The Western Sydney Wanderers are developing a habit of qualifying for Grand Finals – going back to back in the A-League, and more recently making it to the final stage of the Asian Champions League. It’s a remarkable record for a club in just its third year of existence, but the jury remains out on the club’s chances in the upcoming league season.
Tony Popovic’s side have had a very unusual pre-season. They’ve barely had a break, practically going straight into competitive knock-out matches in Asia against Guangzhou Evergrande. They were clearly unfit at that stage, but now, a couple of months down the track, it’s no surprise to hear the players declaring they’re “fitter than ever” – it’s what happens when you don’t stop playing football.
In some ways, being knocked out of the FFA Cup by Adelaide City may have been a blessing in disguise. It would have added to an already congested fixture list, but fortunately, the Wanderers have one of the league’s keenest tinkerers – Popovic demonstrated his ability to rotate the side during the latter months of last season, and has built a squad with enough depth and versatility to cover the extra workload.
Where Popovic is not a tinkerer, though, is with his approach. This season, we can expect the same tactics that we’ve seen for the last two years – the 4-2-3-1, with an emphasis on direct, physical defensive play. The side’s strength is in hard they work, particularly off the ball, and Popovic has drilled them meticulously in the mechanics of their defensive structure. What the Wanderers do very well is press the ball not necessarily so they win it every time, but so the man in possession doesn’t have time or space. It’s an important distinction, and no side does it better in the A-League.
While the first season was characterised by a high pressing game, however, the game plan has evolved slowly towards a more pragmatic, cautious approach. Rather than pushing the front four very high up the pitch to close down the opposition back four, the Wanderers sit off a little more, bringing the front two back behind the ball to make the side compact. This seems a consequence of the extra games they’ve had to play, as the press was very demanding and might not have been sustainable over a longer season.
It remains to be seen whether the high press will return this season. When it’s in full flow, it’s magnificent to watch – the front four press up, with the midfield two preventing passes into midfield, and the total effect is to force opponents wide or into rushed forward passes. It’s a shame it become slightly less effective last season.
Nevertheless, you can rely on the Wanderers to be defensively strong, and compact without the ball. Going forward, they break in numbers and hit sides on the counter-attack, with former right-winger Youssouf Hersi pivotal in this regard. Hersi was tremendous at defending from the front, then leading the transitions with explosive forward running, and while his influence dipped last season, he will be missed.
His direct replacement is fellow Dutchman Romeo Castelen, who was omitted from the ACL squad, but has impressive pedigree having played in the Dutch top flight last season for RKC Waalwijk, notching up six goals and six assists. The downside is his ongoing knee problems, but if fit, he could prove the ideal replacement for Hersi.
On the left is Mark Bridge – a wide forward who benefits from the width created on the right to take up narrow positions near the penalty area, meaning he chips in with a decent goal tally. He can also play central, which seems to be Popovic’s preferred option in games where he expects the side to defend very deep, and needs someone to lead the transitions. Meanwhile, Kwabena Appiah-Kubi and Golgol Mebrahtu (when he returns from injury) are other options out wide, and provide lots of pace on the break. Shannon Cole can play on either side and is used when a more defensive option is needed, while Labinot Haliti was traditionally a striker, but has impressed as another powerful counter-attacker on the left. He’s one player who’s consistently improved under Popovic, and should be in line for more league starts this season.
Upfront, Popovic has the same pair of strikers to chose from as last season – Tomi Juric or Brendon Santalab. While Juric is the superior player as an aggressive, physical forward, Santalab appears to be more trusted and often plays in big games. He’s good at pushing a defensive line back by running in behind, and works very hard to instigate the defensive pressure. There are also rumours Nikita Rukavytsya could join the club – another quick, versatile forward, he would be more an improvement on the existing attackers rather than offering something new.
The most significant change, though, of the off-season is that Japanese playmaker Shinji Ono has departed over two fine years at the club. Always the #10, he developed a knack for scoring very important, high-quality goals, and provided the creativity that might otherwise have been missing in a hard-working side.
His replacement is Vitor Saba, a Brazilian who “supposedly” can play left-back but seems far more likely to take Ono’s old role, and describes himself as a “classic no.10”. Saba is more mobile than his predecessor and finds space intelligently between the lines, and in games where the Wanderers have to take the initiative he will be very important.
That is the biggest concern of this season. It’s becoming increasingly common for teams to play very cautiously against Western Sydney, refusing to be drawn up the pitch by their defensive shape and thus restricting the space for them to counter into. It means these type of games – traditionally the Sydney derby – can be very attritional and scrappy.
The Wanderers thrive when they’re the underdogs, but their ability to make the play remains in question, and there will be more times where they have to do this season. A good example is the FFA Cup match against Adelaide City – who sat deep, forced the Wanderers to dominate possession, and successfully frustrated them.
This problem may be accentuated by the loss of Aaron Mooy, who was in and out of the site but was clearly the best deep-lying playmaker. Mooy’s passing range helped up the tempo of the attacking play and he brought qualities that fellow midfielders Mateo Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca lacked. The Poljak-La Rocca partnership is tremendously combative and they do a fine job protecting the back four, but they both lack guile on the ball.
At the back remains the Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Matthew Spiranovic partnership, although an injury to the latter has meant Brendan Hamill has gone straight into the side in the Asian Champions League. Spiranovic is proactive on the ball and capable of hitting accurate diagonals forward, whereas Topor-Stanley tends to panic more and simply clear his lines. Both are strong in the air and their no-nonsense approach suits the side.
There is a new pair of full-backs, with Adam D’Apuzzo and Jerome Polenz both moving on. The latter was very important last season with his dynamic forward running, and there’s a slight concern that Popovic’s new full-backs, both converted centre-backs, might not offer as much going forward. Antony Golec and Daniel Mullen both played in the middle for their previous clubs but have impressed in the ACL in wider roles. They both play very narrow and create a very compact back four – and as all four defenders are good in the air, the crosses this naturally invites from the opposition are comfortably dealt with.
Golec is capable of overlapping down the left, but if, as predicted above, the Wanderers have to be proactive in possession more often this season, it might not be enough. A possible alternative at full-back could be Nigerian Seyi Adeleke, if he ever arrives having had to go through a lengthy visa process.
It’s probably worth noting, too, that while the Wanderers have remained consistent with their approach over the last three years, there has been evolution. They became more patient in building up from the back in their second season and this seems another logical progression ahead of the new campaign, even if the Asian Champions League has placed more of an emphasis on their defensive organisation.
Ultimately, that’s their major strength, and with the major changes this season coming in the final third, they’ll continue to rely on it, especially after such a demanding pre-season. They should again be well-placed to challenge for another Grand Final.