The Wanderers dominated the first half, but didn’t make the most of their chances, and the game petered out into a stalemate.
Tony Popovic’s side finally had a full week off, and this was probably the closest they’ll get to their first-choice line-up. The three changes from the 1-1 draw with Newcastle was a new pair of full-backs, Seyi Adeleke and Daniel Mullen, and higher up, Mark Bridge replaced Vitor Saba in the #10 position.
Graham Arnold was without Milos Dimitrijevic because of suspension, and Corey Gameiro is out for the season with a ruptured ACL, so Shane Smeltz surprisingly started on the left and Ali Abbas moved inside into central midfield – he lasted just five minutes before suffering the same injury as Gameiro. He was replaced by Rhyan Grant.
Wanderers overload in midfield
The Wanderers haven’t won in the A-League yet this season, but there’s still a sense of optimism about them – partly because of the Asian Champions League win, but also because it’s been obvious the front four is on the verge of ‘clicking’. Here, the latter was certainly the case, and the first half was one of the most sensational attacking performances from the Wanderers, not only this season, but in their three years of existence.
Whereas in the past there was an emphasis on long, direct balls from the back towards Tomi Juric, there was a marked focus on playing out from the back here. Unusually for them, Matthew Spiranovic and Nikolai Topor-Stanley split wide whenever the goalkeeper had possession, looking to draw Sydney’s front two, Marc Janko and Alex Brosque, onto them.
In this position, the two Wanderers central midfielders, Mateo Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca, constantly varied their position to find space to receive passes and face forward. They either split on the same vertical line so that one dropped deep and the other pushed high, or drifted wider towards the channels to ‘get away’ from Janko and Brosque.
Either through the midfielders receiving possession past Sydney FC’s first line of defence, or by Spiranovic bringing the ball forward himself, the Wanderers were able to progress moves higher up the pitch. When the ball was in these positions, Romeo Castelen and Nikita Rukavytsya took turns to come inside and create an overload around Sydney’s two central midfielders, Grant and Terry Antonis. Importantly, they did this in turns – so if Castelen came inside, Rukavytsya stayed high, and vice versa.
Often, it was Castelen who created the overload. As pointed out in the preview for this round, “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.” His variety of movement, both across the width of the pitch but also when he darted forward into goalscoring positions, caused Sydney real problems – he came incredibly close to scoring when his toe-poked shot was cleared off the line by Pedj Bojic.
It helped, too, that Juric is always on the move and likes to drop in between the lines to link play (he’s very good with his back to goal in these situations). His vertical movement in front of Sydney’s defenders exaggerated the Wanderers numerical advantage in this zone, and a good example of this was when he pulled short, received a ball and then played a superb pass in behind for Rukavytsya, whose shot hit the post.
These overloads being created in central positions were supported by either Wanderers full-back getting forward according to what side the ball was on. Therefore, if it was played down the left, Adeleke pushed up, and similarly on the right, with Hamill providing the width made absent by Castelen’s movement infield. It was down the right hand side that the Wanderers focused the majority of their attacks, with Smeltz pushed into very awkward, deep positions in his attempts to track Hamill on the way when the right-back pushed forward.
“They were bringing [Nikita] Rukavystya and [Romeo] Castelen inside, in behind our two holders,” said Arnold. “They also had Mateo Poljak and [Iacopo] La Rocca, so there was a 5 vs 2 in midfield. And that’s where they did all the damage.”
In the 28th minute, Arnold was shown on the TV cameras asking Brosque to “play left”, which indicated his first move to try and stop the Wanderers domination. Smeltz went upfront, and Brosque went out to the left-wing.
The Wanderers took the lead through Juric, and then Ibini equalised with a sensational run from inside his own half all the way to the top of the box, before smashing home a thumping finish. It was a simple counter-attack from a Wanderers corner.
After this point, Sydney seemed more confident and more defensively assured, and somewhat managed to turn the momentum of the game. Tactically, a key feature was that Brosque tucked in much more than Smeltz – not so concerned about the overlapping runs of Hamill, but instead blocking off passes into Castelen and nullifying that numerical advantage in central positions.
This meant Hamill got more passes out wide – the number of passes he received doubled in the 30-45 minute period, compared to the first half hour. This shift in the positioning of attacks is also demonstrated by the positioning of passes by Western Sydney in the first and second half – far more to wider, right-sided positions than centrally (as had been the case in the first half).
Hamill was eventually replaced by Shannon Cole due to injury. In general, there was little progression here – Popovic made the more proactive changes and introduced Vitor Saba and Kearyn Baccus, whereas Arnold seemed happy with a point.
The first half was thrilling – the Wanderers got around Sydney’s first line of defence by having the midfielders vary their position intelligently, then created overloads higher up bringing Castelen and Rukavytsya inside, retaining a threat in behind by keeping one high at all times, and getting the full-backs forward to provide width. It was clever, integrated movement in the final third, and this was easily their best attacking performance of the season. It probably helped, too, they had a full week of training (the first in a long time that wasn’t disrupted by a midweek match), which would’ve allowed Popovic to work specifically on patterns of play in attack.
It’s indicative of a greater overall shift by the Wanderers towards a more proactive approach, but tellingly, they still feel more open defensively than they ever have in the past. In football, attack and defence works on something of a spectrum – in general, the further towards one side you go, the more the other suffers.
Sydney, for their part, continued with what is their ‘standard’ gameplan under Arnold – the wide players tuck in narrow when attacking, creating space for the full-backs to bomb forward. Both Gersbach and Bojic were heavily involved here, but overall, Sydney didn’t feel as fluid and were slightly off their game. As Ibini said post-match, they were content with a point.
A minor area of concern is that Arnold is continually having to make minute adjustments to his side’s approach, particularly in the first half. We saw it against Melbourne Victory, Adelaide United (twice), the first Sydney Derby and Melbourne City.
It begs the question: why isn’t he getting it right from the start?