Brisbane Roar will go into another A-League season next week as defending champions, after triumphing at the end of the 2013-14 season for the third time in the competition’s short history.
What’s fascinating about those three Championships is that they’ve all been won essentially with the same style of play – the possession-based 4-3-3 first implemented by Ange Postecoglou, and carried on by Mike Mulvey. Even in that short, disappointing period under Rado Vidosic, they stuck to this system. They are the A-League’s most “identifiable” side. Everyone knows exactly what to expect when Brisbane play; how to beat them is another question that is much harder to answer.
To answer the question, it is first necessary to understand what it is that makes Brisbane so dominant. Structurally, their formation is a fairly simple 4-3-3, with the full-backs pushing forward when the side has possession, and Thomas Broich drifting inside from the left wing to become a fourth central midfielder and find space between the lines.
Stylistically, Brisbane are well-rehearsed in certain patterns of play that allow them to retain possession, progress attacks upfield and create chances. In deep positions, the centre-backs split wide to the edge of the penalty area, covering the space horizontally to allow the full-backs to push high and wide. The player deepest in the midfield triangle (the #6), Luke Brattan, will sometimes drop to become a third centre-back but generally stays just in front, collecting passes from the centre-backs. That’s one of the key differences between Postecoglou’s and Mulvey’s system, as the former instructed Erik Paartalu to make the shape a 3-4-3 when Brisbane were playing out
Brattan is responsible for directing much of Brisbane’s penetration, because he’s excellent at facing the play forward on the ball and knocking vertical passes to teammates. Often, this is to Matt McKay or Liam Miller, the two players ahead of him in midfield. McKay plays slightly higher and wider on the left and understands the system perfectly, always varying his movement according to those around him to ensure space is always evenly occupied. This is important to accomadate the movement of Broich inside, as well as the overlapping runs of Stefanutto. As a result, Brisbane’s possession is often biased towards this flank.
On the opposite side, Mulvey prefers to use a more direct player like Henrique or Dimitri Petratos to make runs in behind, and attack goal. Henrique is more natural at the former whereas Petratos tends to receive passes to feet in the channels and take defenders on. The narrowness of the right-hand side is compensated for by the full-back’s overlapping runs. The two most common routes to goal are either through-balls from Broich, or cut-backs from the by-line by a winger or full-back.
What Brisbane do very well is use the ball patiently to stretch defences both across the width and depth of the pitch. By starting the build-up play from deep positions (often involving the goalkeeper, Michael Theo) they tempt opposition attackers upfield, creating space in behind to attack. Against sides that defend deep, they are comfortable working the ball from side to side, looking to create and exploit gaps in the defensive block.
While the dynamic of Brisbane’s attacking play will change slightly this season due to the departure of Besart Berisha to Melbourne Victory, this is, in a nutshell, their system.
Without the ball
For football tactics to be effective, the desired style of play should dictate the formation, rather than the other way around. Therefore, to devise a plan to beat them, the approach should be decided first – more specifically, do you defend deep, or more positively?
Last season, Newcastle Jets provided three excellent examples of the former, although the exact application was different in all three matches. Broadly speaking, the key was their structured, zonal defending. Without the ball, they became very compact. In the February game, for example, Clayton Zane used a 4-2-3-1 that became 4-4-2 defensively, with Emile Heskey and Adam Taggart dropping very deep behind the ball to block passes into Brisbane’s midfielders, and creating a ten man wall.
They combined this with aggressive pressing in the midfield zone, closing down Diogo Ferriera and Steven Lustica (who were playing just ahead of Luke Brattan) energetically to ensure they couldn’t turn on the ball. The press needed to be reciprocated by the last line of defence, the back four, pushing up to prevent space becoming created between the lines. If this is not the case, then Broich can find space with his drifts inside, and he did on several occasions in this particular fixture.
In the following fixture, then, Zane circumvented this issue by asking right full-back Scott Neville to stick very tight to Broich, following him inside. “We lost our fullback position,” admits the former Jets head coach, “but we tried to nullify Broich as he’s the biggest threat in their team in an attacking sense and it worked very well. ”
Packing the midfield zone was also a successful tactic for Melbourne Heart (now City). With a combative trio of Orlando Engelaar, Massimo Murdocca and Jonaton Germano, Jon Van’t Schip asked his side to press Brisbane when the ball was played into the midfield, forcing them backwards. Importantly, the Heart didn’t close down on the back four, but instead, their pressing was triggered by ball movement into the midfield third.
While this is success from packing the midfield zone, there are also example of sides beating Brisbane by sitting even deeper, and absorbing pressure closer to the penalty box. The most obvious example is the final round of the 2013-14 regular season, when the Central Coast Mariners switched from their usual 4-2-3-1 to a very cautious 5-4-1, using Nick Montgomery as a third centre-back. This freed up the ‘outside’ centre-backs, Eddy Bosnar and Zac Anderson, to move forward and pressure Brisbane’s final third players with their back to goal, preventing them from getting time on the ball. Anderson, in particular, stuck very tight to Broich. With the midfield quartet in front of them providing an extra layer of security, the Mariners were able to defend very effectively, and won 2-0.
The overriding theme from these examples is that rather than engaging with Brisbane’s play high up the pitch, being played around by their comfortable overloads in deep positions and having the inevitable space in behind created by your high press being exploited – as happened to Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United – it is seemingly better to sit slightly deeper, either in a medium or low block. That allows you to either pack the midfield or defence, theoretically nullifying Brisbane’s control in these zones and blunting their possession.
Having decided on a particular defensive approach, the question now becomes one of shape. With 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 the most common formations (eight of the ten A-League sides will use it in this upcoming season), the key decision comes in the format of the midfield. A 2-1 shape (with the triangle facing forwards) theoretically allows for the advanced player to pick up Luke Brattan, while the reverse – a 1-2, with the triangle facing backwards- leaves Brattan free, and provides an extra player to cover in between the lines.
Broich, again, becomes an important consideration. The 1-2 format would generally pass responsibility for the German to the player deepest in the triangle, while the 2-1 would require a full-back or a centre-back to follow him inside, as the midfielders are otherwise engaged in a like-for-like battle in the centre.
It’s possible to conclude that the format of the midfield comes down to a choice of whether to leave Brattan or Broich free – but as the above examples demonstrate, the strikers or a full-back can also play an important in the defensive phase. That Brisbane’s system requires such careful thought and multiple considerations illustrates how good they are – they impose their game, and force opposition sides to adapt significantly to counter their strengths, often at cost to their own weaknesses.
With the ball
While there are a multitude of approaches possible to ‘beat Brisbane’ without the ball, a consistent theme of any victory over them is quick, direct counter-attacking. In all of the aforementioned examples, Newcastle, Melbourne Heart and the Mariners and all attacked on the break. The position where they won the ball was often important – the latter, who packed their defence, had far less chances on the break simply because of the increased distance they had to travel with the ball, as compared to the former two, who won it closer to the halfway line and could transfer it quickly into their own final third. It’s a natural consequence of their system – as they push players forward to create penetration with their possession, space opens up at the back.
The primary space to attack is down the flanks, in the space behind the full-backs. The theory behind Brisbane pushing their full-backs is to pin back opposition wingers and thus create space in deep positions for the centre-backs and Brattan; that, inevitably, can cause problems if they are caught out ahead of the ball when possession is turned over.
Brisbane’s solution to this is to press aggressively without the ball immediately at transitions. However, it’s not unfair to suggest that this has actually become less effective post-Postecoglou – Mulvey’s side are slightly more passive without the ball, and that probably has increased their vulnerability to quick counter-attacks. The weakness, of course, is exacerbated by the high line required by their system. Adam Taggart, in particular, was excellent at exploiting this.
While the strategy for beating Brisbane seems fairly obvious – nullify what they’re good at, and exploit their weaknesses – the fact there are so many factors to consider, from Broich’s movement to the forward runs of the full-backs, demonstrates their multi-faceted threat. They combine overloads in certain areas of the pitch with intelligent, integrated movement to create space across both the width and length of the pitch, pulling defenders out of position and using their dominance of possession to penetrate.
Structurally, there are flaws in the system, but Brisbane’s beauty is in how well they play to their strengths, and force opponents to adapt to them, rather than the other way round.