Henrique scored in extra-time to seal Brisbane’s third A-League Championship.
Mike Mulvey named an unchanged side for the third consecutive match, with Dimitri Petratos and Liam Miller both fit to play.
Mark Bridge surprisingly overcame an injury scare to start on the left wing, meaning Tony Popovic also kept the same starting eleven from their semi-final – Brendon Santalab continued upfront.
Detached from the excitement and atmosphere of it being a Grand Final, this was relatively uninteresting tactically. The main points of interest came from alternating periods of dominance from either side.
As said previously, the pattern between these sides is predictable because they’re completely contrasting sides. Brisbane are possession-based and work the ball forward from the back, Western Sydney are counter-attacking and suffocate opponents defensively, before bursting forward on the break.
In this sense, the game wasn’t anything unexpected for long periods, and the feeling was that meeting for the fourth time this season, these sides knew each other’s game, and given the occasion, were more concerned with not conceding to the strengths of the other.
As expected in the preview, the opening period was all about the Wanderers pressing. They started extremely energetically, closing down high up the pitch and immediately setting the tone of the match. It took fifteen minutes until Brisbane were able to settle on the ball and put together a sustained period of possession, because the Wanderers front four prevented the Brisbane backline from playing easy passes forward. With Western Sydney penning the Roar inside their own half, it felt almost like a rugby game, based around territory – Brisbane completed one pass in their attacking third in the first fifteen minutes.
The Wanderers, though, created little for all their control – building pressure with a succession of corners from which they looked somewhat dangerous (and which obviously proved important for their opening goal), but generally creating little in open play. Upfront, Santalab was playing basically as a target man – holding up the ball and playing one-twos with the other attackers, and battling manfully the air against Matt Smith. His contribution in general play was useful, but he offered little of a goal threat.
Around the twenty minute mark, as has been the case in all but one of the three clashes between these sides this season, Brisbane began to establish their dominance of possession, getting the left-sided players on the ball and working it forward towards Thomas Broich. However, like how the Wanderers controlled the first twenty minute period but actually created little, so was the case for the Brisbane at this point of the game. There was only one real chance in the first half: the Broich shot that went just wide off the post after he’d drifted inside unmarked, and even that was from long range, demonstrating how the two sides were basically cancelling each other out.
The highly anticipated clash between Brisbane’s left and the Wanderers right didn’t really eventuate – neither Polenz or Stefanutto really got forward, probably concerned with leaving too much space for the men they were marking, Broich and Hersi respectively. That had knock-on effects for the two attackers, who still looked the two most dangerous players for their sides, but were reasonably well nullified by the players marking them, given they weren’t going forward as much and thus were always in a position to mark them tightly. However, Stefanutto did get forward to put in one dangerous cross that Besart Berisha scuffed – likewise for Polenz, who crossed on his left for Santalab, whose header was blocked. In general, they cancelled each other out.
Broadly speaking, the style of the game – scrappy, stop-start and physical – suited the Wanderers more. Both these sides have been successful because of their consistent (but contrasting) approaches, and at half-time, it was Western Sydney who’d been able to impart their preferred style on the pattern of the game, disrupting Brisbane’s possession game and making it tight and congested.
At the start of the second half, though, the game immediately appeared more open, with Shinji Ono suddenly finding space between the lines he hadn’t been afforded in the first period. He set up Hersi in a dangerous position to cross, then played a clever reverse through-ball for Santalab, whose touch was wayward – but it illustrated the game’s newfound attacking intention.
Matthew Spiranovic scored shortly afterwards from a corner, left unmarked by Broich at the near post. That changed the complexion of the game: now, Brisbane had to attack, and immediately began to apply pressure on Western Sydney’s goal. The full-backs began to push very high up the pitch, with Franjic crossing dangerously and having one fiery shot well-saved by Ante Covic. The by-effect of this, though, was that there was inevitably space for the Wanderers to counter into, although Hersi seemed tired and wasn’t effective on the break despite receiving a number of passes into the space high and wide on the right, which forced Matt Smith across to cover.
The game’s key moment, however, came when Nikolai Topor-Stanely was forced off with injury, which, in the absence of Michael Beauchamp from the bench, meant Iacopo La Rocca had to drop back into centre-back, with Aaron Mooy coming off the bench to take his place in midfield. Although Mooy’s more combative than he’s probably given credit for, La Rocca had been having a fine game, dovetailing nicely with Mateo Poljak to protect the defence and keeping the space between the lines narrow – Mooy just isn’t quite as solid, and the Wanderers lost some of that presence in midfield. It also didn’t help that La Rocca has right-of-centre midfield, meaning there was a little bit more space in and around Mooy when Broich drifted inside (which is where the initial free-kick was won).
More beyond the fact that La Rocca had to be redeployed, the loss of the captain seemed particularly crucial – the side simply didn’t feel as organised or composed and probably were guilty of dropping too deep, inviting lots of Brisbane pressure. Given the pattern of the game by this point, an equaliser felt inevitable. Like with the opening goal, poor marking from a set-piece was the key factor, rather than any particular tactical feature.
It’s of course worth questioning whether Popovic should have had Beauchamp on the bench, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to suggest he got the decision wrong. However, it’s difficult to suggest who else could have been dropped from the bench, especially considering Shannon Cole covered the wide areas, Juric *has* to be on the bench to replace Santalab, and Haliti was required given Bridge had been under an injury cloud all week – only Mooy could really have been dropped, and that of course would have left no replacement had a midfielder been injured. It was simply a gamble.
Rather, this is more of an damning indictment on the size of A-League benches – five is an improvement on four (as was the case last season), but it still significantly limits a coach’s options.
With both coaches having used all three subs in a series of effective like-for-like changes, extra-time was characterised by fatigue. The tempo wasn’t particularly great, and there were lots of unenforced errors on the ball. This was probably the game’s most ‘even’ period – Brisbane were predictably controlling most of the possession, but the Wanderers looked sporadically dangerous on the counter, with Mooy sparking breaks with long passing from deep and Labinot Haliti (who’d replaced Ono) driving towards goal from the left. He could’ve done better with a good chance early on in extra-time.
As it were, though, Henrique scored the crucial goal – (amazingly) winning a header off a fairly simple cross into the box, then smashing home from James Donachie’s cross. Like with the preceding goals, it was separate to the tactical battle which, in truth, didn’t really exist.
Popovic won’t want to use it as an excuse, but his side’s extra commitments in the Champions League almost certainly played a role here – Brisbane simply seemed fresher and were able to commit more players forward in extra-time. The Wanderers’ attempts to chase the game in the final five minutes were eventually futile.
Perhaps not in such a packed stadium or at such high stakes, but we’ve seen this game before: the Wanderers suffocating Brisbane early, before the Roar settle into their possession game, with Western Sydney hereafter threatening on the counter. The key moment came with the La Rocca injury, which pulled the midfielder back into the defence, lessening Western Sydney’s power in that crucial right-of-centre zone that had previously helped nullify Brisbane’s left-sided threat. It wasn’t a significant difference, but enough to allow Brisbane to create attacks, build up pressure and eventually score an equaliser, from which they carried momentum into extra-time.
However, there were no stand-out players, and neither side really performed at anything close to their best. 1-1 – the score at the end of regular time – continued the pattern of the past two fixtures between these teams, accentuating the predictable feeling of the match. The goals barely need mentioning in a discussion of the tactical battle. Two were individual man-marking errors at set-pieces, and Henrique’s winner was primarily about fatigue than any other overarching feature.
In a way, though, that also summed it up nicely – very little to give in open play, and the game decided by incredibly tight margins.