A major part of Josep Gombau’s Barcelonification of Adelaide has been to encourage his defenders to become positive and forward-thinking.
Having defenders comfortable on the ball is a key component of a possession-based approach. Quite simply, in order to retain possession, all players must be comfortable in possession.
In recent years, the role of the centre-back has become even more important. As possession-based teams have become more widespread, so has the concept of becoming organised behind the ball quickly, to reduce the space in the middle and final third for the attackers to work in.
However, it’s simply impossible to adequately cover all space on a football pitch when defending, so this defensive approach must ‘compromise’ and allow the opposition defenders a relatively high amount of time on the ball. Against this type of defensive approach, enjoying more time in possession than their teammates, the centre-back becomes the ‘playmaker’ – the one responsible for moving the ball forward and making something happen.
This is a situation Adelaide United have become very familiar with. As their ability to control games through domination of possession has become more pronounced, so has their opponent’s emphasis on defending deep. This was evident as early as the fifth game of the Gombau era, where the Central Coast Mariners defended very deep, allowing the two centre-backs Nigel Boogaard and Osama Malik lots of time on the ball.
Frustratingly, both Boogaard and Malik were very unadventurous with their freedom, and kept their passing very safe. The passing chalkboard shows how they simply passed sideways to each other, unable to move the ball into dangerous areas of the pitch. It was possession without penetration.
Over time, however, these types of situations have become increasingly more favourable for Adelaide. The more Gombau has been able to work with his squad, the more penetrative his centre-backs have become. A 4-1 win over Melbourne City in the final round of the season was an excellent example of how Adelaide’s build up play from the back has become where they execute their most incisive passes.
In terms of formations, Gombau changed to the 3-4-3 system he has used as a Plan B throughout this season, where the holding midfielder at the base of a midfield diamond becomes a centre-back when Adelaide are defending, turning the shape into a 4-3-3 without the ball.
Melbourne City, meanwhile, continued with the 4-4-2 diamond that John Van’t Schip has recently preferred, despite its glaring weaknesses.
This created an interesting matchup when Adelaide had the ball deep inside their own half. City defended passively, not looking to press high up and instead sitting off around halfway. The two strikers, Josh Kennedy and Harry Novillo, split wide so that they occupied the two wide Adelaide centre-backs, Tarek Elrich and Michael Marrone, with Robert Koren watching Dylan McGowan from a no.10 position.
As is obvious in the image above, City’s front three sat off their direct opponents. Particularly in the opening ten minutes, McGowan, Elrich and Marrone all took advantage of this to play penetrative forward passes.
When a defender has time on the ball against a deep-lying defence, there are two primary options they have to progress the attack forward. They can play a ‘linebreaking’ pass into a more advanced teammate, thus, breaking the first line of the opposition, as McGowan does in the first GIF above. The second option is to carry the ball forward into midfield. This creates an overload in the midfield zone (assuming the defender’s direct opponent does not follow him all the way) which should in theory drag an opposition midfielder towards the man in possession – this, in turn, opens up a teammate to play forward into.
A perfect example of this was Adelaide’s first goal, where Elrich brings the ball forward, drawing Germano towards him, and opening up the passing lane for Pablo Sanchez, who dribbles past Chapman to then play in Miguel Palanca for the shot.
In fact, all three of Adelaide’s first half goals started from the back. For the second goal, McGowan (under no pressure) hits a straight, long pass over the top of the City defence for Cirio, whose shot rebounds into the path of Sanchez. It’s a simple goal, the type Graham Arnold might call ‘long ball Adelaide’ – but it’s simply illustrative of the ball-playing ability of Adelaide’s defenders, and how they take advantage of their space at the back to create chances.
The third goal was the most extreme example of this, when Tarek Elrich dribbled past the entire City team to score an improbable goal of the season contender.
You can watch all three goals in the video below.
While there are certainly other tactical factors at play here – like City’s passiveness upfront and the rotation in Adelaide’s midfield – the examples above do a good job of highlighting the ability of Adelaide’s defenders to take the initiative on the ball and create chances. Osama Malik, who did not play here, is particularly proactive on the ball and will often push very far forward in possession. This has become a crucial component of Adelaide’s attacking play, especially when teams find ways to nullify the likes of Cirio, Isaias and Carrusca.
With a variety of attacking angles, it leaves opposition coaches in a dilemna – if they step forward to close down the Adelaide defenders, it opens up more space for their attackers, and vice versa if they prioritise defending deep. The addition of this ball-playing ability has helped Adelaide become a more complete attacking unit. Whether it be through driving forward, or passing forward, defenders have become the ‘real’ playmakers of Gombau’s team.