Investigating Brisbane Roar’s incredible fall

It’s one of the most incredible storylines ever in A-League history – defending champions Brisbane Roar have started the season with four straight defeats. It is the worst start by any club in the competition’s ten year history, and they sit bottom of the ladder.

To add to the overall feeling of calamity, Liam Miller asked to leave the club after a falling-out with coach Mike Mulvey, while there have been ongoing rumours of infighting amongst teammates, made public by Shane Stefanutto’s verbal spat at goalkeeper Jamie Young after the 3-1 defeat to Melbourne City on Saturday night.

Tactically, there have been three main problems.

Being pressed in midfield

First, opposition sides have pressed aggressively in midfield. The two clearest examples of this are the defeats to Adelaide and Sydney FC, with the former coming in the opening round of the season. In that particular match, Mulvey went with the ‘usual’ 4-3-3 – Luke Brattan at the base of midfield, and Mensur Kurtishi upfront flanked by Thomas Broich and Dimitri Petratos. It was exactly as predicted in the Brisbane season preview: little deviation from the possession-based system, with the emphasis on building play up from the back with short passing.

However, when Brisbane looked to play out from the back against Adelaide, they encountered problems when trying to move forward into the middle third. Bruce Djite did not press high up the pitch, but instead, Adelaide allowed Brisbane’s centre-backs time on the ball. When Brattan, Matt McKay or Liam Miller received passes, however, Marcelo Carrusca, Pablo Sanchez and James Jeggo man-marked respectively on their opposing midfielder, preventing them from having time on the ball and stopping Brisbane from circulating possession into midfield. When Kurtishi dropped deep to offer an extra passing option, centre-back Isaias followed him tightly, ensuring Brisbane had no free players in the midfield zone.

Adelaide's man-marking in midfield v Brisbane Roar
Adelaide’s man-marking in midfield v Brisbane Roar

The clearest example of this was for the first goal, when Isaias nipped in front of a pass played into Kurtishi and immediately transferred the ball forward into Djite, who slammed in a fine long-range strike.

Sydney FC enjoyed success with a similar tactic a week later. They used a slightly different formation, 4-4-2, where Alex Brosque and Marc Janko, the front two, dropped off to prevent passes into Brisbane’s midfield. However, when they moved forward to press Brisbane’s centre-backs, Terry Antonis and Milos Dimitrijevic pushed forward to occupy Luke Brattan and Steven Lustica. This was the same approach as Adelaide – preventing any Brisbane player having time and space in the midfield zone. Importantly, the potentially ‘free’ player, Petratos, playing as a #10 here, was picked up Sasa Ognenovski, who moved out from centre-back to mark him and prevent Brisbane playing through him.

Melbourne City didn’t stick as tight as Adelaide or Sydney, but pressing in the midfield zone was still vital to their 3-1 victory. Twice in the first ten minutes, City caused turnovers in midfield through Aaron Mooy and Paolo Retre closing down energetically, with both situations leading to dangerous City attacks.

However, counter-attacking was the more dominant feature of that match.

Vulnerable to counters

Ever since Brisbane switched to this possession-based style (first under Ange Postecoglou) they’ve always been vulnerable to counter-attacks. It’s logical – they’re so good at retaining the ball that it’s very unlikely that sides ever out-possess them, and instead, must rely on attacking quickly and directly. Furthermore, the ball retention requires Brisbane to push players high up the pitch in order to turn possession into penetration, which inevitably leaves space for opponents to attack into.

For example, when Brisbane look to play out from the back, it’s imperative that the full-backs get high and wide. By making the pitch as big as possible in their defensive third, there is more space for opposition defenders to cover if they try and shut down the build up play – more space equals more passing options, and more passing options mean Brisbane can retain the ball better, as is their wont. But when the ball is turned over, there’s more space to cover for Brisbane’s players to get into a good defensive shape, so they are by the nature of the system vulnerable to counters.

Melbourne City attacked with pace in behind Brisbane's full-backs and the high line of the defence
Melbourne City attacked with pace in behind Brisbane’s full-backs and the high line of the defence

Consider the opposite – a coach that wants to prioritise a good defensive shape, such as Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, will ask his players to attack narrow. That means if the ball is turned over, there’s less space to cover to ensure the side isn’t exposed defensively, for theoretically they’re already in a compact shape at the moment of transition.

Wherever Brisbane lose the ball, therefore, their desire to cover as much as space as possible to ensure they can best retain possession will inevitably leave them to exposed to counter-attacks.

However, in addition to this, what we’re seeing more and more of is an inability to ‘counter this counter’. This has traditionally been done by Brisbane by pressuring as soon as the ball is lost, preventing the player in possession from having time and space to launch the counter. At their peak under Ange Postecoglou, Brisbane were brilliant at closing down in that five seconds after losing possession. This meant they weren’t as vulnerable to counters as they should have been.

This pressure has been far less of a theme throughout the Mulvey tenure, and in recent weeks, it’s been all but absent. Sides are now being able to counter-attack more often and more effectively against Brisbane.

This was particularly obvious in the defeat to Melbourne City. For the first goal, City play a series of four passes under little pressure immediately after winning the ball, before Patrick Kisnorbo hits the long ball in behind for David Williams to chase. The fact all City players have time on the ball prior to the ‘killer’ forward pass is crucial, because it demonstrates how teams can exploit Brisbane’s weakness at counter-attacks even if they don’t immediately counter-attack. The second goal is even more revealing – Erik Paartalu picks up on a loose ball off Thomas Broich’s poor first touch, and looks up to pick out the run of Mate Dugandzic in behind. There’s no pressure on the ball, and Brisbane are very open because they’re positioned in the shape they adopt to play out from the back, meaning there’s acres of space for Dugandzic to run into in behind the advanced full-backs.

The lack of immediate pressure is particularly problematic if the defence continues to play with a high line, as it means there’s lots of space for players to run into as teammates have time on the ball to pick out passes in behind.

Brisbane will always be somewhat vulnerable to counter-attacking as long as they play their possession-based style, but they’ve been particularly poor at ‘disguising’ this weakness in recent weeks.

Underwhelming replacements

The third and final reason to put forward for Brisbane’s troubles is the most obvious one – a failure to properly replace the key players that left over the off-season.

Besart Berisha is the particularly obvious one. He was the club’s top scorer for three straight years, and bar Broich, their best player. Not only was he incredibly clinical in front of goal, he also lead the press with insatiable energy, worked tremendously hard to occupy defenders and constantly varied his movement to be unpredictable and create space for other attackers. By always running in behind, he pushed defences back that opened up space between the lines often exploited by Broich, while he was also capable of dropping deep to link up play. He’s the best all round striker in the A-League’s history, and it’s hardly surprising they haven’t been able to fully replace him.

Other departures have also been significant, too. Ivan Franjic was a modern full-back who always got forward down the right and allowed Petratos to cut inside, and was excellent at delivering cut-backs across the face of goal for Berisha. It’s worth remembering, too, that Franjic was capable of playing higher up and brought a lot of versatility to the side – for example, he understood the different demands of playing as a right-winger, and intelligently drifted into positions between the lines like Petratos and Broich do.

In the majority, though, he was a right-back, and Mulvey has had real trouble replacing him. There seems to be a real preference for James Donachie in that position, despite the youngster long being a centre-back – and it shows. Donachie doesn’t get forward anywhere near as much, and seems uncomfortable receiving passes in tight situations near the touchline. Furthermore, Donahie’s lack of overlapping means Petratos can be isolated higher up, especially as Franjic used to drag away defenders by creating 2v1 situations with his forward runs.

On paper, Jack Hingert seems a better fit as a ‘natural’, ‘modern’ full-back, but doesn’t seem to be in favour.

Finally, another important loss has been the absence of goalkeeper Michael Theo through injury. His replacement, Jamie Young appears woefully out of his depth. A good example of this is Graham Arnold specifically asking his players to attempt long-range chips, noticing that Young was often too far off his line. This was ruthlessly exploited by Janko and Dimitrijevic for two fine goals from distance in that Sydney v Roar match. Leaving Young’s shot-stopping aside, he is also struggling to adapt to having to keep his passing neat and tidy to allow Brisbane to play out. Instead, he often gives the ball away cheaply under pressure, which then impacts on Brisbane’s ability to execute their patterns of play.

Conclusion

Before the start of the season, I hypothesised that beating Brisbane Roar required a side to either pack the midfield or defence, and then counter-attack quickly through pace. This, broadly speaking, has been the template of all four sides that have beaten Brisbane this season. While obviously, there are a multitude of factors at play here, but from a tactical point of view, these are the main areas of weakness. Brisbane haven’t undergone major stylistic or personnel changes, and their fall from grace can basically be explained quite simply by an inability to perform at their usual high standards.

On a deeper level though, it also feels like the rest of the competition is also evolving beyond them. In many ways, this feels a bit like a repeat of 2011-12, where having enjoyed success in the previous campaign, Brisbane continued with the same system, weren’t able to do it at the same capacity as the previous season, and struggled – with coach Rado Vidosic eventually replaced by Mulvey.

Mulvey won’t rip up the system and start again, and the focus will be on getting Brisbane to do as they normally do, but better. The concern is that the only way that was possible last time was by bringing in a fresh face as coach. Will it be a case of deja vu?

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