Match Analysis: Adelaide United 2-1 Wellington Phoenix

Cirio scored with virtually the last kick of the game to steal all three points for Adelaide.

Teams

Josep Gombau was without Bruce Djite, so Pablo Sanchez continued upfront. He played there midweek in the FFA Cup against the Central Coast Mariners.

Ernie Merrick was without left-winger Michael McGlinchey and right-back Louie Fenton because of international duty and a shoulder injury respectively, so Roy Krishna and Josh Brindell-South both started for the first time this season. Brindell-South played at left-back, so Manny Muscat switched back over to the right (the third time he’s switched flanks as a full-back this season).

High tempo start

Pleasingly, this game started off very well. Wellington flew out of the blocks and pressed energetically and Adelaide tried to play their way out of their situations, which lead to some brilliant football – both in the way Wellington countered quickly and directly if they won the ball, and in the way Adelaide were able to work past the press with some clever one-touch passing in deep positions.

Gradually, though, it became obvious that this would be another ‘typical Adelaide’ match, where they dominate possession and their opponents play on the counter. They finished with 64% of the ball.

Wellington adjust system

Indeed, this was a more cautious Wellington than we’ve seen so far this season. After that initial burst, they sat off more, with the defensive line in particular deep as compared to usual, presumably to ward off the threat of Adelaide’s pacy attack.

In terms of shape, Merrick continued with Roly Bonevacia in that advanced #10 position. However, the formation was a more pronounced 4-4-1-1 defensively, because Vince Lia slid out to pick up Adelaide left-back Craig Goodwin, basically becoming a right midfielder without the ball. As Krishna did the same on Tarek Elrich on the opposite side, and Alex Rodriguez played alongside Albert Riera in the centre of midfield, there was a ‘flatter’ feel to this formation.

Wellington's 'flatter' formation can be observed in this shot - the yellow circles represent the midfield 4, while Burns and Bonevacia, the front two, are circled in white

Wellington’s ‘flatter’ formation can be observed in this shot – the yellow circles represent the midfield 4, while Burns and Bonevacia, the front two, are circled in white

Still, Wellington continued with their unusual pressing trap to force opposition play towards the right-hand side.

When Adelaide were playing out, Bonevacia initially dropped onto Isaias Sanchez to prevent him receiving passes. Then, Nathan Burns arced his run when defending so that the play was always forced towards the right hand side of the pitch, with Nigel Boogard basically being forced into passing across to Osama Malik by Burns run, which blocked off the angle out to Goodwin. When the inevitable pass to Malik was made, it was the cue for Bonevacia to move forward and try and win the ball off Malik. This role suited the Dutchman, who is energetic and covers lots of ground, and his controlled pressing from the front set the tone for a good defensive performance from Wellington.

Still, the danger of the ‘pressing trap’ being set by Wellington is that it can leave the right-sided centre-back with a bit more time on the ball than is preferable (as demonstrated by Mark Milligan and Matthew Spiranovic in their past two fixtures). Here, Malik completed far more passes than any other player (95, with Isaias the next closest on 82, and Boogard recording a relatively low 71 in comparison).

Osama Malik's passing chalkboard v Wellington Phoenix

Osama Malik’s passing chalkboard v Wellington Phoenix

In the second half, particularly, Malik tried to take advantage of this extra time on the ball by dribbling forward into midfield.

Isaias pulls Bonevacia away

There was another reason for Malik’s freedom. As mentioned in last week’s Adelaide-Sydney analysis, one of the great strengths of Josep Gombau’s side is their ability to adapt to the way the opposition is defending. Here, we saw another example of the players ‘problem-solving’ on the pitch n an attempt to circumvent the first line of Wellington’s defence.

Sometimes, Adelaide changed their positional structure to try and play out around Wellington's first line of defence

Sometimes, Adelaide changed their positional structure to try and play out around Wellington’s first line of defence

What they did was when Bonevacia moved off Isaias to press Malik, Boogard (the left-sided centre-back) moved unusually far infield, practically into a zone straight down the middle of the pitch. Isaias would then drop into the ‘nominal’ left-sided centre-back position (rather than dropping directly in between them, as is the tactical norm), creating a 3v2 against Burns and Bonevacia. This meant he was pulling Bonevacia further away from Malik, creating more time on the ball for the Adelaide centre-back even if Isaias himself was in a less advantageous position to receive the ball.

The key takeaway here is that Adelaide don’t rely on one particular positional setup in order to play out, but instead the ‘back three’ of Isaias, Boogard and Malik rotate and reset each time they play out. This had more them far more effective in possession this season.

Wellington attacks

The Phoenix were playing predominantly on the counter. Having Krishna on the left rather than McGlinchey changed the dynamic of their build-up play, as the Fijian likes to run with the ball into space and transfers defence into attack quickly with lightning acceleration. McGlinchey, rather, drifts inside and tries to pick out passes in behind for others, which makes Wellington more of a possession-based side. Here, Krishna assisted the opening goal when he powered past both Isaias and Malik down the touchline, then cut the ball back for Bonevacia on the top of the box to smash home.

The other route of attack was Burns receiving passes in the channel between Boogard and Goodwin. However, Wellington’s full-backs did not get forward anywhere near as much as Fenton did last week, meaning Burns was often isolated when trying to dribble past Adelaide’s defenders. Still, he managed to create three chances: a shot that nearly beat Eugene Galekovic at the near post, a dangerous cross on the ten minute mark and a curled finish towards the far corner that just missed.

Jacob Burns passes received v Adelaide United

Nathan Burns passes received v Adelaide United – note how although nominally he was a centre-forward, he was basically playing as a very advanced right-winger

Wellington fouls

By this point, though, Adelaide had clearly established their control of possession. Wellington responded to this by putting in a number of hard challenges and conceding a lot of fouls, with Lia particularly culpable of some over-zealous defending. This established a combative tone in midfield, where the Phoenix were doing a good job of preventing Adelaide from creating meaningful chances in the final third.

Wellington's fouls v Adelaide

Wellington’s fouls v Adelaide

Instead, the best chances for the home side came from the set-pieces resulting from the fouls Wellington were giving away. This was an unusual turn of events given the way Adelaide struggled defending set-pieces against both Melbourne City and Sydney, and they came very close from these opportunities – one whipped delivery saw Lia somehow manage to not score an own goal, and later, they hit the post.

Adelaide's shots from free-kicks v Wellington Phoenix

Adelaide’s shots from free-kicks v Wellington Phoenix – note the correlation of the positions of the free-kicks with the fouls above

Substitutes

Both coaches made a switch on the hour mark, with Merrick looking to get more counter-attacking threat on the pitch by removing Rodriguez, shifting Lia into central midfield, and introducing Kenny Cunningham as a right-sided attacker. Now, they had pacy ‘runners’ on either side, and Cunningham charged forward from a wide position as Wellington looked to get in behind Adelaide’s high line – they were caught offside four times in the second half.

Later, Matthew Ridenton replaced Burns, with Cunningham going upfront, before an injury to Bonevacia saw the introduction of Alex Rufer in a #10 position.

McGowan as centre-forward?!

Gombau’s changes were straightforward – Fabio Ferriera for Mabil and Bruce Kamau (with Cirio to #10) when Carrusca was injured – until he made the bizarre decision to bring on Dylan McGowan, a centre-back, for Sanchez, playing as the centre-forward. Sanchez himself was a midfielder playing further forward, but he basically played as any striker does in Adelaide’s system: drop deep to link up the play when the ball is in the middle third, move forward and play off the last line of defence when the ball is in the final third.

However, where Sanchez looked good linking the play, he struggled to get in beyond Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund, who were able to comfortably nullify his runs in behind and non-existent threat in the air.

Perhaps that, combined with the multitude of set-piece opportunities Adelaide were getting, was what prompted Gombau to throw on a tall defender upfront. We’ve seen this before, but often with teams that play Route One, direct football, like Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn, who frequently used to throw Christopher Samba up the pitch when chasing the games. However, possession-based sides aren’t averse to it either, with Spain playing Javi Martinez, a physical holding midfielder, as centre-forward against Italy at the 2013 Confederations Cup. Gombau himself pointed out that Barcelona, the team whom Adelaide are modelling their style of play on, have done a similar tactic in the past.

“We don’t have a striker now with Djite’s injury, and it’s [putting a defender up front] something that in the last minutes we did at Barcelona a lot,” Gombau said in the post match press conference. “A central defender is normally good in the air, good heading, and in the last minutes if you are drawing or losing you can cross balls.”

He name checked a former Barcelona defender called José Ramón Alexanko, a centre-back who, according to Gombau, used to be thrown upfront when chasing games. As the excellent Andy Cussen points out, Alexanko scored 26 goals in 274 appearances for Barcelona, “an impressive record for a player who was nominally a central defender.”

Still, despite more height upfront, Adelaide didn’t really fall into the trap of launching long balls towards him, but instead continued playing their usual style. McGowan touched the ball four times in his ten minutes on the pitch.

He did, though, win the flick-on for Cirio’s last-gasp equaliser. Given that it was his only real contribution to the game (aside from a clever backheel in the corner), it’s difficult to say this was a tactical masterstroke, but rather, it was simply just a gamble from Gombau that paid off.

Conclusion

Conceding the late goal was harsh on Wellington, who defended quite well for stretches of the game and still retained a counter-attacking threat through Bonevacia, Burns and Krishna. They packed the midfield zone and prevented Adelaide from playing forward easily into the final third.

Adelaide weren’t at their sharpest, and struggled to create chances in open play. However, they had the better of the game, and made the most of set-pieces, especially given the way they had been afforded so many by Wellington’s excessive physicality.

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