A brace from Nathan Burns meant Wellington Phoenix leapfrogged Sydney FC into fourth spot.
Graham Arnold’s extensive injury list means he is without Alex Brosque, Sasa Ognenovski, Ali Abbas, Nick Carle and Corey Gameiro. Rhyan Grant came into the starting eleven on the right, so Bernie Ibini switched to the left, and Marc Janko and Shane Smeltz continued their strike partnership upfront in what has become a rejigged 4-4-2.
Ernie Merrick’s only change from last week’s draw with Central Coast Mariners was the introduction of Tom Doyle at left-back for Manny Muscat, who was suspended.
Wellington’s numerical advantage in midfield
In what was a slow burning game in hot conditions, Wellington started off with the majority of possession, working it forward patiently as has been their approach this season. Merrick has been incredibly flexible with his formations this season, switching between 4-3-3, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-2-2-2 and a 4-3-3 with a false nine, with the latter used here.
On paper, Wellington had a clear advantage in the centre of midfield because Sydney had two players – Terry Antonis and Milos Dimitrijevic – against Wellington’s trio of Albert Riera, Alex Rodriguez and Roly Bonevacia. When defending, Arnold asks his two strikers, Janko and Smeltz, to drop off and make the side compact, preventing passes into the midfield zone.
This meant Riera had to drop deep between the two Wellington centre-backs to find time and space on the ball. Sydney’s front two were happy to let him wander into these positions because they positioned themselves where he couldn’t play penetrating passes between the lines. To try and circumvent this, Rodriguez dropped into deep, right-sided positions, receiving passes on the ‘outside’ of Sydney’s front two – he finished as the game’s highest passer, but through recycling the ball safely rather than providing the creativity.
In the periods where Wellington controlled more of the ball, the Phoenix had the upper hand – passing the ball quickly, shifting Sydney’s defence out of position and having Riera provide the forward pass. One such example of this was when he played Burns in behind in the eleventh minute, who unsuccessfully tried to take it around Vedran Janjetovic.
McGlinchey’s movement into the midfield zone created another numerical overload – a 4v2 around Antonis and Dimitrijevic. On the few occasions where Wellington were able to get McGlinchey on the ball between the lines, they looked very dangerous, especially with Krishna and Burns making runs in behind as targets for through-balls. This was most obvious for the botched offside call, as McGlinchey threaded an excellent pass in behind for Krishna, who is wrongly flagged offside.
With Sydney controlling more of the ball in the first half (60% possession at the break), Wellington’s best chances came on the break. Surprisingly, Sydney defended quite high up the pitch against the pace of Krishna and Burns, but importantly, the distance between the lines was very compact, meaning it was difficult for the Wellington attackers to stay level with the last line of defence – they were flagged offside five times in the first half alone.
Sydney’s numerical advantage out wide
If Wellington had an overload in midfield, then Sydney had a numerical advantage out wide, where their full-backs were able to get forward and create 2v1 situations out wide. In the 4-3-3, Merrick instructs the wide players to stay high up when defending. This means they are outlets on the counter-attack when the Phoenix win the ball, but the problem here was that Alex Gersbach and Pedj Bojic were happy to push forward past Burns and Krishna respectively, and create overloads down the side. The narrowness of the wide players, a staple of Arnold’s systems, opening up space out wide for the full-backs.
This was especially obvious down the left-hand side, where Gersbach got high and wide and repeatedly combined throughout the first half with Ibini.
To counter this, Rodriguez and Bonevacia, the outside midfielders in Wellington’s 4-3-3, slid out towards the flanks to pick up the full-backs, but this left gaps elsewhere.
Firstly, it meant Antonis and Dimitrijevic were under no pressure when they received the ball, and both recorded very high passing statistics in the first half – 51 and 42 respectively. Dimitrijevic, in particular, hit a number of cross-field balls to Bojic to switch the play. The flow-on effect of this was that it meant Sydney dominated the ball, especially in the latter periods of the first half, which in turn nullified Wellington’s ability to take advantage of their overload in midfield.
Secondly, the fact Rodriguez slid out to pick up Gersbach meant Ibini could receive passes in a pocket of space just in front of Fenton, and behind Rodriguez. On the ball, Ibini constantly used his pace and directness to drive around the outside of the right-back, creating two good chances for Smeltz with powerful runs into the box – the shot Smeltz blazed over the bar, and the attempted tap-in at the near post.
At the break, Merrick made a crucial adjustment to the way his side pressed. He asked Bonevacia to push high up onto Antonis, looking to prevent the midfielder from having time on the ball and setting the tempo of the game. The difference was enormous – having completed 51 passes in the first half, Antonis made just 16 in the second, with Bonevacia closing him down quickly whenever he received the ball.
As a team, Sydney also saw far less of the ball. As we saw in the first half, having more of the ball suited Wellington, because it meant they were able to take advantage of their numerical superiority through the centre of midfield. McGlinchey was far more involved – from 15 passes in the first, to 27 in the second, meaning 64% of his total passes came in the second half.
He also switched Burns and Krishna so that the former was playing more permanently on the left – this would prove crucial for the opening goal. Although the game went into a bit of a rut in the first fifteen minutes, Wellington had the upper hand. More of the game was being played in Sydney’s half, their attackers were receiving the ball higher up, and they got their first through Sigmund’s brilliant long pass for Burns, who blazed past some horrific defending by Bojic to score.
Arnold reacts with a formation switch
Arnold reacted very quickly to the opening goal, bringing on Peter Triantis for Gersbach. This was a surprising switch – a central midfielder for a left-back – and signalled a change to a 3-5-2 formation as he looked to chase the game. It basically kept Antonis and Dimitrijevic in their usual positions, but now had three attackers behind the two strikers at the expense of a fourth defender (with Chris Naumoff coming on as a right winger a few minutes later, in place of Grant).
While it’s clear what Arnold intention was, it backfired primarily because it left the three defenders exposed against Wellington’s three attackers, McGlinchey, Krishna and Burns. There was simply far more space for them to run into in attack, with Petkovic, Ryall and Bojic dragged across the pitch for Burns’ second.
It didn’t help, too, that when Sydney had the ball one of the three defenders would push forward and overlap, effectively leaving them with two at the back – by virtue of having more players forward, Sydney had a few half-chances, but they also looked incredibly vulnerable in the final ten minutes, even if they were chasing the game.
Burns, the goalscoring hero, mentioned a few interesting things in his post-match interview with Fox Sports. First, he rightly pinpointed Bonevacia’s pressing on Antonis during the second half as being crucial to Wellington’s improved performance. By shutting down Antonis, Wellington prevented Sydney from being able to create 2v1s out wide, and by having more of the ball, Sydney were also able to take greater advantage of their numerical advantage in midfield.
Burns also talked about being asked in pre-season to push high up and make runs in behind, rather than linking play, saying “Merrick demanded goals from him this season”. It’s been the major reason behind his inspired run of goalscoring form (ten goals in eleven games), as he’s been playing much more advanced than he ever did for Newcastle. Rather than a #10, although he has the capacity to come inside and link play, Burns is more of a #9 from a wide position for Wellington. He and Krishna are providing the directness and runs in behind that crucially complement the ball retention and creativity of the likes of McGlinchey, Riera and Rodriguez.
It’s somewhat appropriate to contrast this very balanced Wellington performance with their opponents. Injuries have depleted Sydney’s squad of key players, and although they created good chances here, they are lacking the outright quality that players like Abbas, Brosque and Ognenovski bring to the side. Replacements will arrive in January, but until then, current performances are falling somewhat short of what Sydney are capable of.