in A-League, Tactical Previews

Brisbane Roar will defend their A-League title in the same way they won it, by playing the possession-based system implemented by Ange Postecoglou and further fostered by Mike Mulvey.

While Mulvey clearly did a fine job last season, this is firmly Postecoglou’s template, as the side has only slightly deviated from the overall approach and patterns of play he implemented in that wildly successful, dual-Championship winning spell between 2011 and 2013. Mulvey’s success hasn’t been in revolutionising the club, but in evolving the style of play to both suit the changing nature of the league, and the players at his disposal.

This adaptability was best summed up by their 2-1 win over Adelaide United back in March. In a battle between the A-League’s two ‘possession’ teams, Mulvey’s side were far more reactive than expected by basically accepting Adelaide’s superior ball retention, and in pure statistical terms, completing far fewer passes and having less possession than the norm. Instead, they spent much of the game pressing intelligently, with Besart Berisha arcing his runs between the two centre-backs, forcing them to play forward rather than being able to play square balls to each other. That, followed up with tight marking from Brisbane’s midfielders on their Adelaide counter-parts, meant Adelaide had no short passing options, and blunted their possession. Brisbane won with two Berisha strikes.

Nevertheless, that remained an exception. The general rule of Brisbane is that they dominate possession, to the point where it’s common for them to have over 60% of the ball in games, often against teams that defend very deep to try and prevent the Roar from passing through them. Newcastle Jets, in particular, have great success with this method, winning three times against the Roar last season. In the majority of games this season, Mulvey’s side will have to break down a deep defence.

Fortunately, they’ve been well-drilled in the certain patterns of play that help achieve this. Firstly, in deep positions, they create a comfortable overload at the back to allow them to play out, and bring the ball forward into the middle third. Luke Brattan sits in the #6 role in front of the defence, drifting laterally across the position to provide a passing option and turn and face forward. When he does this, that is the cue for the full-backs to start their forward runs.

Brattan can hit long balls over the top, but tends to play short to the two central midfielders ahead of him, Matt McKay and Liam Miller. Furthermore, Mulvey ensures Brisbane always have a numerical advantage in the midfield zone by instructing Thomas Broich to drift inside from left-wing, creating a fourth central midfielder, a passing option between the lines and creating space for left-back Shane Stefanutto to overlap into the space vacated. McKay, too, recognises this movement by darting forward into the space in behind, ensuring Brisbane have multiple angles of attack. As a result, they consistently play down this side, and it is their most common source of chances.

On the opposite right-hand side, they play more ‘direct’, as Dimitri Petratos tends to make runs into goalscoring positions. He likes to receive passes to feet and drive directly at goal, with the overlapping full-back to his outside again crucial in maintaining width and allowing him to play narrow. These are clearly rehearsed moves when Brisbane have possession, and they consistently look to execute them wherever possible.

This season, however, changes in personnel will also see a slight change to these patterns. At goalkeeper, Michael Theo’s injury means new backup goalkeeper Jamie Young will start the season in goals. Meanwhile, the back four has remained fairly intact (although Corey Brown will probably get more opportunities as Stefanutto ages, and Jack Hingert will permanently replace Ivan Franjic at right-back) it seems Adam Sarota, on loan from FC Utrecht, will push Miller out of the side. Sarota’s a clever, technical midfielder who will fit right into this Brisbane side, and he’s capable of providing energy with powerful forward runs – he’ll add an extra level of dynamism and depth to the midfield.

Interestingly, Mulvey has suggested Sarota’s also adaptable enough to possibly play that vacant right-back role. “Adam is not just a midfield player. He can play in the front three, he can play at right back, he could probably play centre-back if I asked him to … he’s that kind of quality player,” says Mulvey. The Roar coach has also suggested James Donachie could play there, “as he gives us extra height” (something that came useful when the Roar were getting dominated in the air by Melbourne Heart), while versatile new signing Daniel Bowles is another option.

It is upfront, however, that has had most change. Besart Berisha has moved on to Melbourne Victory, and his importance to Brisbane can’t be understated – he was their top scorer for three consecutive seasons, consistently scored important goals, and was perfect for the system both with and without the ball. In many ways, his urgent, energetic style was at odds to the rest of the side’s ‘technicality’, but the contrast worked nicely for providing the ruthlessness that might otherwise been missing.

His ‘replacement’, fellow Albanian Mensur Kurtishi, is similar in the way he can drop deep and link up play, but Berisha was excellent at attacking space in behind and pushing defences back – an area where the new Albanian doesn’t seem as strong. Kurtishi doesn’t appear as clinical, either, and, to put it simply, he has enormous shoes to fill.

Hence Mulvey has been keen to reiterate that goalscoring is a ‘team activity’, hinting at more rotation upfront than has been in the past. That means the likes of Henrique and Jean Carlos Solorzano should get chances upfront. Interestingly, the former plays as a false nine when used as a #9, and will come deep in between the lines to invite runners in behind, while Solorzano is a more traditional ‘pacy’ forward, and plays off the shoulder. It creates a nice balance to the squad, with three different options available to Mulvey – and that’s without mentioning the possibility of using Broich upfront, which was devastatingly effective in a 3-0 win over Melbourne Victory in late 2013.

If not used upfront, too, the three centre-forwards will also play wide, with Henrique excellent as a wide forward. His runs from outside-to-in are clever. Kurtishi, meanwhile, has played left-wing in pre-season, and there’s been signs that Mulvey has been happy to encourage more positional fluidity between the front three this season.

That is corroborated in a fascinating interview with Simon Hill. “Our play will be much more interchangeable – I want movement in the front third,” he said. “Making things difficult for the opposition to mark. I believe that if we do what we have always done, then you make yourselves predictable – because people analyse you. We don’t have to change everything, but we do have to improve.”

That sums it all up rather nicely. This is evolution, not revolution, and Brisbane are deservingly favourites to defend their title.

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