When Graham Arnold was appointed Sydney FC coach in mid-2014, I predicted success would come once the players adapted to his team-centric coaching style with an emphasis on clear, structured patterns of play – but that it might take some time for those methods to sink in.
As it has turned out, the turnaround has been quicker than expected. Barely ten months after Arnold was appointed, Sydney FC enter an A-League Finals Series as the competition’s form team, having not lost a game away from home all season.
An enormous part of this can be credited to the striking partnership of Marc Janko and Alex Brosque upfront. Janko has got the headlines, thanks to his brilliant goalscoring run, which included goals in seven consecutive games, an A-League record. Incredibly, since the Asian Cup, the Austrian has netted twelve goals in eleven games, making him the current leader and likely winner of this season’s Golden Boot.
Equally effective if in a somewhat less spectacular fashion has been Brosque in a #10 position. The former Socceroo has become Sydney’s key player, linking the side forward intelligently in the final third as well as chipping in with a host of important goals (7 for the season).
He is much more effective in this central position as opposed to the left-sided role he played at the start of the season – there was less room for him to work him when moving infield from the flank, compared to the 360 degree range of vision he has when starting from a central position. Furthermore, using Brosque on the left meant Shane Smeltz played upfront with Janko – the use of two #9s made Sydney predictable in possession as they lacked variety in the final third.
Rather, the Brosque and Janko duo has been everpresent this season as the front two in Graham Arnold’s 4-2-3-1 formation, starting all but six games together this season. Of those six games, Sydney had two wins, two 0-0 draws and two defeats – a record which shows their importance to the side as the first choice central attackers.
Sydney’s current format in attack, with a #10 behind a lone striker, and two wide players moving narrow between the lines, is nearly identical to the approach Arnold took with the Mariners in his final season at that club. The 2013 Grand Final win was a classic case study of this system: Daniel McBreen was the playmaker behind Mile Sterjovski, with Michael McGlinchey and Bernie Ibini as the wide players who moved infield to create overloads.
Ibini is reprising this role at Sydney, with Chris Naumoff on the opposite side. The two are excellent at finding pockets of space around the opposition holding midfielders, with a narrow 1-0 win over Newcastle earlier this season notable for how often they were able to find room around the Jets lone holding midfielder, Ben Kantarovski.
The pattern repeated itself again when the two sides played each other a few weeks back, with the Jets unable to deal with Sydney’s triple threat between the lines.
Key to this is the positioning of Brosque. When Sydney’s centre-backs or central midfielders have possession, Brosque positions himself between the lines of the opposition midfield and defence. The concept of ‘getting between the lines’ is a simple yet devastating ploy – it creates indecision for the opposition’s defenders and midfielders, who can become uncertain about whose responsibility it is to mark the player.
Janko plays an important role here. The Austrian generally always looks to sit on the shoulder of the last opposition defender when Sydney FC have possession. This stretches the opposition as much as possible, with the threat of Janko running in behind generally forcing the defensive line to sit slightly deeper. This, in turn, creates more space between them and the midfield for Brosque and the two wingers to work in.
Brosque’s positioning attracts an opposition holding midfielder, who either sticks tight or blocks the pass into him. With that player occupied, it creates gaps on either side that Naumoff or Ibini can move into and receive a pass. When this happens, Brosque will move forward onto the shoulder of the opposition defence.
This has two effects. It forces the defensive line to drop deeper to defend against the threat of a second runner in behind, which creates even more space between the lines for the winger. Secondly, it can cause confusion for whoever is marking Brosque, especially if they are marking tight – if they follow his sudden forward movement, it means they leave the space in front of the defence exposed, and if they don’t follow, there is the risk that a centre-back doesn’t track his run.
Brosque is particularly dangerous doing all this at once – when he is able to receive between the lines, combine with a fellow attacker and then dart forward into a goalscoring position. His second goal against Newcastle Jets was a perfect example of this.
It’s also revealing that for this goal Brosque deliberately attacks the near post when Alex Gersbach crosses the ball in. This is another clear strategy from Sydney, where Janko nearly always moves towards the back post and Brosque attacks the near post when the ball is crossed in.
This is particularly crucial because Sydney FC cross the ball more than any other team in the league, having tallied 475 in the regular season. The narrow positioning of the wingers creates space for the full-backs to bomb forward, and Arnold encourages the likes of Gersbach, Nikolai Petkovic and Sebastian Ryall to send balls in from wide areas.“We are now getting the service into the areas where we need to cross from,” he said a few weeks back, “and we are getting three or four players in the box every time we attack.”
It’s certainly a profitable strategy when you’ve got two goal-hungry strikers, Janko and Brosque, attacking the ball, supported by the winger from the far side moving into the penalty box.
At 1.96m tall, Janko towers over many defenders in the league, and is able to overpower them in the air – so although he may not have the momentum of a forward run, he has the height to be able to win the ball when it is in the air.
Three of Janko’s sixteen goals have come from being positioned at the far post – a header against Melbourne City, and two tap-ins from low crosses against Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners. Even a spectacularly acrobatic effort against Perth Glory was typical of his usual position when attacking crosses.
Against Perth Glory, there was a brilliant example of the division of roles – Janko powered a strong header off a Petkovic cross towards goal from the far post zone, and Brosque tapped in from the near post zone.
Without the ball, Janko and Brosque form Sydney’s first line of defence. This is another Arnold hallmark. perhaps the most distinctive feature of his Championship-winning Mariners team was their discipline without the ball. They got organised behind the ball quickly, with the wide players dropping back alongside the midfield duo to form a second bank of four in front of the back four, and the front two dropping back to make the defensive unit compact.
Sydney’s front two often allow opposition centre-backs to have time on the ball, and focus on preventing the forward pass into the opposition midfield. In the game against Newcastle, for example, Brosque and Janko always prevented the pass into the #6, Allan Welsh, as shown in the first image below.
The positioning of the front two makes it difficult for opposition teams to penetrate Sydney centrally, with passes often forced wide towards the full-backs (who come under immediate pressure from Sydney’s wingers, who close them down quickly). This, in turns, protects the side defensively as a whole, as a team is less dangerous when constructing attacks down the flanks as opposed to from a central position.
Sydney FC have increasingly become a ‘classic’ Graham Arnold side over the course of the season. His teams play structured, almost mechanical-like football that’s very difficult to beat – opposition coaches know exactly what is coming, but Sydney are still always capable of executing their preferred patterns of play because they are constantly drilled into them at training.
The necessity of having players who understand their role and responsibilities dictates Arnold’s penchant for rarely straying from a set starting eleven. In the case of Sydney, we’ve become accustomed to a very familiar starting lineup, which nearly always features the dynamic front two of Brosque and Janko. Brosque is the wonderfully varied #10, capable of linking play and storming forward into goalscoring positions, while Janko is the powerful centre-forward who drives opposition defences deep and put simply, scores the goals.
They work brilliantly off each other upfront – not only offensively, but also defensively, where they form the first line of defence. They are the key cogs in a team that can seriously challenge for the Championship in the upcoming Finals Series.