A-League Grand Final tactical preview

First vs second play off for Championship glory.

The probable starting line-ups
The probable starting line-ups

Team news

Dimitri Petratos appears to have been cleared to play, so Brisbane’s starting line-up will be unchanged from their past two matches. If Petratos can’t start, Henrique will come into the side, which won’t significantly change the shape or approach. There are reports Liam Miller pulled up tight at training, although his replacement, Steven Lustica, would again be fairly obvious and fairly like-for-like.

Tony Popovic also has only one real dilemma because of injury, where Mark Bridge doesn’t appear to have recovered in time (which is a shame, seeing this would have been his fourth Grand Final, having scored goals in two of them). There are three possible choices: Shannon Cole, Kwabena Appiah-Kubi or Labinot Haliti – the latter seems the most likely, and scored in a 1-1 draw between these sides back in February.

It’s very unlikely either coach will spring a tactical or selection surprise, or even change things dramatically from the bench – so the major interest here lies in the clash of the two approaches.

Clash of styles

This isn’t quite the enormous ‘possession v counter-attacking’ that’s it being billed to be, because Western Sydney have become more patient with the ball this season, and Brisbane have been more flexible this season than they were under Ange Postecoglou (like against Adelaide United), but in general, it’s fair to say that the pattern of this game is predictable: Brisbane dominating the ball, the Wanderers playing predominantly on the break.

The key issue here is pressing. Last season, the high press was the main feature of the Wanderers’ play, with the front four pushing high up the pitch – but this season, probably to combat the extra Champions League commitments, they’ve been slightly more cautious without the ball, instead focusing on dropping the front two behind the ball to make the side compact from back to front. However, they’re still capable of pressing relentlessly, and in all but one of their matches against Brisbane this season, Popovic has asked the side to close down energetically in the opening twenty minutes, to break up the early rhythm and prevent Brisbane from setting the tempo.

In a 3-1 Brisbane win back in Round Seven, the Wanderers sat slightly deeper from the opening moments, conceding the early running and allowing the Roar to settle on the ball very early on. Inside twenty minutes, they were 2-0 down – at which point Popovic instructed his players to press higher up, which helped them regain momentum. It’ll be impossible for the side to maintain the level of pressing over 90 minutes, but the opening twenty minutes feels crucial for defining the pattern of the game – it’s been a recurring pattern in this fixture, all the way back to the first ever clash between these sides, the first ever win in Wanderers history. Indeed, in the semi-final win last season, the Wanderers suffocation through midfield prevented Brisbane from getting time on the ball, giving the Wanderers the upper hand in both a tactical and psychological sense early on.

When the game settles, Popovic will ask his front two to play very disciplined roles, dropping back to occupy Luke Brattan and prevent him from getting lots of time on the ball. That was something Shinji Ono and Santalab did very well in last week’s semi-final win, creating the first wall of defence that the Mariners found very difficult to play around. It might make sense for Brattan to drop right in between the two centre-backs, to create a 3v2 advantage – which was a key feature of last year’s Grand Final.

Key battlezone – Brisbane left

A particularly fascinating subplot here is the direct battle between the two Germans, Jerome Polenz and Thomas Broich, down Brisbane’s left/Western Sydney’s right. Polenz has spoken all week about relishing the challenge of marking the Johnny Warren medalist, and he’ll probably stick quite tight to Broich when in his zone, but letting him run free when he drifts inside into the left channel.

Brisbane’s multi-faceted threat down their left-hand side is their greatest strength. With Shane Stefanutto overlapping from left-back, Matt McKay drifting high, wide and deep from left-of-centre midfield and Broich always linking the play from the left wing, they nearly always build up possession down this side, moving attacks into the final third through interchange between the trio. In the last fixture between these sides, Shannon Cole was used at right-wing to protect Polenz from being overloaded, and although Stefanutto, McKay and Broich dominated the passing statistics, their lack of penetration suggested Cole did a good defensive job.

However, it would be a major shock if Youssouff Hersi did not start on the right here, and he’ll have a very important role tracking back to prevent Polenz  from being overwhelmed down that right-hand side. In those aforementioned periods when the Wanderers will close down high up, problems could arise if Brisbane manage to play around the pressure and get the ball towards one of the left-sided players in space, because that would draw Polenz high up the pitch and thus pull the defence out of position.

Key battlezone – Wanderers right

Conversely, though, Hersi offers his own threat going forward – especially on the counter-attack, where he’s always an outlet for balls at transition, leading breaks with his pacy dribbling. He often motors towards the channels, sometimes shooting on goal but generally driving towards the by-line and crossing low into the box. His narrowness when on the ball also opens up space for Polenz to overlap, and the right-back is comfortable putting in more lofted crosses on either foot.

Throughout this season, for example against the Wellington Phoenix and Sydney FC, the Wanderers bias towards their right has been obvious, and with Ono tending to drift towards that side, too, the majority of their creativity will come from this flank. In last week’s semi-final against Central Coast, the Wanderers built pressure by constantly getting Hersi running at the defence, and he fittingly scored the opening goal.

Coupled with Brisbane’s left-sided threat, it makes for a fascinating subplot – will one side cede their strength in order to negate the other? Who will win the individual battles? It’s almost certain the game’s decisive moments will come from this side.

Opposite flank

For both teams, their opposite flank is more ‘direct’. Regardless of whether it is Petratos or Henrique, Brisbane will have a more vertical player from their right. The latter tends to be more purposeful with his running in behind, moving on the diagonal in the channel between the centre-back and full-back, whereas Petratos tends to look for passes into feet.

He always has Franjic overlapping to his right, too, and the relative directness gives Brisbane’s attack a nice balance – it’ll be important that Adam D’Apuzzo doesn’t give Petratos time to shoot from areas in and around the edge of the penalty area. Even the right-sided central midfielder, Miller, is more ‘direct’ than his left-sided counterpart, more likely to get on the end of passing moves inside the penalty area.

Haliti will start from the left for Western Sydney. He, like the player he is replacing, Bridge, is more of a wide forward, taking advantage of the width provided on the right to come narrow into goalscoring positions, often moving towards the far post to meet crosses and second balls. Haliti actually scored from this type of run in a 1-1 draw earlier this season, and remembering that Hersi’s goal against the Mariners came from Josh Rose switching off when the cross ran across the face of goal, this could be another important zone. There are some rumours Bridge could pass a late fitness test – if he does, he’ll play the same role as Haliti.

Indeed, while the majority of the creativity will come from the Brisbane left/Wanderers right, the goals might actually be scored by the players on the opposite wing.

Berisha

The biggest goal threat, though, inevitably comes upfront – particularly for Brisbane, who’s had a fine season in terms of goals (even after incurring three separate suspensions for red cards). What’s interesting about those repeated offences is that nearly all of them have come from Berisha’s sheer determination – the execution might be dodgy, but you can’t question his commitment. That’s useful in terms of Brisbane’s pressing, as his energy helps set the tempo of their efforts to win the ball back high up the pitch.

It’s worth remembering, too, that in the away win in Adelaide, Berisha was asked to angle his runs so that Jon McKain didn’t have time on the ball – considering Matthew Spiranovic is clearly the stronger passer of the Wanderers’ centre-backs, he might be asked to do a similar role here.

More pertinent is Berisha’s goal threat – he makes runs in behind to meet Broich through-balls, but his main quality in terms of goalscoring is his ability to pick up the ball just in front of defenders (outside the “tackle range”), take a touch away from the marker and shoot – just as he did with the decisive goal in the semi-final against Melbourne Victory.

Juric/Santalab

Meanwhile, Popovic has a dilemma – Tomi Juric or Brendon Santalab upfront. Juric is probably the better player (corroborated in terms of pure goal statistics), but Santalab was preferred in the semi-final because he was able to constantly make runs in behind the Mariners’ back five, pushing the defence deeper and opening up space for other attackers, as well as offering a target for balls over the top.

Because Brisbane defend with a high line, they are vulnerable to pace in behind (they do, though, have a fine defensive record this season – the best in the league). That’s the same quality Santalab was required to provide against the Mariners, but the depth of the run is hugely different here – rather than in behind a low block, here it’ll be all about sprinting into a space of twenty or thirty metres inside Brisbane’s half.

Consider the performances of Bernie Ibini and Adam Taggart in Brisbane defeats against Central Coast and Newcastle respectively – all about working the space in behind the high line and drifting towards the flanks to expose the space vacated by the forward movement of the Roar full-backs. Both Juric and Santalab are fast players (with the latter quicker in terms of acceleration), and they’ll target the space to either side of the Brisbane centre-backs. With that in mind, Mulvey will probably ask his full-backs to play more conservatively than usual, wary of being exposed in the same manner as the 2-0 Mariners defeat.

Regardless of who starts between Santalab and Juric, the other will probably come off the bench, which is a useful option for Popovic – fresh legs, and the ability to instruct the substitute on how to expose any potential Roar weaknesses.

Set-pieces

A minor point to consider is the importance of set-pieces. Brisbane aren’t a ‘tall’ side, especially when compared to the Wanderers players, and although it’s not been a huge feature before in clashes between these sides, could play a role here. In a 1-0 defeat to the Heart back in February, the Roar simply couldn’t cope with Melbourne’s aerial threat from corners, with Mulvey eventually bringing on James Donachie when chasing the game simply to give the side extra height in the box.

It’s not unfeasible the Wanderers could do something similar here, especially with Nikolai Topor-Stanley in a rare patch of goalscoring form – as Jack Kerr pointed out for the Guardian, “he’s scored in every second match since late March…by that pattern, he’s due this weekend.”

Progression

The first goal will be (obviously) important – it will increase the onus on the losing side to open up and chase the game, inevitably leaving space for the other to break into. They are a possession-based side, but Brisbane retain a good counter-attacking threat particularly with the front three, and are capable of moving quickly and directly towards goal at transitions. In a 3-1 win over Perth, for example, it was obvious how scoring the first goal, meaning the reactive side had to play higher up the pitch and couldn’t pack the centre of the pitch, liberated Brisbane’s attacks – they ran riot on the counter in the final twenty minutes of that match.

This also runs true for the Wanderers, who will benefit if Brisbane end up pushing lots of players forward to chase the game.

More generally, though, this will likely be a low-scoring affair: Grand Finals are generally cagey, tight affairs, and this, between two evenly matched teams, should be no different.

End notes

The head-to-head record between these sides is strange – the Wanderers haven’t beaten Brisbane this season, but actually recorded four wins in the first four meetings between these sides, including last year’s semi-final. On paper and on form, it’s so difficult to call. It’s a fascinating grand final, between the two most consistent sides in the competition this season, in terms of results, performance and style.

Broadly speaking, rightly or wrongly, the winner of this game will go a long way to determining how this season is remembered stylistically. The past few years have seen A-League tactical trends dictated by those who are successful: as was the case when Brisbane won under Ange Postecoglou, prompting a wave of “proactive” coaches, before the Wanderers and Mariners success last year saw a tangible shift towards more structured, counter-attacking football.

A victory for either the Wanderers or Brisbane won’t demonstrate how either philosophy is anymore superior than the other, but it could shape the direction of next season’s dominant tactical theme.

More from the author: FourFourTwo preview: key areas | Leopold Method preview

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Other reads

Justin Civilo’s Fantasy A-League perspective

Tony Tannous’s historically-minded preview

 The Guardian: five things to watch

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