahtu, which meant he was forced into bringing on Labinot Haliti straightaway – effectively a waste of two substitutions, as unfortunate as the injury was. Earlier, he’d brought on Aaron Mooy for Poljak, to introduce a stronger passer in deep positions – it had minimal effect on the game, however.
The tactical battle here was dominated by Del Piero’s positioning – wherever he was deployed was the area of strength for Western Sydney. First it was on the right, although Abbas did a good job (as he generally has in recent weeks) nullifying Polenz, but Antonis didn’t reciprocate on the opposite side, twice allowing D’Apuzzo to cross dangerously, which, of course, should have proved decisive.
Sydney got ahead basically because of a set-piece and two opposition errors – often, that can be a simplistic way of degrading a side’s performance, but it does justice to Sydney here: they won’t particularly good in open play, and with Del Piero poor, struggled for creativity. When he’s off his game, his flaws in the defensive phase – and the fact this shackles the rest of the side to his weaknesses – are particularly obvious.