Perth Glory have recruited heavily and will play a 4-4-2 diamond, meaning they are one of the more intriguing and unpredictable sides this season.
Lowe himself remains an unconvincing choice as head coach. He seems to have suffered a little from being given the job after a “worldwide search”, a somewhat dubious suggestion that made Perth look fairly unambitious. The difficult circumstances around his appointment midway through last season meant it was hard to assess his impact, but the results weren’t hugely encouraging – four wins in seventeen games, including nine losses. Two of these wins came back-to-back at the tail end of the season against Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners, primarily because of the tactical success Lowe found with a 4-4-2 diamond.
Before then, he’d preferred a basic 4-2-3-1, using Sidnei and Chris Harold on either side of Shane Smeltz in the attacking third. The 4-4-2 diamond, however, was a drastic change. It meant they packed the midfield with four players in that zone, which made an enormous difference defensively simply because they had more numbers behind the ball. The real beauty of the system, though, was the way it circumvented a traditional weakness of the diamond – its lack of width – by having two wingers together upfront.
As both Sidnei and Harold were happy to drift away from the centre into their ‘natural’ zone, and create the width otherwise absent, they were very dangerous on the counter-attack when receiving passes in the channels – using their pace to get in behind opposition full-backs, who were tempted to get forward because of the lack of a direct opponent. This worked to devastating effect against the Mariners, with the space in behind Storm Roux and Josh Rose ruthlessly exploited for Perth’s goals in a 3-1 win.
Normally, one game wouldn’t warrant such inspection, but such was Perth’s success with the diamond it seems to have become Lowe’s favoured formation.
There is much to discuss structurally about the system, because no other formation has such clear strengths and weaknesses. The numerical superiority in midfield is counter-balanced by a lack of width high up the pitch. Often, the diamond enjoys a period of success, but then the weaknesses become too obvious and the ‘tactical cycle’ moves on to another shape. However, with Sydney FC set to also use the shape, and it having enjoyed a revival in the league last season courtesy of Melbourne Heart and Wellington Phoenix, it seems the diamond is in fashion.
While the advantage in midfield can mean sides dominate possession and thus prevent opposition wingers being involved in a game, the structural flaw with regard to opposition full-backs is very difficult to combat. In a theoretical context, with so much space ahead of them, it’s difficult to see who in a diamond formation can actually engage with these full-backs.
The modern trend has been, as opposed to designating someone to defend directly against the opposition full-backs, to instruct the two centre-forwards to occupy the space out wide, so that there is an immediate threat on the counter-attack.
The clearest example of this is Liverpool. Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez formed a superb partnership last season because they were both happy to drift across the pitch. If full-backs pushed forward and, as Steven Gerrard put it, “teams wants to play two versus two against these two – Suárez and Sturridge – all the best.”
That, in essence, was the genius behind Lowe’s original diamond system last season, as Kate Cohen explained in The Guardian. However, with a new set of players at his disposal, it’s questionable whether the system will again be so effective.
Specifically, Lowe has used a new-look front two in pre-season. Andy Keogh is the biggest name amongst the new signings, has had a superb career in the UK and been in fine form during pre-season. He’ll play to the left of the front two, but as a traditional striker, might not be comfortable drifting wide in the way that Sidnei or Harold were. However, he’s very clever inside the box, and gets shots away from difficult angles.
The identity of his partner remains uncertain. It could be anyone from Sidnei, Harold, Jamie MacLaren and potentially Youssouf Hersi, while a marquee signing has also been touted. This player could prove very important – if Lowe wants his system to work similarly to the way it did last season, then it’ll have to be someone capable of drifting wide and exploiting the space created by the structural weakness of the midfield diamond. Sidnei (injured for the start of the season) and Harold can do this job, with the latter prominent in pre-season. While he may not be the “best” player in this position, he might be the most effective in what Lowe presumably wants to achieve.
Harold’s own comments on the changes are illuminating.
“We’ve been playing with two up front and not so much width during the pre-season,” he said to The World Game. “I’ve been playing in that striking role alongside one of the other guys.”
“I’ve enjoyed it, because in my junior days I was always a central striker. The last couple of years I’ve had to adjust to being able to play out wide as well, but I do enjoy playing as a striker more than anything.”
“Kenny has played around with myself and Jamie and Sidnei up front. There’s been a bit of chopping and changing, but I’ve felt when I have played up front with Andy we do play pretty well together. We’ve got different styles, so that could work well.”
When using a ‘traditional’ strike pairing in pre-season, like Keogh and MacLaren, there’s been a worrying narrowness in attacking moves. In a friendly against Adelaide United, for example, both strikers constantly made the same run – it meant there was a lack of a link between the front two and the midfield, with Perth resorting to long, chipped balls over the top from deep positions. A front two can certainly work in theory, but it requires two varied forward who can play off each other. Furthermore, against opponents that sit deep, there is a lack of space for the front two to run into, as was obvious in the final game of last season against Sydney FC.
Tactically, Lowe’s diamond will be one of the more interesting aspects of this season.
Meanwhile, recruitment has been clearly geared around signing players that fit into a midfield quartet. There are very few genuine wide options left (if Lowe wants to use a 4-2-3-1, he’ll only be really able to choose from Harold, Sidnei or Hersi on the flanks) and the bulk of the squad is now hard-working midfield players.
“We’ve had a remit this year to go get, what I call, blue-collar players,” says Lowe.
“Lads who’ve got no ego, who are quite prepared to roll their sleeves up and work, but also have got some qualities on the ball.”
It is the best way to describe the likes of Ruben Zadkovich, Mitch Nichols, Richard Garcia and Diogo Ferriera, who will all battle along with Rostyn Griffiths, Nebojsa Marinkovic, Brandon O’Neill, Daniel De Silva and [again] potentially Hersi for four starting positions. The likely format will be Marinkovic as the #10 – underwhelming after arriving in January, but seems to have acclimatised over the break and has been impressive in pre-season – with Nichols and Garcia tucked in behind him.
Nichols is a clever, creative player who will be crucial to the transition of play through midfield. He varies his position very intelligently and often makes a clever, overlapping run around the outside of the left-back, helping draw away defenders and allowing him to find space. Garcia, on the right, seems perfect for a diamond – capable of moving towards the sides to provide the width, and providing lots of energy.
At the base has been Brandon O’Neill throughout pre-season, but Griffiths or Zadkovich might eventually break into the side in this position. The job, though, remains the same: sit very deep in front of the back, hold your position and make simple passes to the player higher up. Griffiths was actually very good in this role for the Central Coast Mariners, and impressed with his distribution at the tail end of last season.
Zadkovich, meanwhile, is another decent option, and could also theoretically play slightly higher up as one of the ‘outside’ midfielders. As a general rule, against teams that sit very deep, the player at the base can get lots of freedom, and in these games that player has to provide the penetration.
It must be encouraging for Lowe to have so many options in midfield. De Silva, in his last year in the A-League before moving permanently to Roma, is like Nichols and would provide creativity, while Ferriera is versatile, unspectacular, and functional, but suits the system.
A slight concern is that Hersi seems alienated by a diamond. As an out and out right-winger during his two years in Western Sydney, it’s hard to see him in a central role, where he has been used by Lowe. Experiments with him as a #10 have been underwhelming. His game is all about breaking forward into space, so he might be more important in games where Perth defend deep, and require someone to lead the transitions.
In contrast to the still-undecided midfield, the back four is pleasingly settled. New signing Dino Djublic has struck up a good partnership with Michael Thwaite. Both are very strong on the ground and in the air and will have lots of protection ahead of them from the four central midfielders. At full-back, Scott Jamieson and Josh Risdon will have lots of space to get forward into during attacking moves, and Lowe is keen to encourage them to push forward. Jamieson’s delivery can be superb and if he can get into good positions, a benefit of having a front two will be having lots of players to attack his crosses. Risdon, on the opposite side, tends to get higher up, then cut back onto his left foot to cross.
In terms of approach, Lowe doesn’t appear to have a set philosophy. Rather, his team seems defined by the shape they play, and the individual attributes of the players. He seems keen to play an attacking style of football, and wants his players to be fluid and flexible in the final third. However, Perth won’t force a particular style upon teams, and against the likes of Adelaide and Brisbane, will probably end up defending very deep.
The defensive structure can feel a little shambolic. Rather than holding a certain shape, Lowe seems happy to simply get players behind the ball, placing trust in the weight of numbers. This suits the hard-working nature of the squad, but at times they might appear disorganised and reactive in their approach to winning the ball back.
While it’s easy to predict the relative strengths and weaknesses of Perth’s new system, it’s difficult to assess which will actually outweigh the other. It’s possible a front two could be a masterstroke against teams used to defending against one striker, but alternatively this might cause too many problems against teams that sit very deep, or dominate them in terms of possession.
The A-League is renowned for its unpredictability, but Perth could take that to the next level.