Graham Arnold is Sydney FC’s ninth coach in ten seasons, but feels like the most sensible choice yet – a respected, experienced coach with a winning pedigree, and the perfect person to introduce a structure and professionalism to a side that has lacked those qualities in recent years.
First, though, it’s important to understand Sydney’s tactical progression in the last couple of seasons. In what can basically be called the ‘Alessandro Del Piero’ era, Ian Crook found the system he’d implemented in pre-season ‘ruined’ by the arrival of the marquee superstar, because it meant the departure of Nick Carle – the player that epitomised Crook’s gameplan. In contrast, there was no real role for Del Piero, and while the Italian was sensational, the side became incredibly reliant upon him. He was, in reality, the best midfielder, playmaker and forward, and played all of those roles at once – sometimes, it has to be said, to the detriment of his teammates.
Del Piero’s first season also hinted at what would become a long-standing problem for the side. While the finest player in the league’s history on the ball, he was effectively useless without it – barely contributing in the defensive phase, which basically translated into the side having to defend with 10, as opposed to 11.
While his attacking contribution outweighed this weakness in his first season, however, the main storyline of his second year in Australia was about whether this was still the case. Del Piero’s lack of defensive ability became a real issue, with the side constantly facing a shortfall in one area of the pitch. Opposition players constantly went free – Adam D’Apuzzo in the Sydney Derby, Mark Milligan against Melbourne Victory, and Rostyn Griffiths verus Perth Glory – and Sydney simply couldn’t cope being outmanned in these zones. With Del Piero struggling to match his earlier attacking output, the side often felt (somewhat paradoxically) better without him in the side.
Now, though, is a new era. Del Piero and Farina have moved on, and in comes Arnold, who Sydney originally chased two years ago before settling for Crook. Arnold’s reputation is all about building disciplined, hard-working teams. His Mariners side never sprang any surprises tactically – always a 4-2-3-1, with two compact banks of four without the ball – and their strength was in being able to execute certain patterns of play expertly. You know what was coming, but you couldn’t necessarily stop it.
Arnold’s real legacy, though, may be in the culture that he creates at his clubs. The Mariners became very community-oriented and adopted a strong team ethos under his tenure, with individuals secondary to the overall system. Players do flourish under his leadership, though, because Arnold drills them meticulously in what is required of them – but primarily, it’s about team-building. “What I ask is that when they come over the (Harbour) Bridge that they leave their egos behind,” says Arnold.
“When they come into the car park for training, they are as one. That they accept the challenge ahead, they work hard and they fight hard for each other.”
It’s been quite fitting to hear anecdotes in pre-season of Arnold doing away with things like Del Piero having his own change-room, and verbally lashing players who pass in the air at training. It’s very typical Arnold, and contrary to what we’ve expected in the past, this should be a very settled, organised Sydney side.
How will they play, then? While Australia Scout predicted a few weeks ago that the system would be a 4-4-2 diamond, similar to how the Mariners originally set up in Arnold’s first season there, recently he’s switched to a 4-4-2 – which, again, he used at the Mariners, albeit in his final two seasons.
The overriding dynamic of the side remains the same, though. There’s an emphasis on passing football, and playing out from the back, while going forward there’s a balance between quick, direct counter-attacking, and more patient periods of possession.
Starting from the back, Vedran Janjetovic continues in goals, having impressed after replacing Ivan Necevski last season. Arnold wants his side to retain possession in deep positions, and playing short passes to the back four might be a learning curve for the goalkeepers – for example, Necevski made a disastrous error on the ball in the Football United friendly against Newcastle.
Ahead of him will be a first-choice centre-back pairing of Sasa Ognenovski and Nikolai Petkovic, though an injury to the former means this will change for the opening rounds. With that partnership, though, Sydney will have a lot of height at the back, with Petkovic the more mobile and thus more likely to defend proactively higher up the pitch. He has a sweet left foot, is confident of playing penetrative forward passes, and takes set pieces.
On a ssmall side note, Ognenovski has a tendency to jockey attackers into very deep positions, and this can be a problem against quick, tricky dribblers.
Sebastian Ryall will deputise for Ognenovski in Round One, but is more likely to play as a right-back. Originally a central defender, Ryall surprised last season when redeployed out wide. He got forward more than expected, most notable in wins against both Wellington Phoenix (where he finished off that sublime team goal in the rain) and Melbourne Victory (in the semi-final, where he provided the assist for Sydney’s equaliser.
His competition is Pedj Bojic, who played under Arnold at the Mariners but seems to have gone under the radar because of a long-term injury last season. At his best, Bojic is a marauding full-back who drives forward very powerfully; but his form remains a slight concern and it will be intriguing to see if he can force his way into the starting side.
On the opposite side, another centre-back turned full-back Matt Jurman is the logical choice – again, he gets forward more than expected, but slightly less so than Ryall. Jurman doesn’t seem entirely comfortable crossing on his left, however, and in pre-season 17 year old Alex Gersbach has been a mainstay, impressing with his maturity and purposefulness. Against Sydney United in the FFA Cup, for example, he showed a willingness to take defenders on down the outside and then send lobbed crosses into the middle.
The full-backs are very important in Arnold’s system. He asks his wingers to play very narrow, creating space on the overlap, and at the Mariners Josh Rose and Pedj Bojic were perhaps the two players most constantly involved in play. It might eventuate this season that the two ‘natural’ full-backs, Bojic and Gersbach, end up as starters once the attacking play evolves – but in the opening rounds, where Arnold will concentrate on building a solid, compact unit at the back, he might use his two taller, stronger centre-backs in their new positions.
Meanwhile, further forward is a midfield two – another zone where there’s lots of competition for places, but a position where it might not necessarily be the best player picked, but rather the one that best suits the system.
Sydney have worked possession very patiently out from the back during pre-season, with the centre-backs splitting wide and carrying the ball forward into space. The objective is to get one of the midfielders on the ball facing forward, so often, you’ll see them split very wide into what can appear the position of a winger. It’s simply about finding space and being able to play forward.
At the Mariners, Arnold instructed John Hutchinson, the left-sided midfielder in the pivot, to drop into the back four to create a back three. Originally, Terry Antonis played this role as the deepest player in a midfield diamond, but the switch to a 4-4-2 means he sits slightly higher up, receiving passes off the back four and looking to play forward. Antonis brings a very structured feel to the side and has excellent distribution, but Milos Dimitrijevic is a similar type of player who has, too, impressed in pre-season. Peter Triantis and Hagi Gligor can also play here, and both very positive with their forward passing. Rhyan Grant will be another option when he returns from a ruptured ACL.
Theoretically, two of these players could play together, but Ali Abbas appears to have cemented his own starting spot as a deep-lying midfielder. Against Sydney United, he played slightly higher up of the two, creating depth between the lines and ensuring Sydney always had options to pass to ahead of the ball. As demonstrated throughout last season, Abbas has boundless energy and does lots of hard running – his drive and willingness to go forward will be crucial to the way Sydney will play this season. He too, of course, can play at left-back or in the attacking third.
The final consideration in midfield is Nick Carle. Carle appears to be one who doesn’t benefit from the switch from a 4-4-2 diamond to a 4-4-2 – originally, he was a #10, but with so many strikers in the squad, it doesn’t seem likely that Arnold will use that sort of a 4-2-3-1. Rather, Carle would have to get into the side as one of the deep-lying players. His struggles in that position last season were rather overstated – he struggled because of a lack of protection ahead of him, rather than because of any major personal failing. He’s perfectly capable of playing as a #6 or #8, but it might simply be that Arnold has better options in this position.
Indeed, there’s a tremendous amount of depth here, which has been one of the mantras of Arnold’s time so far. “I want two players for every position to create competition for places,” he says, and that’s certainly applicable to the midfield.
Regardless of personnel, their job will be the same – help work the ball into the final third, but then hold their position in front of the central defenders. That allows the full-backs to get forward because of the cover of the ‘defensive square’ in the centre, and gives the centre-backs lots of protection – John Hutchinson and Nick Montgomery are the clearest, and best, example of this.
Meanwhile, further forward there is much to discuss. The big question of pre-season is how Arnold will fit in all his new strikers, and there have been a number of clues to how this will happen. In the 4-4-2, there’s room for four from Marc Janko, Alex Brosque, Bernie Ibini, Shane Smeltz, Corey Gameiro and Chris Naumoff.
Of that list, Smeltz, Janko and Gameiro are the ‘out and out’ strikers, and will compete for the two central roles. Janko, as marquee, seems certain to start – he’s incredibly tall and brings an obvious strength in the air. He’s also very clinical and does good work in and around the penalty area to hold up the ball, attract defenders, get shots away and find space for others.
Smeltz is similar, better at attacking crosses but slightly less mobile. He appears to be more of a bench option – someone who can come on against teams that defend deep and attack crosses.
Gameiro has evolved into a exciting, all-round player: dangerous on the break with his pace, but also strong and agile. He’s turning into a tremendous counter-attacker, demonstrating an ability to receive passes in the channels and then roar powerfully forward on the break. His link play needs work, but is the sort of player who could flourish in this system.
It’s hard to predict what the front two will be, but the wide roles are a bit clearer. It should be the combination of Ibini and Brosque. Ibini, of course, needs no introduction to what he’ll have to do: it’s the exact same role he played so well under Arnold at the Mariners, and offers flexibility by being able to play upfront, or even deeper as a central midfielder in a 4-4-2 diamond. Where Ibini is more of a runner, though, Brosque is more subtle – he gets into positions between the lines, drifts inside cleverly to find pockets of space, but also gets forward into goalscoring positions.
Both of these players are ideal for providing the narrowness Arnold demands, which in turn creates space out wide for the full-backs to push forward into. Gersbach and Bojic had acres of space to run into in the FFA Cup tie against Sydney United, and were always the obvious ‘out-ball’ because they often burst beyond the tracking of their direct opponent, the opposition winger. Crossing seems to a big part of Sydney’s strategy this season, which would suit Janko and Smeltz. The narrowness of the wingers, too, helps create more of a goal threat for these balls into the middle.
Against teams that defend very deep, Sydney might become slightly predictable, especially as they would have lots of time to work the ball out from the back, but run into problems when crossing into a penalty box packed with defenders. Carle could be the Plan #B here, although Arnold experimented with using Brosque tucked just in behind Gameiro against Sydney United, bringing a wide forward, Naumoff, into the side. That had the added bonus of both increasing Sydney’s sources of creativity in central positions, but adding variety to the attack via Naumoff’s willingness to shoot from ambitious positions, which paid off for two spectacular goals.
At this point in time, Sydney seem well-drilled in their structures at the back – confident playing out, and defending well as a unit. However, there’s a rustiness going forward, and more of a reliance on counter-attacking than Arnold probably would like. They will be very dangerous countering in numbers, especially with lots of pace in the side upfront; but as the season progresses, this will probably become possession-based, especially if Dimitrijevic and Antonis partner each other in midfield.
In the opening rounds, however, we will probably see some tinkering to find the right combinations. A 4-4-2 diamond is still a possibility, too, especially as it would allow Arnold to fit more of his central midfielders into the side. Once they find their rhythm, though, he will be loath to change things: there might be a point where things ‘click’, from which Sydney will have a clear first-choice XI.
It took three years for Arnold to get the Mariners to a point where they could execute the system at a level better than any other side. How long Sydney’s adaption process depends on how quickly the players assimilate to his methods, but the signs are that this is a very promising, exciting and typical Arnold side.