After their 2-0 second leg win over FC Seoul, the Western Sydney Wanderers have progressed to the final of the Asian Champions League – only the second club in A-League history to do so.
Results on the continent have been more or less at the other end of the spectrum. Of the 17 Australian teams that have competed in the ACL, only six have ever qualified from the group stage. From that point, the numbers dwindle further, with only three teams making it to the quarter-finals, two of which went on, of course, to make the final. There are obvious reasons for this: timing of the fixtures, financial disparity and the relative ‘newness’ of most teams, but overall, it’s a disappointing return.
However, Tony Popovic’s side have bucked the trend with a series of fine results against some of Asia’s top sides, including defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande. They’ve constantly defied the odds, primarily because of ‘traditional’ footballing intangibles such as ‘grit’, ‘determination’ and ‘courage’. There’s been little discussion of their tactical approach, largely because it’s relatively straightforward – defend deep, soak up pressure, and hit sides on the counter-attack. It’s the typical Wanderers gameplan, and they haven’t deviated significantly from their usual approach in the A-League.
Traditionally, this type of football, as opposed to a more proactive, possession-based style, fares better in knock-out ties simply because it’s more pragmatic – shut the game down, make it cagey, and hopefully pounce on the break. We often refer to the notion of a ‘Cup side’, which is used to describe a team capable of grinding out tight results. Teams that defend well do better in knock-out ties simply because you can, somewhat paradoxically, afford to get away with not scoring.
There are several examples of this. Most recently, Atletico Madrid progressed to the final of the European Champions League (and won the La Liga title) by staying very compact without the ball, defending deep in numbers and then breaking quickly through two or three players. They committed few players forward, and instead played conservatively to minimise space available to the opposition – it was the perfect example of ‘underdog’ football.
A typical convention of football is that the ‘stronger’ side must take the initiative, and create the play with their superior possession, because they have the technically stronger players capable of retaining the ball. It takes a certain set of attributes to win with a proactive style, and same for a reactive style – but the former is more prevalent in stronger, more skilled footballers, where the latter can be coaxed out of a limited group of players. They aren’t independent of each other, but underdogs will rely more on things like “bravery” and “heart” to triumph against an overwhelming favourite, which has been exactly the case with the Wanderers.
To put this in context, the A-League sides that play more defensively have done better in Asia, against teams with greater financial clout. Adelaide United in 2008 conceded three goals prior to the final in 2008. In the league that season, they conceded just 19, easily the best of any side. The strength of Aurelio Vidmar’s side was in their ability to defend very deep, denying opponents space, as the now-Socceroos assistant coach corroborates by referring to Inter Milan’s Champions League victory over Barcelona – another example of an ‘underdog’ side winning with a defensive gameplan.
“They made it very difficult for Barcelona to play in any open space and then hit them very quickly on the break. A coach like [Jose] Mourinho does that very well, whereas Barcelona are a completely different side who want to take the game to you and press high up the park,” said Vidmar.
“But Inter denied them the space and it’s not that dissimilar to the way we try to play in this competition.”
From there, he drew the obvious parallel between his Adelaide side and the Wanderers.
“They’re playing the type of football that you need to win in Asia. Just like what we did, we soaked up more pressure than most teams and they play a good counter-attacking game.”
While this is not a strict rule, sides that take the contrary approach (taking the initiative with proactive possession play) aren’t as successful. The most obvious example of this is the Brisbane Roar, the A-League’s most successful team because of their entertaining, possession style which has lead them to three Championships. In Asia, though, it’s been the complete opposite – 3rd in the group stage in 2012, and knocked out at the qualifying stage in 2013. Their positive style works in an A-League environment where teams are at an even level, but against bigger clubs, their vulnerabilities on the counter are plainly obvious.
Another example is Melbourne Victory, who traditionally play an attack-minded game but have again underperformed in Asia relative to their domestic form. It was telling that their best result this season came when Kevin Muscat reined in the usual attacking approach, switched from 4-2-2-2 to a 4-3-3 that effectively created a three-man midfield screen in front of the back four, and played predominantly on the break – inviting Guangzhou forward, and then hitting them at transitions. A 4-2 defeat in the away tie against Gunagzhou in the group turned into a 2-0 win at home, primarily because of Muscat’s changes.
Speaking after that initial defeat, current Newcastle Jets boss and Vidmar’s assistant for the 2008 run, Phil Stubbins, suggested “Victory were admirable in the way they set out and led 2-0 in that first half but by defending so expansively it left big spaces between their lines and Guangzhou exploited that emphatically in the second.”
Speaking more broadly, he added “it’s not for me to say how any team should play but I believe Melbourne Victory, Western Sydney Wanderers and Central Coast Mariners could have avoided so many goals against them with a closer eye on a more strategic defensive structure.”
Muscat heeded his advice but was unfortunately undone by the earlier, heavier defeats. Victory’s elimination demonstrated that playing defensively is one thing, playing it well is another – and that leads us to the Wanderers, who are perhaps the masters of it in the A-League. Their initial success in their debut A-League season came because their counter-attacking approach ran contrary to the possession style being pushed by other clubs. Their compactness, and organisation, allowed them to soak this approach up, then just hit sides on the break.
A similar pattern has ensured in their run to the final. Against Guangzhou, they simply sat deep, invited Marcelo Lippi’s side forward, then pounced on the break. In the semi-final, against a FC Seoul renowned for their caginess, the two sides played out a first leg basically by defending in front of each other. Neither side wanted to force the issue, and a 0-0 draw barely reflected the dourness and lack of attacking quality.
It may have been a similar situation in the second leg had Mateo Poljak not opened the scoring so early – that forced Seoul to take the initiative, come forward on the ball and create space for the Wanderers to counter into. Labinot Haliti was the obvious outlet on the left, bursting into a high and wide position on the left when the ball was turned over to be an outlet on the counter-attack. It was fitting he provided the decisive second goal, by leading the transition and whipping in the cross for Shannon Cole to head home – a goal that gave the Wanderers a two goal cushion, and allowed them to defend deep for the remainder of the match.
Furthermore, because the Wanderers defended very narrow, they forced Seoul to play down the flanks. The Korean side were astounding in their willingness to cross – sending in 54 by full-time – which only played straight into the Wanderers hands, especially with Popovic picking four centre-backs (Mullen and Golec both played there for their previous clubs) across his back-line. The emphasis on counter-attacking is also obvious in the midfield selection, with the more physical, combative pairing of Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca preferred as opposed to more technical playmakers like Jason Trifiro.
The 2-0 victory was a typical Wanderers result, won with typical Popovic tactics. There really shouldn’t be any surprise about their success, for the underdog nature of their approach is, as backed up by history, perfectly suited to the Asian Champions League. It’s a competition that rewards strong defensive play, and combined with those aforementioned intangibles of pride, desperation and luck, means they were always likely to go far in this competition.