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Awer Mabil scored late to send Adelaide United through to the semi-finals at the expense of the defending champions.

Teams

Josep Gombau was without Bruce Djite, but welcomed back Marcelo Carrusca. Isaias, James Jeggo and Cirio all also returned to the starting eleven after missing last week’s emphatic final round win over Melbourne City.

Frans Thijssen continued to have injury problems at the back, meaning Daniel Bowles continued in his makeshift role as a central defender. Devante Clut and Thomas Broich surprisingly started together, meaning the latter played on the left wing as opposed to the #10 position he has primarily played under Thijssen.

Adelaide’s formation

The key tactical question prior to this game was what formation Gombau would play. He has switched between 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 this season, with the use of the latter against City last week suggesting he would continue with it here.

The caveat, however, was that his side have struggled with it this season against the Roar, especially when Brisbane have closed down high up and made it difficult for Adelaide to play out from the back. That was again the case here, with Brisbane’s pressing causing problems in the early stages.

Brisbane press high up early on

This was most obvious when Adelaide had goalkicks. Brisbane’s front three stepped forward to mark their direct opponent, with striker Andrija Kaluderovic doing a good job of both closing down Boogaard, but also preventing the pass into Malik behind him. With Broich occupying McGowan and Borrello occupying Elrich, this forced Eugene Galekovic to kick long. His passing accuracy was unusually poor – 42%, a significant decrease from his season average of 93%.

Brisbane Roar press Adelaide's goalkicks

An example of Brisbane Roar pressing high up on Adelaide United at goal-kicks

Brisbane’s goal was an exaggerated example of their aggressive strategy in defence, with Broich putting Dylan McGowan under direct pressure, forcing an underhit backpass, before darting forward to score.

That, of course, was an equaliser, with Adelaide having taken the lead through a spectacular Craig Goodwin free-kick.

Alternating periods of possession and territory

This was a game where the goals felt somewhat separate from the tactical battle, however. Both sides had alternating periods of possession and territory, with Brisbane having the better of the opening twenty minutes, before Adelaide got a foothold in the middle section of the first half.

These are the two teams in the competition that average the most possession, and both wanted to control the game as much as possible – meaning they often had long periods of territorial dominance, before conceding possession to the opposition.

Brisbane’s counter-attacking

Brisbane’s best chances actually came on the counter-attack, when they were able to attack quickly and directly at speed. This was a byproduct of their pressing high up, as they often won the ball off Adelaide’s back three and attacked goal quickly.

This has been something of a hallmark of Thijssen reign, and here they looked best when bypassing the midfield altogether and hitting balls in behind for Brandon Borrello down the right-wing. He spurned a couple of good opportunities in the first half, including one shot from a wide angle blasted high over the crossbar.

Adelaide’s 3-4-3

This was linked to Adelaide’s unusual formation, which left them exposed at counter-attacks. The intention of the 3-4-3 is to create numerical superiority in the midfield, with Osama Malik stepping forward to play at the base of a diamond when Adelaide have possession, and moving back into a centre-back position when they are defending.

Quite simply, however, this meant Adelaide didn’t have numbers behind the ball when they turned it over. This created lots of space for Brisbane to attack into, with Tarek Elrich often vulnerable to the runs of Borrello.

Another problem was that Gombau instructed his midfielders to man-mark, with Carrusca on McKay, Jeggo on Brattan and Isaias on Clut. Brisbane, though, perhaps learning from the lessons of their defeat to Melbourne Victory two weeks ago, were able to exploit this by darting forward into uncomfortable positions for their man-markers to defend in. At one point, for example, Carrusca followed McKay all the way forward into the defensive line, creating a large gap in the centre of midfield.

In possession, Adelaide changed their midfield format slightly. The ‘outside’ midfielders drifted wider, positioning themselves behind Brisbane’s wingers and in front of their full-backs. Jeggo pushed much higher up than usual, basically becoming a second striker behind Pablo Sanchez (who, although a midfielder playing as a striker, was not a false nine). This meant Carrusca played deeper and wider than usual – the one area in which Adelaide had a clear superiority.

Adelaide's midfield format when in possession, with Jeggo becoming a second striker, Carrusca drifting to the right and McGowan pushing forward from right centre-back

Adelaide’s midfield format when in possession, with Jeggo becoming a second striker, Carrusca drifting to the right and McGowan pushing forward from right centre-back

Carrusca continually drifted towards the right flank, into a pocket of space behind Broich and to the side of Matt McKay. Carrusca’s first instinct on receiving passes here was to immediately play forward into Cirio – combined with Dylan McGowan pushing forward from his right-sided centre-back position to provide support, it meant Adelaide had a quantitative and a qualitative superiority down this flank.

Cirio

When Cirio has played on the right in the past, he’s been ineffective. This is because he is naturally right-footed, and so when playing on the left, can cut inside onto his stronger foot in goalscoring positions. He’s not as natural when looking to dribble past a defender in a 1v1 around the outside.

This game was an exception. Here, with Carrusca able to play good passes into him, Cirio simply dominated Roar left-back Corey Brown, constantly dribbling past him and delivering dangerous crosses into the box. There were two cut-backs early on, along with a beautifully teasing cross from out wide that Goodwin blasted over the bar. This was Adelaide’s most promising source of chances.

Second half

The home side continued to have the better of what was an open second half, with both sides squandering chances. Adelaide’s 3-4-3 was the main contributor to the openness, as their numerical superiority in midfield meant they were able to get players (mainly Carrusca) on the ball in the final third, but also left them exposed when the ball was turned over.

After seventy minutes, Gombau turned to two substitutes – bringing on Mabil for Carrusca, with Cirio becoming the #10, and making a straight swap with Miguel Palanca on for Sanchez. Thijssen made a change of his own, removing Clut, shifting Broich central and bringing Jean Carlos Solorzano on as a winger, perhaps with the intention of adding more pace for Brisbane to utilise on the break.

By this point, the game had become very stretched. Perhaps fatigue was the main factor, as the play moved from end to end – it was certainly more open than you’d expect the two coaches to have been happy with. Adelaide’s set pieces were especially promising, with Goodwin’s inswingers forcing Jamie Young into some good saves.

The winner came from, ironically in the context of the pattern of the game, an Adelaide counter-attack. Thijssen blamed it on his side’s attacking intent, suggesting too many players had gone up for a corner. This left them exposed when Adelaide won the ball, and Mabil simply tapped in from a ‘typical’ Adelaide cut-back – perhaps most frustratingly for Thijssen, his side had defended well in these situations until that point, with McKay and Brattan ensuring that they positioned themselves on the top of the box to clear the cut-back.

Conclusion

This was an entertaining game, with a number of chances for either side and both having periods of alternating dominance.

Adelaide’s 3-4-3 was the primary factor in the tactical battle, as it meant Brisbane’s front three were able to press high up on the back three – leading directly to the first goal – as well as expose Adelaide’s lack of numbers in defence at counter-attacks.

When Adelaide could play through the press, they had free men in the wide positions of their midfield diamond. They looked particularly good when playing through Cirio down the right, and Adelaide had perhaps identified left-back Corey Brown as a weak link. Key to this was Carrusca being able to drift wide out to the right, where he could provide Cirio with good passes in positions where he could take Brown on.

It’s difficult to assess whether the quality of chances Adelaide created justified their openness at the back, and it’s hard not to think one of the top two sides would have taken greater advantage of how stretched the back three were at times. The 3-4-3 has been a useful Plan B this season, but it’s worth questioning whether its strengths outweighed its weaknesses here.

This is not the end of the season for Brisbane, with the final Asian Champions League group match this week, but it brings to an end what has been, in reality, a poor A-League season. They’ve regrouped under Thijssen but never been wholly convincing, stringing together patchy runs of form rather than genuinely returning to the consistent level of performance that won the Championship last season.

Tactically, their approach remains consistent, although they have become more willing to attack directly, and defend slightly deeper. The ‘philosophy’ remains key at this club, however, and next season will be about returning to previous heights, rather than tearing things up and starting again.

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