How did the Western Sydney Wanderers topple Guangzhou Evergrande?

The Western Sydney Wanderers pulled off one of the great Asian Champions League upsets by knocking out defending champions, Guangzhou Evergrande, in the Round of 16.

Broadly speaking, the win over two legs came down to luck. Marcelo Lippi’s side squandered opportunities, suffered some dodgy red card decisions (particularly in stoppage time of the first leg) and although it’s a perfectly legitimate way of winning, the Wanderers relied on lots of last-ditch blocks, as well as two sensational performances from goalkeeper Ante Covic, who saved a penalty.

More specifically, the Wanderers succeeded primarily because of their good defensive organisation – a long-running characteristic of their short existence. The structure of their side was no surprise. It was the usual 4-2-3-1, with an emphasis on quick, direct attacking, and physical, aggressive defending.

First leg

In the first half of the first leg, however, they had trouble implementing their usual press (where the front four close down high up the pitch, with the ‘back six’ sitting slightly deeper) which can probably be attributed to the fact that they’re still in pre-season mode, and yet to reach peak fitness.

This had a crucial effect on Guangzhou’s ability to build up play from deep inside their own half. Lippi’s side were keen to work the ball forward from the back, with goalkeeper Zeng Cheng playing short wherever possible, and the centre-backs splitting to the edge of the penalty area. In turn, the full-backs pushed high up the pitch, with the midfield pivot sitting deep to accommodate. That meant there was a solid defensive square whenever Guangzhou had possession, with the full-backs Zhang Linpeng and Sun Xiang encouraged to fly forward.

This caused real problems when Melbourne Victory faced them into the group stage. Kevin Muscat’s side, who use a 4-2-2-2 system with two speedy, direct wide forwards, constantly broke into the channels, most obviously for the goals in their surprise 2-0 win back in April. Here, while there was obvious space for the Wanderers to counter into, this was negated by the fact their wide players (Shannon Cole and Labinot Haliti, right and left respectively) were being forced into unnaturally deep positions to ensure the Guangzhou full-backs weren’t completely free when they moved forward.

Still, Sun Xiang, down Guangzhou’s left, was getting lots of space down the sides to send in crosses – creating two good chances with whipped deliveries early on, and on the half-hour mark when Alberto Gilardino headed wide. A flow-on effect was freeing up left-winger Elkeson to drive inside into narrow, goalscoring positions, with Brendan Hamill booked for a clumsy challenge on the Brazilian.

When Wanderers right-back Daniel Mullen was forced to go off with a hamstring injury, it was interesting to notice that his replacement, young Daniel Alessi, defended very narrow, effectively leaving Shannon Cole to deal with Sun Xiang on the outside – this seemed to be more effective, and the left-back’s influence waned as the half progressed.

The general theme of the game, though, was that Guangzhou were steadily building the pressure, with Covic forced into a number of good saves, and the Wanderers only sporadically threatening when breaking through Mark Bridge (who was playing behind Tomi Juric in the #10 role).

Popovic’s response at half-time was to encourage his own left-back Antony Golec to get forward more. This was immediately noticeable from the start of the second half, and quickly became the game’s key factor – twice getting forward to good effect, and constantly being left free by Guangzhou’s right-winger, Gao Lin, who had no interest in tracking him over long distances. Golec eventually assisted the winning goal that he really ‘scored’. Juric’s touch probably didn’t affect whether the initial shot was goalbound or not.

After that point, however, the game became an exaggerated version of its initial state – Guangzhou constantly pressuring Wanderers’ goal, but not finding the finishing touch.

Second leg

Guangzhou v Wanderers 2nd leg
The teams for the second leg

An important outcome of the first leg was the fact Gao Lin, Zhang Linpeng and Young-Gwon Kim were all suspended for the second, as was Lippi, who was present in the stands (but still rather obviously making managerial decisions). That meant five changes to the starting side, as well as a formation change. Guangzhou switched to an interesting 3-4-3 formation, with the three foriegners, Elkeson, Gilardino and Diamanti upfront, and a brand new midfield pivot of Zheng Zhi and Huang Bowen behind them.

Guangzhou shape
An example of Guangzhou’s shape – the narrowness of the front three is obvious

Popovic, in contrast, made just one change, bringing Kwabena Appiah-Kubi into the starting side, and moving Shannon Cole back to right-back.

The major effect of Guangzhou’s change of shape was to free up left-back (now a left wing-back) Sun Xiang. He constantly pushed forward, safe with the permanent cover of three at the back, and got into extremely dangerous positions inside the Wanderers half.

He seemed overly keen to cross from around 3/4s of the way down the pitch, attempting to curl in balls behind the defence, and his delivery lead directly to Guangzhou’s best chances, including Gilardino’s volley at the near post that was denied by the bar.

On the opposite side, Rong Hao was barely involved, even though he was constantly free in very wide positions. Instead, all of Guangzhou’s attacking was focused down their left, helped by the fact Diamanti was keen to drift inside from his right-wing position onto his preferred left foot – most obviously for a wonderful ball in behind the Wanderers defence that Elkeson was unable to control. Elkeson, of course, was free to make his favoured run from outside-to-in in a more advanced, attacking role. He constantly looked to attack Cole 1v1, and won the foul for the penalty.

Interestingly, Lippi made a change [from the stands] on the half-hour to introduce Lisheng Liao for Ron Hao – perhaps encouraged by the space available to the right wing-back, and keen to introduce some extra attacking thrust.

Risk of front three
Guangzhou’s front three were free to stay high up the pitch without the ball, meaning the WSW full-backs were cautious when moving forward because of the risk of leaving the centre-backs exposed 3v2 on the break

In formation terms, Guangzhou’s new shape caused Western Sydney problems at both ends. Their full-backs were understandably keen not to get forward for the fear of leaving 3v3 or 3v2 at the back (because the Guangzhou front three stayed high up the pitch when defending). Diamanti played very narrow from the right, coming into tight areas to link up with Gilardino.

At the back, the three Guangzhou centre-backs were able to comfortably deal with the front two of Tomi Juric and Mark Bridge, with right-sided centre-back Liu Jian happy to follow Bridge into deep positions (and still leaving 2v1 against Juric at the back).

A few times, though, when Bridge moved into a #10 position, the Guangzhou centre-backs suddenly seemed uncertain of how far to follow him. Bridge seemed to become more aware of this space between the lines as the half progressed, and had a good shot from distance that was poorly parried by goalkeeper Zeng Cheng.

Another area they looked dangerous was when they could bring Golec forward to create an overload down the right-hand side against the Guangzhou right-wing back. Labinot Haliti was able to cut inside and shoot whenever Golec got forward, and the latter also whipped in a particularly good cross midway through the first half.

Sometimes, too, Appiah dribbled the ball forward into the space vacated by Sun Xiang’s forward running.

The general theme, however, was Guangzhou’s control – they won a penalty, hit the bar and dominated possession throughout the first half. Lippi’s tactics put them in a position of clear superiority.

Remarkably, Guangzhou used the half-time break to introduce even more attacking thrust down that right-hand side – bringing on the tricky Yu Hanchao for Huang Bowen, with the earlier substitute, Lisheng, moving into a deep midfield role. Hanchao stayed much higher up, basically as a right-winger, and dribbled directly towards the goal (and came close with a fiesty volley early on in the second half). Guangzhou now had attacking threats down both sides, and pinned the Wanderers deep inside their own half. They weren’t helped, either, by the poor quality of their transitions, with Haliti and Appiah-Kubi unable to carry the ball forward into the final third effectively.

Nevertheless, the Wanderers won a penalty via a simple long ball by Topor-Stanley. Straightaway, Guangzhou responded via Diamanti. Oddly, the goals felt almost seperate from the tactical battle, and not really reflective of the most common patterns of play. As it were, the immediacy of Guangzhou’s response meant there was little change to the game state – it was still all about Guangzhou’s pressure, and whether the Wanderers could withstand it.

They sat very deep in the final twenty minutes. Bridge moved to the left when Vitor Saba came on for Appiah-Kubi, while Brendan Santalab provided fresh legs upfront for Juric. Guangzhou, meanwhile, introduced Xuesheng Dong for Xuepeng – a striker for a centre-back. Xuesheng went upfront and held up longer balls, while Sun Xiang became the left-sided centre-back in the back three. This was an odd change, because Sun Xiang now had far less opportunities to get forward, and his delivery now came from much deeper positions – although the by-effect was, of course, that Guangzhou had an all-out attacking front four, with Xuesheng’s height useful as a focal point for their last-ditch attempts to score. They got a consolation via Elkeson, but it wasn’t enough.

Conclusion

This was a fascinating tactical battle over the two legs. Guangzhou were effectively on top throughout the entire tie, but the Wanderers were able to repel their attacks, and force them into ambitious long-range strikes and lots of crosses. Sun Xiang was the most dangerous attacker, and Lippi’s formation change for the second leg freed the left-back up even more to get forward and whip balls in – nearly all of their best chances stemmed from his delivery.

Furthermore, Elkeson’s ongoing 1v1 battles with Shannon Cole in the second leg meant all the attack came down that left hand side – but conversely, the lack of defensive tracking from him and Diamanti, as well as Gao Lin in the first leg, meant the Wanderers were able to get joy when they pushed their full-backs forward, most obviously for Golec’s goal at Parramatta Stadium. That slender lead was hugely important to the context of the tie – it meant Guangzhou really had to go for it in the second leg, which dictated much of the tactics and approach from either side.

However, Popovic’s side deserve credit for their tireless defensive efforts – they worked tremendously hard in difficult conditions, stuck to their usual gameplan, and pulled off yet another glorious upset.

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