Nikolai Petkovic’s red card at the very end of regular time meant Sydney went down to 10 for the two periods of extra time, where Bruce Djite’s double proved decisive.
Graham Arnold rotated significantly from the side that started the Sydney Derby just days earlier, with Nick Carle, Peter Triantis, Chris Naumoff, Ali Abbas and Pedj Bojic all coming into the starting XI. Sasa Ognenovski was serving a one-match suspension, so Sebastian Ryall partnered Nikolai Petkovic at the back.
Josep Gombau’s side had the luxury of an extra day of rest, so the only change from last Friday’s 1-1 draw with Melbourne Victory was Awer Mabil for Craig Goodwin. They continued with the 3-4-3 formation.
Adelaide dominate possession
The first half felt like a continuation of the same patterns we’ve seen from these two sides this season – Sydney started very slowly against both Melbourne City and Western Sydney, and did so again here, while Adelaide immediately established their dominance of possession, controlling the ball early on and settling quickly into their usual rotations.
The most fascinating element of the 3-4-3 is Isaias’ role – playing as a centre-back in a 4-3-3 when Adelaide are defending, moving forward to become the anchor at the base of a midfield diamond when his side have possession. Having four players through the centre has meant Adelaide have always had a spare man, often Isaias, who dominated the statistics as a result. He completed close to 100 passes.
Part of the reason for this was because Sydney sat very deep in their 4-4-2 shape, with Marc Janko and Hagi Gligor, the front two, attempting to keep the side compact. However, Adelaide had both an overload at the back – 3v2, with Nigel Boogard, Dylan McGowan and Tarek Elrich playing out comfortably – and in midfield, with the aforementioned 4v3 advantage.
Therefore, Adelaide had 60% of the ball over the course of the match, comfortably building up play from deep positions and working it forward patiently. As Sydney packed the middle of the pitch, the obvious out-ball was to the two wingers, where Cirio and Mabil stayed very wide and received passes to feet, trying to take on the Sydney full-backs 1v1.
This was similar to the Victory game in the sense that Adelaide looked much better when they get their attackers down the ‘inside’ of the Sydney defenders, and Cirio’s goal here was very similar to his curled finish from last Friday – receiving a through-ball in behind the defence, and one of the few times he was able to cut inside onto his stronger right foot, but proving decisive when he could.
Sydney’s problems in the first half also extended to their attacking play, where they struggled to counter-attack primarily because both Carle and Naumoff tended to move narrow and towards the ball, rather than trying to stretch the space down either side of Adelaide’s back three. Adelaide were comfortable defending with a high line, with no-one threatening to run in behind.
With a change obviously needed, Arnold turned to his bench, replacing the ineffective Janko with Alex Brosque, who played his third position of the season, alone upfront, with Gligor still tucked in behind as a #10.
Crucially, Sydney became far more proactive – pressing higher up the pitch, with the defensive line squeezing up, and Brosque leading the closing down with energetic forward running. His pressing was very good, and he cut off forward passing lanes to good effect, supported by the two wingers tucking in narrow to pick up Elrich and McGowan.
Now, Adelaide couldn’t establish their passing rhythm, had less time on the ball in deep positions, and Sydney simply had more momentum – pushing forward with more numbers, and getting more players into goalscoring positions. They quickly equalised through a clever passing move, with Carle providing the finish for an awkward Brosque finish, who was a fitting goalscorer given the way he’d lead the turnaround.
A good way to quantify the tactical shift is by comparing Nigel Boogard’s passing chalkboards for the first (on the left) and second (on the right) halves – far less in the latter when Sydney closed down higher up the pitch.
An example of the pressure was when Brosque started on Isaias, moved forward to close down Boogard, forced the backwards pass to Eugene Galekovic, who miscued his attempted pass. Substitute Corey Gameiro missed from the resulting turnover.
The counter-consequence of high pressure is that the defence must push up to keep the side compact, and naturally, Adelaide looked dangerous breaking in behind through their wingers. This was demonstrated for the red card incident, with substitute Michael Marrone getting in behind.
Gombau goes back to 4-3-3
Rewinding a bit, however, to the first fifteen minutes, where Sydney were well and truly on top – that forced Gombau into a double change and a formation switch to get his side back in the game. He brought on Osama Malik for Pablo Sanchez and Fabio Ferriera for Mabil, switching to a 4-3-3 with Malik and Boogard the centre-back partnership. This was ‘classic’ Adelaide – Isaias anchoring the midfield, and the familiar front three of Cirio, Djite and Ferriera.
Importantly, this decreased the effectiveness of Sydney’s pressing, because there were now two full-backs stretching the play on either side, maximising the width of the pitch when Adelaide had possession in deep positions. Therefore, with Brosque covering the ‘central’ zone, and the two Sydney wingers trying to tuck in, the new obvious out-ball for Adelaide to play out was to the full-backs, with Galekovic chipping some lovely balls towards them. From this, they re-established some control, restoring the balance of the game and making it a more even contest.
However, the red card to Petkovic changed the complexion of the match once more. Now, it was 10v11, and it felt like a question of when, not if, Adelaide would score. With no centre-backs on the bench, Arnold had to switch to something of a compromise between a back three and a back four – Abbas, Ryall and Bojic formed the defence, with the latter sweeping across to right-back and Naumoff attempting to play both right-wing and cover down the right hand side.
Unsurprisingly, both Adelaide goals (both scored by Djite) originated from their left flank, overloading Sydney’s already weak right-hand side.
The controversial red card ruined what had been an interesting tactical contest. Adelaide had started well when the two sides played their ‘usual’ game, with Sydney struggling to get runners in behind. However, when they pressed higher up after the break, with Brosque leading the charge, they regained momentum and disrupted Adelaide’s possession game.
Gombau’s switch back to a 4-3-3 stemmed the tide somewhat, but it would have been fascinating to see how the pattern had progressed in extra time with 11v11 – with a numerical advantage, Adelaide were simply able to work the ball from side to side and exploit the vulnerable side of Sydney’s makeshift defence.
In the past, Adelaide under Gombau have been foiled by teams that sit deep and soak up pressure, but the second half here suggested an energetic press can also disrupt their approach. This follows on from a similar conclusion in last Friday’s match against the Victory, and that is the most significant tactical talking point from this tie – it might prove important in the coming A-League rounds.