Two struggling sides finished with a point apiece.
After rotating heavily for their past two matches against Perth and the Mariners, Tony Popovic settled on something resembling their first choice lineup – the only exception was probably the two full-backs, with Shannon Cole at left-back and youngster Daniel Alessi on the right. Romeo Castelen, Vitor Saba and Nikita Rukavytsya played behind Tomi Juric.
Phil Stubbins continued to tinker in the aftermath of that 4-0 thrashing against Brisbane Roar. He brought Ben Kennedy into the side in place of Mark Birighitti, moved to Kew Jailiens back to the centre with Nick Cowburn (on debut) and Sam Gallaway at full-back, and rejigged the format of the front four.
This was an even game, but because both sides had alternating periods of dominance. It started off with the Wanderers putting on early pressure via a series of corners, hitting the bar early on and eventually scoring from one via Juric’s smart volley. Then the Jets got more of a foothold around the twenty minute mark, establishing a greater control of possession and equalising via Marcos Flores.
Rather than there being major tactical issues, however, this game was more about minor points of interest which had varying levels of influence on the outcome.
Firstly, with both sides using a 4-2-3-1 formation, the majority of attacking play came via the front quartet. Neither side pressed particularly high up the pitch, so both teams were able to work the ball into the final third fairly easily, and it was the individual qualities of players that dictated the flow of attacking moves.
For the home side, Saba was the central playmaker, and showed a willingness to drift wider than his predecessor in his position, Shinji Ono. He’s also more willing to take players on with a bit of trickery, but didn’t find space consistently to have a huge impact on the game.
Therefore, it was the wingers more likely to provide creativity. Both Castelen and Rukavytsya drove past defenders in 1v1 situations, but there was a slight difference in the way they did so – Castelen tended to dribble past with a trick, where Rukavytsya tended to simply sprint in behind with a change of pace. It’s worth noting, too, that the front four were happier to rotate positions than the previous Wanderers attackers (where Bridge and Hersi tended to stick to their respective flanks).
Newcastle, meanwhile, had Marcos Flores in behind Edson Montano, playing a traditional #10 role – more on that below. On the flanks, Jeronimo and David Carney were on their ‘opposite’ flanks, where both looked to cut inside onto their stronger foot. However, where Jeronimo tended to stay wider and make runs in behind, Carney wanted to receive passes to feet so he could move it onto his left and cross – that, of course, is how he assisted Flores’ goal. While he was productive when on the ball, he wasn’t actually involved all that match – it was quality rather than quantity, which is why it felt like this match lacked significant tactical features.
Flores finds space
If there was a ‘major’ theme to this match, though, it was that recurring issue for the Wanderers where their midfield two were drawn out of position and left space in behind. The pairing of Mateo Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca, two defensively-minded, combative players, have been targeted throughout this season by opponents looking to draw them out of the midfield line, thus creating space between the lines – the best example of this was the opening round against the Victory, but we also saw evidence of this in the Sydney Derby, and last Sunday against Perth Glory.
Here, in the context of the formation battle, Poljak and La Rocca were both being drawn forward to press against Billy Celeski and Allan Welsh. With the Wanderers centre-backs uncomfortable moving up to pressure Flores between the lines, it meant the Argentine was often free in pockets of space behind Poljak and La Rocca.
This was Flores’ most influential game for Newcastle so far, and he finished with 30 passes, ensuring Newcastle’s control of possession by the half-time break (55% at the interval).
Alessi drawn out of position
Another point of interest was when Newcastle played down their left hand side, where Alessi tucked in quite narrow and often allowed Jeronimo or Gallaway (when he pushed up from left-back) to receive passes wide on the outside. In these situations, balls that went beyond Alessi and out to the Newcastle player meant right-sided centre-back Matthew Spiranovic often had to slide out to cover.
Throughout the first half, this was a recurring issue because it left Nikolai Topor-Stanley isolated in the middle against any eventuating crosses. At one point, the captain visibly remonstrated with Alessi for ‘forcing’ Spiranovic to vacant the middle, and at half-time, Popovic removed the youngster, and brought on Brendan Hamill.
As well as being more defensively secure, Hamill also offered more drive going forward and created space for Castelen by overloading Jets full-back Gallaway.
Instead, the problem for the Wanderers was now on the opposite side, where Carney was dribbling past Cole with ease in 1v1 situations. In fact, Cole was very poor throughout the match, twice giving the ball away cheaply inside his own defensive third in the first half which lead directly to the Jets best chances – the Montano miss, and Flores’ volley that hit the bar – and in the second period, Carney was able to get to the byline and cut back some dangerous passes across the face of goal.
However, the Wanderers had more of the momentum in the second half, and were especially dangerous when the front four broke quickly and directly. Rukavytsya created a good chance for Juric (where he hit the upright) by sprinting right through the middle of the pitch on the break.
In response to this, Phil Stubbins first brought on Andrew Hoole for Jeronimo, then Griffiths for Flores. The Griffiths change signalled a switch in shape to a 4-3-3 defensively, with Welsh playing at the base of midfield and Griffiths and Celeski working hard to block off passes into the middle. Having more bodies behind the ball helped the Jets become more solid, and they came into the game more towards the end of the match.
Fatigue probably also played a part here, with reports after the match suggesting the Wanderers players are very fatigued from their recent travels across Asia.
A draw was a fair result in a decent if unspectacular match, where the individual qualities of the attacking players, particularly in wide areas, dictated the tactical battle. Neither side had a particular advantage in any zone or facet of the game, and Stubbins’ formation change to shore up the side defensively was rudimentary rather than revolutionary.
While this was an encouraging point for the Jets, they still feel some way off the finished package. They don’t particularly impress in any element of the game – they don’t dominate possession or counter-attacking reliably, nor do they press aggressively or defend compactly, for example – and their ‘good’ performances feel reliant on individuals ‘turning up’ rather than it being a victory for the overall system.
The Wanderers, meanwhile, seem to have really been hit hard by their constant travel. Their famous high press was absent here, and the fact it’s taken so long for this front four – probably their first choice quartet – to start together sums up how much Popovic has had to rotate the side to keep them fresh. It won’t get any easier, either, as they’re due to basically play every three days in 2015 to make up for games already missed and those that have to be postponed due to the Club World Cup.