Sydney secured their place in the finals with a 2-1 win.
Frank Farina has lately had the benefit of minimal injuries and suspension in his squad, and named an unchanged side from last week’s thumping of Wellington. Terry McFlynn wasn’t on the bench as he retired after nine years at the club.
Kenny Lowe, too, was able to keep with a side that had also enjoyed a big win last week, with Matt Davies for Josh Risdon the only change from their surprise 3-1 win over the Mariners. Jacob Burns started on the right of a midfield diamond in his final game before retirement.
Alessandro Del Piero finished with two assists but this game lacked genuine creativity in open play.
This was a particularly interesting formation battle – Sydney’s 4-3-3, with Del Piero as a false 9 upfront, against Perth’s 4-4-2 diamond, which Lowe has favoured in the past two weeks against Newcastle and the Mariners.
The diamond has surprisingly enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the league this year, with Melbourne Heart, Wellington Phoenix and Sydney FC all using it at same point. However, Perth’s use of the formation is particularly interesting because of the front two, Sidnei Sciola and Chris Harold, neither of whom are actually natural centre-forwards. Instead, as wingers, both drift towards the flanks and work the channels, as reflected in the positioning of their passes received.
As Kate Cohen discussed for the Guardian, that caused problems last week for the Mariners when they ushed their full-backs forward, because both Harold and Sidnei drifted out into that space and could dribble forward purposefully on the counter-attack. It was a similar situation here, with Sidnei tending to move away from the area, leaving Harold central to attack crosses – more on this later.
The other key area was in midfield, where Perth had numerical superiority, especially with Del Piero lax in his defensive duties, and primarily because Sydney weren’t actively looking to compete in terms of possession, and sat very deep without the ball.
That had the effect of leaving Rostyn Griffiths free at the bottom of the diamond to distribute the ball, particularly towards the flanks but also over the top into the gaps between Sydney’s centre-backs and full-backs. He finished as the game’s highest passer, and created a number of chances, like in the 12th minute when his ball over the top allowed Harold to flash a volley wide of the far post.
Griffiths benefitted from the fact Burns played very high up to his right hand side, as if to push back the energetic Ali Abbas and create space in deeper positions. Abbas was less influential here than he has been in recent weeks, far less so than in the previous fixture between these two sides, and Perth spent most of the first half dominating possession.
Indeed, both William Gallas and Michael Thwaite recorded high passing statistics, because of how Sydney sat off without the ball and allowed Perth to pass it around the back with relative ease. However, the majority of this possession wasn’t especially incisive, and Sydney were comfortable crowding out the centre of the pitch to prevent the attacking midfielder Nebosja Marinkovic from finding space. A few times, Gallas looked for one-twos as he charged forward into midfield, but these were largely ineffectual.
While Harold and Sidnei looked dangerous collecting through-balls on the counter and running into space, when up against Sydney’s massed defence they struggled to create chances, and much of the first half was dominated by their ineffectiveness with the ball in long periods of build up play, with the full-backs getting forward energetically but creating little with their crossing (unsurprising, with Nikolai Petkovic and Sasa Ognenovski clearly superior in the air against Harold and Sidnei).
Sydney looked to hit Perth on the counter, sometimes with Del Piero coming short towards the ball and laying it off to a supporting teammate. Generally, though, they relied on the full-backs getting forward into the obvious space ahead of them (because Perth had no natural width high up the pitch). Seb Ryall pushed high and narrow from the right to form triangles down the right with Terry Antonis and Milos Dimitrijevic, helping Sydney work the ball forward – he created some good chances with low crosses across goal.
When Del Piero dropped deep, he caused problems between Perth’s lines – by dragging Griffiths into different zones, he opened up space for Sydney’s midfielders to burst into, as occurred for Antonis’ spectacular goal (which must have felt horribly like deja vu for Perth). That was against the run of play, though, and not truly reflective of the game’s overall pattern.
Likewise for Perth’s equaliser, which came from a corner – again deja vu, as it was the second time in two consecutive matches against Perth that Sydney conceded from a set piece, with Griffiths the scorer on both occasions. Interestingly, Lowe suggested post-match that ““we scored with a set-play that we had worked on so that is always pleasing” – two Perth players sat on Vedran Janjetovic, two runners moved towards the near post, and Griffiths shakes off Ognenovski’s man-marking (as he is drawn towards the two other runners) to tap in the long, hanging ball at the far post.
The pattern continued into the second half, although Abbas and Del Piero begin to combine far more than they had in the first, linking up nicely and creating shooting chances near the edge of the area.
As aforementioned, Sydney also looked dangerous when they were dragging Perth midfielders towards the sides – something that wasn’t happening at the other end because Garcia and Chianese were doing a good job protecting the full-backs, whereas Harold and Sidnei were staying high up and focusing on finding space at counter-attacks, meaning the Perth midfielders had to slide across to protect the wide areas.
Perth lost the dribbling and direct quality of their front two with Lowe’s somewhat illogical subs. By the 80th minute, he’d removed both his starting front two, bringing on Dervydas Semas and Daniel De Silva in their place – neither player is particularly ‘explosive’ with pace, not particularly strong in 1v1s, or even a natural striker, meaning Perth created very little in the final moments.
Farina, meanwhile, made minimal changes, as he would have been happy with the shape of his side knowing a draw was enough for them to secure a finals place – and as it were, Garcia’s winner with the last kick of the game from a delightful Del Piero chipped pass was simply a consequence of the game being stretched as players fatigued.
Sydney’s season has been tumultuous, even by their standards, but as the squad has gradually become less decimated by injuries in recent weeks, Farina’s been able to settle on a side and approach – it might not be the “domineering football” promised by club CEO Tony Pignata, but playing defensive, counter-attacking football has helped Sydney grind out results in recent weeks.
It would be interesting to know whether Farina preferred the Mariners or the Victory for their sudden death finals match next weekend – Garcia’s goal meant it is now the latter rather than the former as had been the case when this game was 1-1, because three points took Sydney into fifth.
Meanwhile, Del Piero upfront seems the best compromise for his obvious lack of defensive contribution, but even here, that still caused problems in that it allowed Rostyn Griffiths much freedom in deep positions – helped, too, by Burns’ advanced positioning to counter Abbas’ energy.
In that regard, Perth’s experiments with a diamond in the past couple of weeks have been interesting, and the strengths and weaknesses of using Sidnei and Harold upfront were obvious here – ultimately, though, it’s a minor point in what has been a hugely disappointing season, and they must now look forward to next season, probably under a new coach.