Five things to watch – A-League Round Eight

We’re just past the first quarter mark of the season, but there’s still plenty of questions tactically about a number of sides this season, which are dictating the main talking points of the eighth round of the season.

Another midfield scrap?

It’s getting to that point of the season where we have games we’ve seen before – last week, Sydney FC v Melbourne City and Perth Glory v Wellington Phoenix were all replays of matches from the first round of the season.

Another one of these ‘encores’ is Friday night’s clash between Adelaide United v Melbourne Victory. It’s second v third, and two of the most entertaining sides in the competition, and it should be a cracker. But that’s also what we thought before the Round 2 match, which ended up being one big, congested midfield battle. Both coaches instructed their sides to man-mark in midfield, which lead to little time on the ball for any of the key playmakers. Combined with an over-watered surface, it lead to a frustratingly stop-start match with little rhythm or tempo.

The hope is this changes on Friday and we see a more open, free-flowing match. However, while from the neutral’s perspective this would be ideal, for both coaches a repeat of the 1-1 might be more desirable. Both teams are excellent at possession-based football, but are also excellent attacking quickly and directly, particularly through their wingers. In a more open game, there’ll be more space for these players to run into and lead quick counter-attacks, especially as none of Cirio, Awer Mabil, Archie Thompson or Kosta Barbarouses have strict defensive responsibilities.

The level of congestion in midfield will dictate how involved these wingers will be, but either way, they’ll play an important role going forward for either side.

Brisbane’s new direction

Who is Frans Thijssen? Even after he was appointed the interim Brisbane Roar coach this week, we’re still not really sure, especially as his CV suggests he’s spent the past fifteen months out of coaching.

As someone pegged for the Roar’s technical director role long-term, however, and in light of Mike Mulvey’s sacking being explicitly for “betraying the club’s vision and philosophy”, Thijseen is probably in the typical Dutch mould – wants a high level of possession, will look to play out from the back and encourage a short passing game. Any deviation from the usual Brisbane system would be highly unexpected.

That, though, is what made last Friday’s defeat to Melbourne Victory so unorthodox – Brisbane recorded the least possession of any game ever under Mulvey. Stylistically, it was a major departure from the usual style, and seems to have been the final draw for the board who had huge concerns about the direction Mulvey was taking the side.

Thijssen has already suggested where his priorities lie. “If we have the ball the other team can’t do anything,” he said in his first briefing with Australian media. “Good players don’t lose balls. Bad players lose balls.” Thijssen’s job with Brisbane isn’t about whether he can reinvent the side, but rather, like it was Mulvey’s job when he first took over from Rado Vidosic, whether he can return them to the peak of their style.

Gersbach v Castelen

Corey Gameiro’s season-ending ACL rupture was [sadly] beneficial for teammate Alex Gersbach, who has come into the starting side and the previous left-back Ali Abbas pushing up into Gameiro’s left-wing position. As a whole, this shuffling of positions has made Sydney more solid as a unit, because Abbas tucks in more, provides lots of energy defensively and gives the left-hand side more protection than Gameiro, who plays more aggressively as a striker converted into a wide forward.

Gersbach is surprisingly mature for his age and balances both his defensive and offensive responsibilities – he works well in the back four and is capable at overpowering opponents in 1v1s, but also gets forward well and has particularly excellent delivery. He’s good at dropping the shoulder and then driving down the outside, getting to the by-line for a cross. He fits the mould of the modern full-back.

This weekend, in a Sydney derby lathered with various sub-plots, Gersbach’s battle against (presumably) Romeo Castelen will be fascinating. Although inconsistent with his end product, Castelen has so far shown he’s an excellent dribbler, direct and purposeful when on the ball, and not too dissimilar to his predecessor in that right-wing position, Youssouf Hersi. What Castelen does well is vary his position – not only in the broader sense that he can swap over to the left-hand side, but also in the way he receives passes narrow, in the channels or very wide, making it difficult for an opposition full-back to mark him tightly.

Gersbach’s debut came in the first Sydney derby this season, where he just about had the better of Castelen. Now, the Dutchman’s had a few more weeks to assimilate in the A-League, and this will be a good early test in Gersbach’s fledging career.

Will Wellington target City’s full-backs?

Sydney FC’s 2-1 win over Melbourne City last Saturday was memorable for how often Sydney got in behind City’s full-backs, particularly down the left-hand side, where Iain Ramsay was constantly exposed on the break by Sydney’s rapid transitions via Bernie Ibini running in behind. A huge part of the problem was how cheaply City gave the ball away in the centre of midfield, which meant their full-backs were both moving forward at the same time, and thus immediately vulnerable when Sydney attacked quickly and directly.

Ernie Merrick has encouraged his side to be more cautious in recent weeks against Adelaide and Perth, asking them to sit deeper and focus more on counter-attacking. There are probably a multitude of reasons at play, but one telling factor for this might have been the absence of Michael McGlinchey. In his short Phoenix career so far, McGlinchey has played wide left but drifts inside between the lines to become an extra central midfielder, creating an overload in that zone and allowing the Phoenix to both dominate possession more readily, but also play a slower, more methodical attacking style focused on playing through the lines.

Without McGlinchey, Roy Krishna has started instead. Put simply, Krishna’s a more basic, physical footballer, and runs in straight lines in behind. This was best demonstrated by his run and assist for the opening goal v Adelaide, where he simply dribbled past two Adelaide defenders using his pace, and then cut the ball back to Roly Bonevacia. It was a counter-attack constructed in the five seconds after Phoenix won the ball.

McGlinchey is available again after the birth of his child, but tactically, there’s a case to be made for Krishna to play, helping Phoenix exploit City’s major weakness in behind the full-backs. There are lots of options available to Merrick. We could see Krishna switched to the right in place of Jeremy Brockie or Nathan Burns, or perhaps even in his usual left-sided role, with McGlinchey switched to a permanent no.10 position.

F3 derby

This is easily the most uninspiring match of the round, between two sides struggling for form and performances. Between the Jets and the Mariners, there’s only been one win this season – and that was in the previous match between these two sides, back in Round One, which the Mariners won thanks to a fortunate last-minute winner from Mitchell Duke.

Sadly, neither side has really progressed since that match. For both Phil Moss and Phil Stubbins, it’s been a case of tinkering to find the right formula. The Mariners coach, for example, has switched between the 4-2-3-1, a 5-4-1 and now, a 4-1-4-1, and seems unconvinced about the appropriate direction of the side stylistically, sometimes playing very pragmatically, and other times, encouraging more retention of possession.

Stubbins, too, has flipped between counter-attack and possession. Formation-wise, he’s consistently favoured a back four, but often flips the format of his midfield triangle according to opponents. After Marcos Flores’ good performance against the Wanderers last week, however, the 4-2-3-1 seems likely, with Flores as the #10.

Interestingly, this could cause problems against a Mariners team missing both John Hutchinson and Nick Montgomery, who have traditionally played together as a holding midfield duo in front of the defence. More recently, it’s been just one of the two, but being without both at the same time means the Mariners look awfully undermanned in that zone. Likely replacements Anthony Caceres and Glen Trifiro are capable of playing deep, but don’t offer as much protection to the defence. Flores might find space between the lines.

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