Five things to watch: A-League Round Five

An intriguing round of fixtures sees potential problems for both Sydney teams in their away matches, Newcastle and Perth having to work to do in finding the right balance, while Brisbane Roar v Melbourne City might see yet another display of midfield man-marking.

Can Wellington get in behind the Wanderers midfield?

On Monday night, having played the same starting XI for the first three rounds of the A-League season, Ernie Merrick surprisingly switched from the usual 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 diamond, pushing Roly Bonevacia into a #10 position to man-mark Carl Valeri, dropping Jeremy Brockie and instead playing Michael McGlinchey and Nathan Burns as a pair of wide forwards upfront. It was an unusual formation designed to clog the central zone, with Albert Riera sticking tight to Guilherme Finkler and the two midfielders ahead of him, Alex Rodriguez and Vince Lia, working hard to shuttle out to the flanks to help close down Melbourne Victory’s full-backs.

However, the interesting approach backfired primarily because the Victory were able to play around this pressure via Mark Milligan, who strode forward confidently from centre-back to instigate play with both incisive forward passes, and powerful runs into midfield – he was repeatedly unoccupied, and made good use of this freedom to help the Victory work the ball into the final third.

Therefore, it’s expected Merrick will return to the 4-3-3 for Friday night’s match against the Wanderers. It’s the Wanderers first A-League match since their two-legged Asian Champions League final – which they won, of course, in contrast to the two defeats they’ve suffered so far in the A-League. The primary reason for this is because they sat much deeper in their defensive block in Asia, not pressing high up the pitch but instead soaking up pressure for long periods. In the A-League, they’ve been more open – especially in the midfield zone, where Mateo Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca have been guilty of being drawn forward and leaving pockets of space in behind – exploited excellently by Kosta Barbarouses in the opening round, and by Alex Brosque in the Sydney Derby.

This could again be an area of concern should Merrick use McGlinchey and Burns on either side of Brockie in a 4-3-3 – both drift inside into very narrow, central playmaking positions, in that exact space where the Wanderers have had trouble protecting in their two A-League games this season. It could be a decisive feature of a fascinating match-up.

Will Sydney press, even without Alex Brosque?

Graham Arnold’s side have impressed for many reasons so far this season, but in their last two games in particular, their pressing has been particularly exceptional. Against Brisbane Roar, they successfully prevented last season’s Champions from playing out from the back, and against the Central Coast Mariners, they adapted excellently to Phil Moss’s unusual 5-4-1 formation to again shut down their attempts to build up play from deep positions.

In a 4-4-2 shape, it’s been the front four (from left to right) of Corey Gameiro, Marc Janko, Alex Brosque and Bernie Ibini who have been key – the two wingers, Gameiro and Ibini, press ‘inwards’ on the opposition full-backs to prevent that easy out-ball, while Janko and Brosque work so that one will close down the man in possession, and the other blocking the pass into midfield. It requires cohesive, intelligent tactical awareness, and it’s a testament to Arnold’s coaching that they’ve adapted so quickly to what is a demanding and difficult concept.

Adelaide United probably represent the toughest challenge in terms of pressing. Josep Gombau’s side have become very good at playing out beyond pressure, with midfielder Isaias the fulcrum through which the side builds up play. It’s becoming popular to man-mark him, then, with Guilherme Finkler and Massimo Murdocca doing so in recent weeks. Arnold will probably ask his front two to continue as they are – one pressuring the centre-back in possession, the other blocking off the pass into Isaias.

However, a major concern is the presumable absence of Alex Brosque, the key figure in leading this pressure. Brosque’s skill lies in his variety of movement – he can play anywhere across the front, and constantly drifts between the lines, towards the channels and makes runs in behind, making him very difficult to mark in attack. Defensively, too, he is pivotal, leading the pressure high up the pitch and angling his runs intelligently to force play in a certain direction. Without him, Sydney’s press will not be as effective.

Stubbing still searching for a win…and balance

Phil Stubbins has had a fragmented start to life at Newcastle Jets. His pre-season preparations were disrupted by constant injury problems and a raft of transfer activity, with question marks over the structure and approach of his side at the eve of the new season. Even now, after four games, it’s difficult to extrapolate exactly how he wants his side to play, as he continues to tinker with both selection and style.

At first, the emphasis was on attacking with width, and pressing high up – David Carney got forward from full-back to combine with former New York Red Bull teammate Johnny Steele, while Joel Griffiths worked the right, and Newcastle focused their passing down the flanks. Without the ball, that front four closed down energetically, making the pitch very narrow and attempting to box in opponents.

We’ve not really seen a consistency in approach, however. Against Wellington Phoenix, they dominated possession – 60%, an increase of 38% against Melbourne City the week before. Then, last Sunday, against Perth, that figure dropped dramatically again, down to 43%. Newcastle sat quite deep and allowed Perth to build up from the back – there was little of the energetic pressing we’d seen in pre-season or in the first two games.

To add to the feeling of fragmentation, the format of the attacking quartet was unusual, and a little bizarre. Carney moved from left-back to #10, Andrew Hoole, normally a right-winger, played on the left, and Jeronimo Neumann started for the first time this season – the only ‘regular’ was Griffiths, on the right. There was also a brand new midfield duo, with Allan Welsh and Ben Kantarovski starting for the first time this season.

While one has to take into account the injuries and new arrivals, it’s hard to feel anything but discouraged by the way Stubbins seems so uncertain about the side’s approach and selection. It would be no surprise to see yet more tinkering in an attempt to find the right formula in Saturday night’s clash with Melbourne Victory.

Midfield showdown in City v Brisbane

Last season, one of Melbourne City’s (back then, the Heart) finest moments was a 1-0 win over Brisbane Roar – last place upsetting first place in a brilliantly dominant display. The best player was Orlando Engelaar, who powered forward on the ball from the midfield zone into the final third, and scored the only goal, as well as winning long balls from the back. Across the pitch, the Heart flew into challenges, breaking up play in midfield and then storming forward into attack via their pacy wingers. It was a display that demonstrated the virtues of physical, rather than technical, attributes.

Van’t Schip will want a similar performance and a similar result on Sunday afternoon. Last week against Adelaide United (and the week before against Melbourne Victory), he instructed his midfield trio to mark man-for-man, which resulted in the game being played down the flanks due to the congestion in the midfield zone. That, in turn, lead to his full-backs constantly being exposed in 1v1 situations, with both Jason Hoffman and Iain Ramsay appearing completely out of their depth.

However, Brisbane’s poor start to the season can be attributed to the fact that opponents are pressing them very tightly in midfield, demonstrated by both Adelaide and Sydney FC. If City man-mark midfield, it might cause a repeat of the past two City fixtures wherein the full-backs are exposed out wide, or perhaps, potentially, it could see a repeat of that famous victory in February this year.

One or two strikers for Perth?

Perth have been flexible tactically this season – originally planning to use a 4-4-2 diamond, then switching to a flat 4-4-2, but also using a 4-3-3 last week against Newcastle. The main dilemma for Kenny Lowe is whether to give Andy Keogh a partner or not – the Irishman clearly benefits from playing alongside Jamie MacLaren, with both having scored all of Perth’s goals this season, but the risk with this 2-striker approach is that it leaves the side undermanned in midfield. Against Adelaide, for example, MacLaren and Keogh pressed high up, and Isaias was able to get lots of time on the ball in a deep-lying midfield position, completing a game-high 60 passes.

It’s also a problem of personnel, as Lowe is keen to fit as many of the hard-working, attacking central midfielders in his squad into his starting side as possible. Playing MacLaren alongside Keogh means Youssouf Hersi has to play wide – which in turn means Richard Garcia drops out of the side. That’s without mentioning the need to find some way of including the likes of Nebojsa Marinkovic, Daniel de Silva, Mitch Nichols and Rostyn Griffiths in the side as well. It’s encouraging that Lowe has so many options available to him, but it does create problems both in balancing the selection so all players are happy, but also the shape, so the side retains an attacking threat.

For example, against Newcastle, Lowe used De Silva on the right-wing of a 4-3-3, where the playmaker drifted inside frequently and became an extra passing option through the midfield. It meant Perth dominated possession, but struggled to get numbers in and around Keogh, with Hersi the only real outlet in the final third on the left wing. Keogh’s goals have all come from tap-ins or shots inside the box, so the feeling is that although he is hard-working and clearly clinical, he relies on the support of others to get chances.

He can get that if Lowe throws caution to the wind, but won’t if the emphasis is on a midfield balance. It’s a difficult quandary, and worryingly, there’s no real ‘right’ answer.

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