David Villa came off the bench to score the equaliser after Sydney surprisingly took the lead against the run of play.
Graham Arnold was without a number of theoretical first-choice players because of international duty, so in a 4-4-2 shape he started with young debutant George Blackwood upfront alongside Corey Gameiro, and Nick Carle playing from the right. Terry Antonis and Milos Dimitrijevic were in midfield, while Sebastian Ryall and Matt Jurman were in the full-back positions.
John van’t Schip left Villa on the bench and used Mate Dugdanzic through the middle instead. Marquee Robert Koren was out with a groin injury, so Massimo Murdocca played alongside Aaron Mooy, with Erik Paartalu anchoring the midfield triangle in a 4-3-3.
City start strong
Melbourne City kicked off, and immediately established a dominance of possession, settling quickly into their set patterns of play and looking to play out from the back. As detailed in the preview, they worked the ball forward from the goalkeeper, Andrew Redmayne, via Paartalu, who dropped in between the centre-backs to create a back three and allow the full-backs to push forward. On top of this, the two midfielders ahead of him, Mooy and Murdocca, moved towards the flanks to find space, and cover in behind the full-backs – Murdocca, in particular, sometimes appeared like a very deep left-winger, with left-back Iain Ramsay getting very high up the pitch.
Sydney were defending in a very compact, narrow 4-4-2 shape, but initially were very shaky and seemed uncertain about who was tracking Mooy and Murdocca. Early on, City got forward by creating clever passing triangles down the flanks, with one particularly crisp move leading to Damien Duff cutting a cross back for James Brown to hit the bar. It was a good example of how they were using the central midfielders to work the ball into the final third, with Mooy providing the penetration by finding space near the touchline, and the right-back, Ross Archibald, overlapping past Duff to create a 2v1 situation down the side.
As the City midfielders mixed this deep, wide positioning with sudden forward runs, they also created a few good chances when they darted late into the penalty area – Mooy had a good chance from a chipped through-ball by Brown.
As may already be obvious, the midfield zone was a very important element of this tactical battle, with City getting on top thanks to a simple 3v2 advantage in that zone. Arnold also used a 4-4-2 shape at the Mariners, but circumvented the traditional problem with that formation – a lack of numbers in central midfield – by asking the side to play very compact, squeezing the pitch ‘inwards’ so that the front two and the wide players help compete in that central zone.
However, here, Sydney lacked that narrowness, meaning City were comfortably able to get their midfielders on the ball facing forwards and maximise their numerical superiority. They often looked to play down the flanks, creating (as Van’t Schip said post-match) 2v1 situations against Sydney’s full-backs, and Duff was the game’s best player with his delivery from the right.
Without the ball, too, City’s 3v2 advantage in midfield allowed Mooy and Murdocca to press up against Dimitrijevic and Antonis, with Paartalu sweeping up in behind as a spare man. While Blackwood attempted to drop between the lines, Sydney lacked a link between midfield and attack – so even when their two deeper midfielders escaped the City press, they lacked passing options further ahead.
Narrow Sydney wingers
Again, theoretically, Arnold’s teams avoid this usual problem with a 4-4-2 by bringing their wingers narrow, where they can find space between the lines and create room for the full-backs to overlap. Brosque and Carle actually did this to good effect, finding space either side of Paartalu, but were let down by the quality of Sydney’s passing – often as the centre-backs bypassed midfield with longer balls from the back, because City pressed high up the pitch and prevented them from building passing moves. This was a particular source of frustration for Arnold, and the centre-backs struggled throughout the match to play out from the back.
When they were able to work the ball forward through midfield, however, the gap between Paartalu and his fellow midfielders was obvious – the holding midfielder was often dragged towards the sides and upfield by the fact Mooy and Murdocca were leaving space in behind when they pressed up. A good example of this was when Carle had that shot he blazed over the bar on the half-hour mark – Paartalu is pulled towards Brosque, who has got on the ball in the left channel, and cuts the ball back to Carle who is unmarked in a position just in front of the back four.
The goal, too, is another example of Sydney overloading Paartalu. He’s been drawn upfield towards the ball because of the space left by Mooy and Murdocca’s pressing, but then Carle overlaps Brosque in a very narrow, central position, which overloads him and creates space for Carle to then play Gameiro in behind for that fine curled finish.
Therefore, the game was largely about that fascinating battle in the centre – where Mooy and Murdocca generally had the supremacy because their pressing prevented Sydney from working the ball forward. Occasionally, though, when Sydney played past this pressure, it made Paartalu look vulnerable in front of the defence.
Antonis goes to #10
City’s dominance in the first half was a little exaggerated, but they did play well as a unit and were particularly dominant in that midfield zone. Therefore, Arnold’s just-after-half-time change, to remove Blackwood, bring Peter Triantis on as a deep midfielder, and push Antonis further forward into a #10 role, was very effective – evening up the numbers in midfield, and giving Sydney that link in the final third they were missing in the first half.
Antonis was very clever with his movement, sticking tight to Paartalu without the ball, and then spinning off him to find space either side when Sydney had the ball. He also upped the tempo of Sydney’s attacking play, receiving passes and then offloading quickly, which helped attacks flow much smoother and increased the speed of their counter-attacking.
It was clear that Arnold had identified overloading Paartalu as a good tactic for the second half, as Brosque had another chance from a similar move – Carle drifts inside from the right, gets past Paartalu and then plays in Brosque down the left side who fires wide and high.
Arnold acknowledged the importance of this switch post-match, praising the role of Antonis in occupying Paartalu, and facilitating attacking moves.
The main story of the match, though, was of course Villa, who came on and scored City’s equaliser with a fine low shot. That wasn’t significant of any overall tactical trend, and simply more indicative of his sheer quality. However, his actual role warrants some discussion.
Coming on for James Brown, the expectation was that Villa would play through the middle as a #9, but instead, Dugandzic stayed upfront, with the Spaniard playing wide on the left. It wasn’t a completely unorthodox move, as Villa played that role very well for years at Barcelona, and in fact played there in his last competitive match, against the Socceroos at the World Cup.
Normally, Villa plays high up in that position, looking to make diagonal runs in behind the full-back and centre-back, but also collecting passes before cutting inside and shooting. Here, though, he appeared hampered by an obvious lack of fitness, and generally stayed quite wide and initially struggling to get involved in play. When City had possession for long periods, Villa had more freedom to drift inside and contribute to the build-up, but seemed to lack the acceleration or mobility to be genuinely effective with the ball in a wide position, especially as Sebastian Ryall was able to shut him down fairly quickly when he received passes near the touchline.
A reason why he may have played on the flank could have been to keep Dugandzic upfront, where he had been doing a good job leading the press and closing down Sydney’s centre-backs energetically. This had been very important to City’s spell of dominance in the first half, and having Villa through the middle would have given Petkovic and Ognenovski more time on the ball – Van’t Schip would have wanted to avoid giving Sydney time to patiently build attacks.
This was an interesting match played at a good tempo, even if the attention was all on Villa. The midfield battle was key – City got the upper hand because of their numerical advantage both with and without the ball, with Mooy and Murdocca pivotal to both providing penetration to the possession, and in shutting down Sydney’s midfield with a well-organised press.
When Arnold made a minimal, but crucial adjustment to his formation, switching from a 4-4-2 to 4-4-1-1, he got his side back in the game. They demonstrated a weakness in City’s system, and it will be interesting to see if future opponents look to isolate Paartalu by overloading him in the centre.
This wasn’t the City dominance it was made out to be, and with a number of key players out for Sydney, a draw was an encouraging result.