Just after the turn of the New Year, the A-League takes a break for the Asian Cup which neatly sandwiches the 2014-15 season in two. So, as 2015 draws steadily closer, it’s an opportune time to look at how each side is approaching the second half of the season. Some, like Perth Glory and Adelaide United, won’t want a break because of their good form, and some, like Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers, can’t wait for some time off from games, and the opportunity to bring in fresh faces.
How is your team performing? What are the key tactical features of the season so far, and who are the key players at each side? Who will emerge victorious in the race for the finals? Here, we examine all ten teams in Australia Scout’s trademark in-depth fashion, to bring you the most comprehensive A-League mid-season report.
Simply click the tabs to read your team’s report, and don’t forget to share it with fellow fans on Twitter and Facebook!
Josep Gombau’s job in his first season at Adelaide was all about implementing the underlying principles and foundations of the football he envisaged as becoming Adelaide’s ‘identity’ – the unmistakably Barca-esque possession based style that quickly became synonymous with United. In that sense, he’s already been successful, planting the seeds of a tactical system that has not only proved very popular with supporters, but is sustainable for the long term because it is also being implemented with the youth teams, meaning there is no change in the roles and responsibilities of players when they progress into the senior team.
Tactically, the system itself is fascinating. The key concepts are to have a comfortable overloads in defence to play out, an overload in central areas to dominate possession and 1v1s in wide areas to create chances. The 4-3-3 formation incorporates all of those concepts, with Isaias the fulcrum of the side in a #6 position. He drops into the backline to create that comfortable overload, often by dropping between or either side of the centre-backs.
Then, when Adelaide have possession higher up, Isaias sits in a disciplined position at the base of the midfield triangle and circulates the ball calmly from side to side, often hitting long diagonal passes to switch the play out to the wingers, who stay in very wide positions to stretch the active playing area and create those 1v1s.
These three ‘tactical pillars’ form the reasoning behind Gombau’s alternate formation, a 3-4-3. Used in the first three games of the season or when Osama Malik is not available, it allows Adelaide to dominate the centre of the pitch with four midfielders while retaining that width high up the pitch essential to creating the 1v1 situations.
Cirio is one of the ever-presents in the side in one of these wide positions, and is clearly more effective on the left, cutting inside onto his stronger right foot into shooting positions. He has eight goals this season, with five in the FFA Cup, including the winner in the final against Perth Glory.
That FFA Cup victory was an excellent vindication of Gombau’s methods, for which he came under so much criticism for in the early days of his tenure. Even back then, though, it was obvious the major problem was in converting the chances created, something which still plagues the side today – most obviously against Wellington Phoenix and Sydney FC.
Another issue appears to be fatigue, with the side visibly tiring during the busy December period. Gombau will welcome the January break as an opportunity for players to recharge and refresh their understanding of the tactical pillars, and the goal for the rest of the season is obvious – to challenge for the Premiership and Championship (and thus, the treble), a task they’re well equipped for.
Quite remarkably, the defending champions are the only side to have sacked their coach. Mike Mulvey’s dismissal remains the season’s most controversial decision, with the argument from Roar’s upper hierarchy that Mulvey had deviated too far from the club’s philosophy, highlighting not only a change in playing style, but also seemingly in transfer policy and approach to conditioning.
Tactically, Mulvey was still more or less conforming to the Brisbane ‘style’, albeit with a slightly pragmatic bent. In all of the first five games of the season, for example, Brisbane had over 58% possession. This was despite Jamie Young recording some incredibly poor distribution statistics – he didn’t suit the style at all, and his tendency to go long meant Brisbane often failed to play out from the back as they usually do. That was a major problem in the 1-0 defeat to Melbourne Victory, Mulvey’s final game.
However, even with Young’s poor passing, Brisbane were still retaining the ball for long periods under Mulvey. The problem was that they simply weren’t using the ball effectively enough – the passing was often too slow, with teams like Sydney FC and Melbourne City able to press in midfield, and then break quickly behind the Roar’s back four.
Brisbane haven’t undergone major stylistic or personnel changes, and their fall from grace can basically be explained quite simply by an inability to perform at their usual high standards.
However, the Victory game – the last straw for Mulvey – saw Brisbane record their worst ever pass completion and pass accuracy statistics, which proved to be a tangible illustration of the problems managing director Sean Dobson put forward as being responsible for Mulvey’s sacking. From a tactical perspective, however, this type of cautious, more direct approach for a specific game was typical of the overall direction Mulvey had been taking Brisbane.
Unlike Ange Postecoglou, who implemented the original philosophy, Mulvey has always been happier to defend slightly deeper, instruct the side to play long when necessary, and even attack purely on the counter – he never completely changed the style, but he made pragmatic adaptions to it. The Victory game was an extreme example, but in the context of Mulvey’s reign, not the complete deviation from the philosophy as it was painted to be.
Over time, though, it’s emerged that there’s more at play here than just tactical factors – poor signings, concerns about conditioning and rumours of player unrest have plagued Brisbane. It’s difficult to get a true understanding of what is happening behind the scenes, but management isn’t only about on-pitch factors. If Mulvey was taking the side in a direction off-field apposite to what Brisbane’s board (or more specifically, Ken Stead) envisaged, then the sacking was justified.
As it happened, Mulvey’s replacement was already in the country. Frans Thijssen was a relative unknown, having not coached professionally for a number of years and worked primarily in the Middle East. His nationality (Dutch) lead to crude suggestions he was perfect for the job, but in reality, Thijssen has more or less continued in the same path as Mulvey. He’s tried to return them to their distinctive possession-based approach (they average 59% under Thijssen), but recognised the need to defend in numbers when necessary, like against the Wanderers and Adelaide, his only two wins so far.
That, in part, is a consequence of the loss of Thomas Broich. Broich is a wonderfully creative player whose movement into the midfield zone – whether out wide or as a false nine – created an overload that allowed Brisbane to dominate possession. Without him, Thijssen has had to use three pacy, direct forwards, like the combination of Henrique, Jean Carlos Solorzano and Dimitri Petratos used against Central Coast Mariners on the weekend. That makes Brisbane more energetic on the break, but they tend to lack ideas when controlling the ball for long periods.
The transfer window will provide an opportunity for Thijssen to get some fresh faces in, with Jerome Polenz linked to the problematic right-back position, and Luke DeVere rumoured to replace the departed Matt Smith. A top class striker would be welcomed, too, after the dismal failure of Mensur Kurtishi.
Thijssen had little preparation time since taking over from Mulvey, and it will be fairer to judge him later in the season, when he’s had time to work closely with the squad. Then, we will be able to judge the direction Brisbane’s philosophy is heading.
It will always be hard for Phil Moss to avoid the inevitable comparisons with Graham Arnold, after working under him for three years.
Tactically, too, Moss kept with a similar approach to Arnold when taking over the top job at the Central Coast Mariners in November 2013. The Mariners have always been a structured, organised unit, boasting great compactness without the ball and then attacking in a methodical but effective approach. For the remainder of the 13/14 regular season, Moss made few tactical adjustments, and encouraged the side continued to doing what they knew best rather than planting his own imprint on the side. The switch to 5-4-1 and a very defensive mindset for the finals, then, was completely unexpected.
On the whole, however, apart from a brief dalliance with the 5-4-1 again, the Mariners have used either a 4-2-3-1, or a 4-1-4-1 this season. The difference is the format of the midfield triangle – sometimes, they’ll use one #6 behind two #10s, and other times, just one #10 ahead of two #6s. In recent weeks, it’s been the former, with John Hutchinson sitting very deep in midfield, allowing Anthony Caceres and Glen Trifiro to play higher up.
Regardless of personnel, Moss has encouraged quite a possession-based approach. In fact, the Mariners average 52% of the ball per game, the fourth highest in the league, which in a small way demonstrates the major focus of their season. They’ve been keen to try and play out from the back, and work the ball forward through the lines of the opposition, often happy to play passes across the pitch until gaps open up.
The problem with that has been with the speed and execution. If the ball movement is slow, the opposition can react and adjust their defensive shape accordingly, making it difficult to play forward passes. The Mariners often feel quite mechanical in their movements, as if they’re going through the motions. The wide players drift inside and try to create overloads in central positions, but there’s little speed or power going forward – it all feels very predictable.
When the full-backs get forward into the space vacated by the wide players, it feels like ‘old school Mariners’, because it’s the quintessential Arnold move, now being used by Sydney FC. It’s very effective when done at pace, though, as demonstrated in a 3-3 draw with Brisbane Roar. Getting the full-backs involved high up the pitch is important, because there’s not enough end product coming from the likes of Matt Sim, Richard Vernes, Isaka Cernak and Nick Fitzgerald, although the latter is capable of cutting inside and shooting powerfully.
Upfront is another debate. Mitchell Duke is a promising athlete but inconsistent, and guilty of making poor decisions. At this point in time, Matt Simon is the better option. He holds the ball up well, chases down loose balls and works incredibly hard – it sounds cliched, but in what is a limited squad, those qualities are welcomed.
Meanwhile, at the back, there’s been an odd experiment with Josh Rose as a centre-back, which allowed the exciting Mitchell O’Neill to play left-back. Rose never seemed comfortable in the middle, however, and he’s suffered from the same problem as Eddy Bosnar and Jacob Poscoliero when those two have had turns in the starting XI – the advanced positioning of the full-backs means a centre-back often gets pulled wide, which leaves the other exposed either 1v1 against an opposition attacker, or to a late runner from deep.
Structurally, there are problems in the system, but Moss has also been unlucky with the sheer number of individual errors being made in defence. Brisbane’s equaliser on the weekend was a classic example – Zac Anderson got drawn out wide, so Storm Roux moved infield to cover him at centre-back, only to completely switch off when a low cross came into the middle. Only Newcastle have conceded more goals than the Mariners this season – coincidentally, the Jets are also the only side the Mariners have beaten, going all the way back to Round One.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to be optimistic about 2015 for the Mariners. This is a team capable of one-off upsets rather than a consistent run of form, if simply only for the fact they lack outright quality in key positions. A bit like Brisbane, Moss is relying on a formula that was successful a few years ago – the league has evolved, and it doesn’t feel like the Mariners are keeping up.
Predictions of a Melbourne City title challenge always felt premature. They had added some exciting new players but still lacked depth and quality in key positions, despite being bankrolled by the wealthy City Football Group.
The biggest name was of course, David Villa, whose incredibly short time in Melbourne has already passed into A-League history before we’ve even reached the halfway point of the season. Villa’s arrival seemed more a distraction than a benefit, especially when it became clear the Spanish striker had little interest in defending. When played on the left wing, he let opposition right-backs run free, which caused City real problems in the first four games of the season.
It wasn’t just Villa, though – for want of a better term, the entire side always felt too ‘spread out’, which inevitably left gaps. The centre-backs, in particular, didn’t have it easy – the holding midfielder, Erik Paartalu couldn’t provide protection because he was being dragged across the width of the pitch, and the full-backs often got too forward, leaving spaces down the sides.
The defensive issues came to a head in a 5-1 thumping at the hands of Wellington Phoenix. Wellington overloaded the midfield zone, and got Roy Krishna and Nathan Burns in the space behind City’s full-backs. Despite dominating the first twenty minutes, once the Phoenix took the lead, it was carnage.
That heavy defeat prompted Van’t Schip into a deep rethink. “There’s a different approach after the Wellington game,” the Dutchman said. “We didn’t get the results that we expected. The time of giving players a lot of confidence didn’t bring what we are looking for. So our approach is different. It was time to see if we could change some things with different players.”
True to his word, City have defended much better in the weeks since – they don’t feel anywhere near as open, and individual errors and lapses in concentration have declined. It’s difficult to quantify, but the side as a whole feels more focused. “The team, you can feel it’s compact, there’s more structure at the moment,” says Van’t Schip.
Helped by the addition of Tando Velaphi in goals, natural left-back Ben Garuccio and the mobile Connor Chapman at centre-back, City have conceded once in three games, while recording a pair of 1-0 wins over Brisbane and Melbourne Victory. In particular, their pressing has been very good, dropping off into a medium block, and then closing down high up when the opposition tries to play out.
This, in turn, means more balls are being won in midfield – crucial, because the higher up the pitch City regain possession, the quicker they can attack through their trio of pacy forwards. David Williams, Mate Dugandzic and Iain Ramsay (the latter probably to be replaced by Damien Duff when the Irishman returns from injury) are good driving forward into space, and can get to the byline to cut crosses back across the face of goal. This has meant midfielders Jacob Melling and Aaron Mooy have had lots of shots via late runs into the area.
That bodes well for the two impending new faces, Josh Kennedy and Robert Koren. Koren made a career in England out of scoring goals from midfield, and might benefit from the service currently being provided by City’s front three. Kennedy, meanwhile, is unsurprisingly good in the air and will provide an alternate route to goal – he should be able to get on the end of the lofted crosses sent in by the full-backs when they overlap high up the pitch.
The real question, though, is whether City’s current solidity is temporary, or evidence of a long-term change in mentality. If it is the latter, the signs bode well for City in the second half of the year, even though they still lack all the pieces to mount a serious title challenge.
If Perth Glory have impressed because they have comfortably overpowered all opponents, Victory are also title favourites for a slightly different reason – because they’ve ground out results.
That might seem a harsh indictment on a side that’s lost just once this season, but when considering Victory’s most recent fixtures, they’ve scraped wins rather than dominating, especially in contrast to the early rounds of the season. Three of their seven wins have been by two goals or more, and two of those came in the first three rounds of the season. The rest have been tight affairs, at least on the scoreboard – from the scrappy 1-0 win over Brisbane, to the free-flowing 3-2 goalfest against Adelaide.
The major reason for this is because Muscat has had major problems with injuries and suspensions, especially in defence. The pairing of Leigh Broxham and Nick Ansell against Newcastle Jets was the fifth new centre-back partnership this season, with Matthieu Delpierre’s foot injury making it difficult for Muscat to play a settled back four. In the full-back positions especially, we’ve seen Daniel Georgievski, Dylan Murnane, Jason Geria, Scott Galloway and even Rashid Mahazi rotate into the starting eleven – every week, it seems like someone is out for some reason.
At the moment, the Victory are surviving, but they’ll be better for having a settled defence.
Thankfully, different attackers have had alternate periods of hot form to alleviate the problems further back. It started with Kosta Barbarouses tearing the Wanderers to pieces down their right-hand side, then Besart Berisha had an inspired if unsustainable run of goalscoring form where he almost literally scored with every shot on target. Lately, we’ve seen the best of Fahid Ben Khalfallah, who starts on the left but is dangerous coming inside into goalscoring positions.
In the #10 position, Guilherme Finkler is the glue that ties it all together. He’s incredibly varied and intelligent with his movement, drifting towards the flanks (particularly the right) to create overloads, as well as darting forward into the penalty area to score and assist goals. He also digs in defensively, having been asked to man-mark the likes of Erik Paartalu and Isaias.
Without him, Muscat found a temporary solution in Thompson, who made the side more direct because he wanted to get forward quickly. That worked nicely against the Central Coast Mariners, but Finkler’s brilliance is in his subtlety – he understands when to take risks, and when to play the safer, sideways ball. It helps, too, that he’s brilliant at direct free-kicks.
Consistency of selection in the midfield positions behind Finkler has also suffered because of the various injuries, but Carl Valeri has been ever-present. He sits solidly in front of the back four and also links the defence to attack nicely by varying his position to receive passes from the centre-backs, and looking to play into the feet of the attackers further ahead. Milligan, too, is a strong distributor, and his all-action style was sorely missed against Newcastle – unlike the likes of Mahazi and Broxham, he brings a lot of physicality in the midfield zone.
On paper, the Victory have the strongest starting XI in the league (when they’re all fit and not suspended). However, weaknesses exist – Nathan Coe, for example, remains shaky at crosses and when pressed, tends to kick long. The same goes for the back four, who can seem vulnerable when closed down as they try to play out.
Even more worrying is the lack of protection for the full-backs, because the wingers don’t have strict defensive responsibilities and tend to stay high up without the ball. Sydney FC exposed this in a thrilling 3-3 draw a few weeks back, and continues to be a problem against any side brave enough to push their full-backs high up.
Nevertheless, if the Victory have been able to grind out results without their best team, it bodes well for the second half of the season.
Phil Stubbins’ job at Newcastle was always going to be tough. He inherited an unbalanced squad, was reliant on cheap transfers, and had an injury crisis in pre-season, robbing him of the opportunity to get his ideas across to the squad.
In the first few weeks of the season, it was obvious he was uncertain about the exact direction he wanted to take the side. He started off with a very positive pressing approach against the Mariners, then switched to a more conservative, reactive style in the following weeks, whilst tinkering with different combinations and personnel in the final third.
Throughout all the tinkering, one ever-present has been Carney, although even he has been shifted across the pitch. First, he was a left-back, charging forward to combine with former New York teammate Johnny Steele. Then, he became an attacker, first on the left, then amazingly, a #10 against Perth, before Stubbins found a home for him out on the right.
As quite a one-footed player, Carney’s tendency to cut inside onto his stronger left foot from that flank was obvious. That didn’t mean opponents could cope with it, though, and Carney has provided lots of creativity as a right winger, assisting an equaliser against the Wanderers, and the winner against Adelaide.
Another area of tactical interest was the flipping of the midfield triangle in the 4-2-3-1 to make a 4-3-3, working quite nicely against Melbourne Victory. Stubbins instructed the three midfielders to man-mark Victory’s trio, and successfully blunted the competition’s best attack.
He nearly did it again last Saturday, albeit with a completely different formation. In the past two weeks, Stubbins has provided great tactical interest by switching to a back three, something discussed at length in this article.
In the short term, Newcastle might persist with the back three given the short turnaround between games during this period and the relative success with the formation (when compared to the winless run of the first ten matches). In the medium to long term, however, this back three feels like a temporary fix rather than a genuine, sustainable tactical system.
Where the back three worked well because it got numbers behind the ball, there were obvious weaknesses. Against a side that pushed their full-backs forward, there were no direct opponents in the 3-5-2, so the central midfielders had to drift wide to close them down. That left space in midfield which Ben Khalfallah constantly cut inside into. The risk of 2v1 situations being created out wide is a recurring problem for a back three.
Furthermore, Newcastle had next to no attacking threat against the Victory, despite trying to counter through the front two of Joel Griffiths and Edson Montano. Both strikers were picking up the ball deep inside their own half, and had no support when driving forward, and it took nearly an hour for Newcastle to get a shot on target – a speculative shot on distance. They created very few chances, and it’s difficult to see how this can be changed without a shift in approach or formation.
When compared to the ten-game winless run that opened the season, however, a win and a narrow 1-0 defeat is welcomed at this stage. It’s evidence of improvement, and Newcastle will get better with the opportunity to reinforce, train and play together as a squad. This will be a season of transition, though.
Perth recruited well in the off-season, but few expected them to be top of the table at the halfway point.
Their transfer policy was particularly memorable because it was so obvious. There was a specific emphasis on signing established, experienced A-League players who Kenny Lowe wanted to have a “blue collar ethic”. It made for a nice contrast from the youth driven recruitment drive a year earlier, and actually ended up creating a well balanced squad capable of playing multiple types of football.
Initially, Perth were quite direct. Lowe wasn’t fussed about retaining possession or building up from the back, and he used a 4-4-2 formation that partnered Andy Keogh alongside Youssouf Hersi or Jamie MacLaren. The combination between Keogh and MacLaren was particularly promising, with Perth playing quick, direct football and getting numbers into the box.
However, a pattern emerged. Keogh wasn’t effective without a strike partner – he needed someone like MacLaren to help create space, and occupy defenders. Therefore, Lowe tried lots of different combinations, sometimes using a 4-4-2 diamond. Despite getting wins, he never seemed happy with the starting XI, and didn’t settle on a formation until a 2-1 win over Newcastle.
The win itself wasn’t especially pretty – it required MacLaren scoring a brace off the bench and a switch back to a flat 4-4-2 – but clearly, Lowe was happy with the dynamic that a 4-1-4-1 formation provided. The balance in the wide positions wasn’t quite right, with Hersi and MacLaren used there the following week against the Mariners, but Lowe presumably liked the fact Rostyn Griffiths could sit deep in the base of midfield and allow Nebojsa Marinkovic and Mitch Nichols to float around and find space.
The 4-1-4-1, too, made Perth steadily more possession-based – they began to play out from the back more often, and got their full-backs involved higher up the pitch. Josh Risdon, in particular, combined nicely with Hersi down the right, helping overload Wellington Phoenix down the flank.
The full-backs have freedom to get forward because Griffiths plays a very disciplined holding midfield role. He’s started every game this season in that #6 position, rarely straying forward. He breaks up play powerfully, and provides great protection to the ever-present centre-back duo of Michael Thwaite and Dino Djulbic behind him. In fact, the back four of Jamieson-Thwaite-Djulbic-Risdon have started all but one game this season, and have an excellent understanding as a unit.
On the flanks, Lowe has a number of different options that allows him to vary his approach. Hersi is out for the season, but the likes of Danny De Silva, a playmaker who drifts inside between the lines, and Harold, who makes runs in behind from a wide position, have proved capable replacements. Garcia is another option -a hard-working shuttler who comes narrow into the channels, allowing Nichols to move out wide from a central position.
The real star, though, is Keogh. He started his A-League career in blistering goalscoring form, but his real value is in a variety of movement – constantly running in behind, linking play and holding the ball up. His work rate alone improves the players around him, and he plays a key role in leading Perth’s press high up the pitch. He’s not quite a clinical finisher as Berisha, the league’s best ever forward, but shares the Albanian’s hunger, drive and unpredictable, intelligent movement.
Keogh is part of that central core that have started every game this season, and sums up Perth’s style this season – not wedded to any one approach, but excellent across multiple dimensions.
Sydney FC’s injury crisis got so out of hand that it was reported Santa ruptured his ACL delivering Christmas presents to Graham Arnold.
The amazing thing is that it wasn’t completely unrealistic. In the space of four weeks, Sydney lost Corey Gameiro, Ali Abbas, Nick Carle and Sasa Ognenovski for the season. Since the double blow of losing both Gameiro and Abbas in the same week, Sydney have lost three and drawn once – their last win came back in November against Melbourne City. The injury crisis has derailed their season, and it’s little surprise Arnold has openly admitted he can’t wait for the opportunity to get new faces into the squad.
One area he is looking for is pace. “With Corey and Ali Abbas gone [for the season], the left side is a little bit light,” said Arnold after the Perth defeat. “We could do with some more pace in the team.”
Gameiro, in particular, is a big miss. Originally used through the middle but eventually finding a home on the left, he played an important role by making runs in behind from a wide position, which helped stretch the depth of opposition defences. Without him and Abbas, Arnold has had to move Alex Brosque back to the flank.
That is a shame, because Brosque was excellent in the #10 position. In what was a recurring problem for Sydney in the opening rounds of the season, they lacked a link between midfield and attack, with holding midfield duo Terry Antonis and Milos Dimitrijevic often overloaded against opponents that used three players in midfield. Brosque was capable of dropping deep to even the numbers, but also displayed an intelligent range of movement by drifting into pockets of space to provide creativity, as well as darting forward to provide another goal threat.
Brosque was versatile in terms of positions, too – when used on his own upfront against Adelaide United in the FFA Cup quarter-final, he did an excellent job leading the pressure high up and bringing the other attackers into the game.
When Brosque is used on the left, he doesn’t have the same range of movement. He’s limited to moving inside from a wide position, trying to find space between the lines. However, in these positions, he’s often receiving passes with his back to goal, and has found it difficult to get on the ball in dangerous areas.
That has become an even bigger problem in light of Arnold’s enforced switch to a 4-4-2, using Shane Smeltz and Marc Janko together upfront. The two showed in the 3-3 draw with Melbourne Victory that a front two that vary their position and play off each other can work excellently – Smeltz was inspired, scoring a double.
However, the general theme of the 4-4-2 is to make Sydney appear boxy, flat and predictable. When Smeltz and Janko both stay high up and try to occupy opposition defenders, Sydney have struggled to create chances. In the past few weeks, there’s been a noticeable emphasis on bringing the wide players inside – especially Bernie Ibini on the right – and getting the full-backs forward to overlap. However, the delivery from Alex Gersbach and Pedj Bojic/Rhyan Grant has been inconsistent – and without that attacking drive from deep, Sydney appear short of ideas.
Another major issue is with their inability to play for 90 minutes. In the first six rounds of the season, Arnold despaired at the fact they never seemed to turn up for the first half. “If you’ve got one or two players that look flat in the first half you start thinking it’s only one or two but I thought everyone looked quite flat in the first half,” said Arnold after the Victory game.
Now, the problem isn’t first halves – it’s the second. In two successive weeks against Wellington and Adelaide, Sydney have been the better side in the first period, before collapsing in the second. It’s unclear whether it’s a physical, tactical or mental problem, but it’s something Arnold must address.
It’s not all bad news, however. With all players fit, Sydney have perhaps the best midfield partnership in the league – Antonis and Dimitrijevic are both excellent passers, and sit deep to distribute the ball positively forward into attack. The back four, meanwhile, now seems settled, with Nikolai Petkovic and Sebastian Ryall forming a good partnership in the middle. Right-back remains a question mark, but Gersbach has been a revelation – it’s easy to forget he’s only 17.
Encouragingly, too, Sydney have been very adaptable this season. Arnold makes little tweaks to the system, and will vary his defensive approach according to the opposition, and it would be very pleasing that his players are capable of switching between these different strategies during games. If he can bring in some new players over the Asian Cup break, there’s no reason Sydney can be a Premiership challenger this season.
Ernie Merrick is, going off trophy counts and Grand Final appearances, the A-League’s most successful ever manager. His first season at Wellington Phoenix saw obvious signs of an evolution towards a technical, attractive brand of football, and their off-season recruitment focused on plugging obvious holes in the squad.
In that context, their excellent run of form should be no surprise.
On paper, Wellington have the most balanced starting XI in the competition. Their full-backs provide support to the attack but don’t leave the centre-backs exposed, while Ben Sigmund and Andrew Durante have long had an effective partnership. Albert Riera is a brilliant all-round holding midfielder, impressing many with his distribution but also very combative when protecting the defence. To his right is Alex Rodriguez or Vince Lia, who drop into deep, right-sided positions to help retain possession.
On the left-of-centre midfield is Roly Bonevacia, signed as a defensive utility, but a revelation in a midfield role with freedom to break forward. Sometimes used as a #10 at the tip of the diamond, Bonevacia is better coming from deep – he can drive past defenders with a clever turn of pace, and makes late runs into the box from unexpectedly deep positions.
Then, operating as the furthest forward player but with a licence to drop deep and become a fourth central midfielder, Michael McGlinchey has been excellent as a false nine. His movement into the midfield zone helps create 4v3 or sometimes even 4v2 overloads, meaning McGlinchey can often comfortably get on the ball, face forward and slide penetrating passes in behind.
That’s why the directness of Roy Krishna and Nathan Burns from out wide is so important – they provide a goal threat that might otherwise be missing, and thus make Wellington a supremely well-balanced team. Burns is subtler and will vary his movement to find space, whereas Krishna is more about pace and sprints in behind from the left. Both have chipped in with important goals – Burns’ goal tally is obviously impressive, but Krishna’s done well with 5 to his name.
Importantly, too, the pace of these wide players mean if Wellington end up the backfoot, they still retain a counter-attacking threat. That proved important against Western Sydney Wanderers on the weekend. Although they’re at the best when dominating the midfield zone, Wellington are capable of playing different ways.
They’re capable, too, of playing different formations. No side has been so flexible in terms of shape, with Merrick keen to tinker and adjust to find the perfect formula. We’ve seen 4-3-3 with an out-and-out striker (Jeremy Brockie), an asymmetrical 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-2-2-2 and this 4-3-3 with a false nine. One possible explanation for such unpredictable formations could be that Merrick is wary of the obvious lack of depth in this squad, and so by constantly re-arranging his starting XI into different formations, he continues to keep them unpredictable for future opponents.
That is, naturally, the biggest question ahead of the second half of the season. Wellington have an excellent starting XI, but depth is serious lacking. With Brockie’s departure to South Africa, for example, they literally have no out-and-out centre forward in the squad. Brockie was a useful Plan B when McGlinchey became a false nine, and the likes of Tyler Boyd and Kenny Cunningham, though capable, might not be enough.
Bonevacia also appears irreplaceable. He has a drive and dynamism in midfield that’s not really matched by any other player in the squad, and his ability to turn defence into attack with a powerful dribble would be difficult to replace. At the back, too, there’s no obvious replacement for Durante or Sigmund, because the likes of Manny Muscat and Michael Boxall have all played at full-back under Merrick.
Therefore, if Wellington can keep this starting XI together, they’ll maintain their good form. Injuries, suspensions and rotation seem inevitable, however, and the challenge is for the reserve players to maintain the momentum of the first team.
If the Western Sydney Wanderers are a fairytale, this is reality hitting home. Just five weeks after their extraordinary triumph in the Asian Champions League, they sit bottom of the A-League – granted, with two games in hand over most of the competition, but still four points of ninth placed Newcastle. It says it all that this season feels like a write-off.
That’s because of a number of reasons. Firstly, there are rumours that Tony Popovic is moving to Crystal Palace to replace the sacked Neil Warnock, although suggestions are now Alan Pardew will take the job instead. Still, constant speculation over the future of the coach won’t help.
Secondly, there are growing rumours of deep-seated player unrest. These began from the pay dispute over the money won through participation in the Club World Cup, and seem to have now extended to various dissatisfactions over playing time, training ground bust-ups and eyes on lucrative moves abroad. There are suggestions up to six players could be on the way out, including captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley and talismanic striker Tomi Juric, as well as foriegn signings Vitor Saba and Seyi Adeleke who have only been at the Wanderers for less than six months.
Thirdly, the fixture congestion that has plagued their season isn’t over yet. The Wanderers have already played fifteen games since August, which is an unusual occurrence for A-League clubs used to a one-game-a-week schedule.
Then, the Wanderers have two games to catch up on in the New Year, and then have the Asian Champions League group stage to contend with all over again. It’s a nightmarish schedule, and even though Popovic is a keen rotator, but that can’t always disguise a simple lack of quality in squad depth.
Tactically, too, there are problems. The accumulation of fatigue through games and travel has had an obvious impact on their ability to play their usual high press. It was obvious, especially in the Asian Champions League, that they were defending much deeper and simply getting numbers behind the ball. In the past, the Wanderers have defended well because the defence has started high up the pitch, but now, the back four always feels open. A lack of protection from the usually solid holding midfield duo has been an especially major issue, with Mateo Poljak prone to being dragged out of position this season.
Another area of concern in midfield is a lack of creativity. The Wanderers effectively replaced Shinji Ono and Aaron Mooy with just Saba, who can only play as a #10. That has meant the pairing of Poljak-La Rocca, although physical and combative, aren’t capable of providing that incisive passing from deep positions that Mooy used to bring – a problem compounded when instead of Saba, a striker like Labinot Haliti or Mark Bridge plays as a #10. The injury replacement signings of Kearyn Baccus and Nick Kalmar are presumably an attempt to fix this problem.
In attack, Popovic has also found it difficult to get all his attackers on the pitch at the same time, because of rotation. The combination of Nikita Rukavystya, Saba and Romeo Castelen behind Juric is exciting, though, and a 1-1 draw with Sydney FC showed glimpses of what is possible – especially when one winger drifts inside to create overloads between the lines, and the player on the opposite side making a run in behind.
We rarely get to see this quartet, however, because of the various issues the Wanderers have faced over the season. That is, essentially, the heart of all the problems.
It’s important, too, to acknowledge that the increased number of games means less time on the training ground – less time to work on tactics and conditioning, and less time to get the new players familiar with the system.
It’s a very difficult situation, but right now, things aren’t looking good for the Wanderers.
Keep an eye out for our special feature tomorrow that reveals why history says Tony Popovic’s time at the Wanderers is up.