Five things to watch: A-League Round Six

Midfield dominates the tactical talking points of the round, with new faces to be integrated for both Melbourne teams and Sydney. Elsewhere, will Hersi finally fire for Perth against his old side, and could Adelaide run riot against the Phoenix?

Can Newcastle press well in midfield?

This week, our dissection of what has gone wrong for Brisbane Roar this season highlighted the number of sides pressing them in midfield. Adelaide United and Sydney FC in particular had great success basically man-marking in that zone, stopping players like Luke Brattan and Steven Lustica from getting time on the ball. This has prevented Brisbane from being able to retain possession as reliably as usual, and in turn, be less penetrative when on the ball.

Newcastle won three times over Brisbane last season, with the recurring feature of those victories being their successful pressing in midfield. In the last match between the Jets and the Roar, a 1-0 Newcastle win, for example, Ruben Zadkovich and Zenon Caravella pushed up from centre midfield in a 4-4-2 to press up against Diogo Ferriera and Steven Lustica, who were playing as ‘two #8s’ in Brisbane’s midfield triangle, with Luke Brattan left free from his usual deep-lying #6 role. Newcastle were successful in being able to stop Brisbane progressing into the final third.

[Tweet “It’s not a question of whether Newcastle will press in midfield, but rather, how well will they.”]

Therefore, it feels not a question of whether Newcastle will press in midfield, but rather, how well will they. That feeling is accentuated by the fact that Phil Stubbins instructed his players to man-mark in midfield against Melbourne Victory last week, switching from his usual 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3 to allow Allan Welsh and Caravella to press up against Carl Valeri and Mark Milligan, while Ben Kantarovski stuck diligently to Guilherme Finkler, Victory’s #10.

How the Jets marked man-for-man v Melbourne Victory
How the Jets marked man-for-man v Melbourne Victory

However, if Stubbins is to persist with man-marking, he’ll have to revert back to the 4-2-3-1, assuming Brisbane continue with their 4-3-3. It’ll be interesting to see who plays at the Jets ‘#10’, who will be responsible for marking Brattan. If Stubbins is really concerned about Brattan’s influence – and given the way the diminutive playmaker dominated the tempo of last Saturday’s game against Melbourne City, despite the 3-1 defeat – he might use a physical, robust player like Welsh or Kantarovski higher up. On paper, though, it’s probably a job for someone like Marcos Flores or even David Carney.

Either way, they’ll have an important job setting the tone of Newcastle’s pressing in midfield.

Will Adelaide exploit Wellington’s full-backs?

One of the more distinctive features of Josep Gombau’s Adelaide is their insistence of working the ball out to the wingers in their 4-3-3, who try to take on opposition full-backs 1v1. When watching them at the ground, for example, whenever Adelaide have the ball, you’ll see both the left and right winger making the pitch as wide as possible, looking to receive passes into feet. It’s been a recurring feature of this season, and was pivotal in their 2-1 win over Melbourne City a few weeks back.

That’s a worry for a side like the Phoenix who will have to head into this match almost certainly with a makeshift left-back. Louie Fenton is out with another shoulder injury, Michael Boxall is on international duty, and Tom Doyle doesn’t seem fit enough to feature this weekend – so presumably, Manny Muscat will switch from the left-back position he’s played in the past two rounds back to his usual right-back berth, allowing Josh Brindell-South to play on the left.

Brindell-South isn’t a bad player, but this would be his first start of the season, only his fourth as a professional footballer and he remains a raw (if physically impressive, according to Merrick) youngster. Adelaide might focus on testing him up against Awer Mabil, who always tries to dribble past defenders with a sensational turn of pace. Mabil’s productivity is inconsistent, though, and this could be a particularly interesting show-down between two up-and-coming youngsters.

[Tweet “Mabil’s productivity is inconsistent”]

Who can get a foothold in midfield?

Socceroos duty had ruled him out anyway, but Terry Antonis’s car crash means one of the A-League’s most consistent midfield pairings will be broken up for the first time this season. Antonis and Milos Dimitrijevic quickly established themselves at Arnold’s first-choice pairing as the deep-lying players in a 4-2-3-1 formation – they sit deep, protect the back four and transition possession into the final third with an intelligent range of passing. Both are technically accomplished and have made Sydney a more well-rounded, organised side.

Had this round not fallen in the middle of the FIFA international break, it would have been a brilliant opportunity to see Antonis/Dimitrijevic v another one of the league’s top midfield pairings, Carl Valeri and Mark Milligan. The Victory duo have slightly more freedom to get forward, but play roughly the same role – holding their position in front of the defence, and distributing the ball forward into the attackers.

Neither team can field these partnerships in Saturday night’s Big Blue, however. In Sydney’s case, Antonis could be replaced by either Peter Triantis, Hagi Gligor or even Ali Abbas – maybe with Alex Gersbach starting at left-back instead. Victory, meanwhile, have real selection headaches, because Leigh Broxham might be required at the back, which would see Rashid Mahazi start alongside Valeri.

[Tweet “Victory, have real selection headaches”]

Sadly, this means it won’t be a showdown between the first-choice midfields, but nevertheless, with both sides looking to get their midfield players on the ball in deep positions to dictate the tempo of the game, it’ll be interesting to see who can get the upper hand.

What’s right – width or narrowness?

Despite signing one of the competition’s best out-and-out wingers in Youssouf Hersi, Kenny Lowe has had an odd aversion to playing the Dutchman in the position he made his name. Instead, Hersi has switched between either upfront or the left wing, and instead, a playmaker drifting inside has been preferred on the right – normally Mitch Nichols, but sometimes Daniel de Silva.

With Nichols away with the Socceroos, De Silva could come back into the side, moving into very narrow, central positions when Perth have possession. Against Newcastle, this meant the side dominated possession easily, with De Silva adding an extra passing option through a midfield already containing Nichols, Nebojsa Marinkovic and Rostyn Griffiths, but Perth felt like they lacked an outlet – there was too much of a reliance on Hersi to get the ball into the final third, and Andy Keogh, alone upfront, got little support.

[Tweet “Perth felt like they lacked an outlet – there was too much of a reliance on Hersi to get the ball into the final third”]

Instead, having a narrowness on the right works better when Lowe goes with the two-striker format, but that doesn’t seem to be possible this weekend with Jamie MacLaren out on international duty. Maybe, then, we will see Hersi in his familiar role for the first time. For the Wanderers, he was brilliant at launching counter-attacks from deep positions, bursting forward with pace into the channels and being able to dribble down the outside on his stronger right foot. It was obvious when on the left against the Mariners how much more uncomfortable he is on the opposite side – he took three poor touches in the first twenty minutes, and because he always wanted to move back onto his stronger foot, Storm Roux was easily able to nullify him.

Lowe could go with an entirely different format, but using Hersi in his old position against his old club seems the logical thing to do.

Miller straight into City midfield?

Melbourne City’s declining midfield stocks seems to have escaped most people’s attention in recent weeks. First, they lost marquee Robert Koren until December, then Massimo Murdocca’s groin injury and Jonaton Germano’s dodgy hamstring means they’re down to the bare bones, with Paolo Retre and Jacob Melling not quite at A-League level in their development. Nick Kalmar, meanwhile, who seemed to be a favourite of John Van’t Schip in the second half of last-season and throughout pre-season, has completely dropped off the radar.

Therefore, the signing of Liam Miller was entirely logical – an experienced, calm midfielder who coming from the kings of possession, Brisbane, fits nicely into a City side looking to retain the ball more often this season. With a short turnaround between his signing and this Sunday match against the Mariners, it probably would have been preferable to have him come off the bench, but with Mooy away with the Socceroos, it seems likely Miller will start from the off.

[Tweet “the signing of Liam Miller was entirely logical – an experienced, calm midfielder who coming from the kings of possession”]

What’s interesting about Miller is that he’s less about ‘energy’ than the other players in his role like Murdocca or Retre, but more about ball retention – he has a good first touch and is able to knit play forward nicely into the final third. It’s why he was a good fit before the falling-out at Roar, because they needed someone in that midfield who was able to ‘do a job’ of simply retaining possession without necessarily being spectacular.

How much will he change the dynamic of City’s midfield play? That remains to be seen, but generally speaking City have been more ‘frantic’ in the way they play through Mooy and Murdocca, who both tend to take risks and work the ball forward quickly. Miller is calmer, and might make City slower in their build-up play, but also help them keep the ball better – if that is what Van’t Schip wants.

Leave a Reply

Up Next:

Australia Scout on the FTSAL Podcast – Round Five 2014/15

Australia Scout on the FTSAL Podcast – Round Five 2014/15