In his first season as a head coach, Tony Popovic had a rare opportunity with the Western Sydney Wanderers that some coaches might dream of – the ability to handpick his entire squad and, by extension, mould the side firmly in his own image.
This meant he was able to recruit a specific type of player and play a specific brand of football, especially because the Wanderers had no traditional style or even history that he might have been expected to live up to. Brisbane Roar are a perfect example of this – no coach can now come in and play a deep, defensive 4-4-2 system, because their emphasis on ball possession has become so entrenched.
At the Wanderers, it was the complete opposite. Popovic could do what he liked, and even more helpfully, there were no real expectations on the side because of their infancy. With a squad of hard-working if limited A-League journeymen and cast-offs, mixed with some intelligent foreign investment, Popovic designed a hard-to-beat, aggressive counter-attacking team that were excellent at pressing high up the pitch, and dangerous on the break. In a competition dominated by teams trying to copy Brisbane Roar, the Wanderers structured, disciplined game was a winning contrast – they incredibly made the final in their first season.
The following season, with additional Asian Champions League commitments, the Wanderers became increasingly more defensive. The extra workload, and the threat of more technically-gifted opposition in Asia, meant the side begin to sit much deeper – there was less of the intense pressing, more of an emphasis on soaking up pressure, and very intermittent attacking.
It worked in Asia – at risk of over-simplification, the Wanderers won because they conceded very few goals, and scored from very few chances. It was, in the short-term, amazingly effective football, but wasn’t a sustainable approach in the long-term. The club clearly agreed with this, and promptly went about a massive rebuild over the off-season, releasing 13 players, signing what was in essence a whole new squad, giving Popovic a new long-term contract and reconfiguring the backroom staff.
Yet, on the pitch, as Kate Cohen explained for Fox Sports, the Wanderers didn’t revolutionise as much as they simply evolved. They’ve become a possession-based side this season, though we had already seen evidence in the past three seasons of the side becoming more willing to build up from the back as opposed to a more direct approach.
Nevertheless, there have been two significant changes this season. Firstly, the centre-backs are now encouraged to play out essentially wherever possible. They take up starting positions on the edge of the penalty area but are willing to drop down the sides of the box to create depth if necessary, often in situations where the opposition press high.
In response to this, opponents have taken to man-marking the Wanderers back five when Andrew Redmayne is taking a goalkick, to prevent the first pass from being short.
In open play, there is a clear emphasis on progressing the possession from deep positions. Captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley is the greatest embodiment of the Wanderers evolution – from the first season where he was simply a no-nonsense defender, he now brings the ball forward purposefully from the back, often driving forward into the midfield zone if Andreu or Dimas cannot get free from opponents.
A Topor-Stanley speciality is the long, penetrating pass from a deep left-sided position to the #9 (either Federico Piovacarri or Mark Bridge).
The second, and perhaps more significant change, is the personnel in the midfield zone. Going from the combination of Iacopo La Rocca and Mateo Poljak to an all-Spanish duo of Dimas and Andreu says it all, especially as the latter live up to the stereotype of their nationality – they’re both calm, technically-excellent passers capable of controlling the tempo of a game with a wide range of passing.
While both ty to receive beyond the opposition’s first pressing line, Dimas will drop between the two centre-backs – often when the opposition presses with two strikers, which means when Dimas drops in it creates a 3v2 advantage in Western Sydney’s favour, such as against Sydney FC.
Andreu describes his own role succinctly. “He [Popovic] told me he wants a number six in front of centre backs to keep the balance without the ball and to keep the balance with the ball. It’s important not to lose stupid balls in the middle. This is why I am here.”
The goal of all this build up, of course, is to score goals. A common pattern of play in this Wanderers system is for the wide players to start high up on the opposition full-back, then make a movement towards the ball when the passing lane is open between them and a centre-back. The idea is by dropping deep, the opposition full-back will follow the attacker up the field, creating space in behind which either Mitch Nichols or an overlapping full-back can exploit with a forward run.
Nichols’ has been hugely impressive this season, especially with his goal-scoring. These forward runs are something Popovic has brought to his game, and he’s been able to offer a strong goal threat (important in light of Piovacarri’s early troubles in front of goal) by darting into the pockets of space in the channels between opposition full-backs and centre-backs. Nichols’ movement often gives the Wanderers an added fluency, as he can provide width when Dario Vidosic comes infield.
The Wanderers have also become more comfortable when controlling possession for longer periods. Andreu and Dimas stay behind the ball in deep midfield positions and provide support for when attacks move into wide areas and the ball needs to be quickly switched to other areas of the pitch.
With the two midfielders providing protection, the full-backs are free to get forward and contribute to the construction of attacks. In this respect, the additions of Scott Jamieson and Scott Neville, both fit, mobile full-backs with contrasting types of distribution (the former tends to cross from deep, the latter delivering lower, flatter balls nearer to the byline) has been important.
Width from full-back also allows the three behind the #9 to interchange smoothly, with Castelen, Vidosic and Nichols often looking to combine on the edge of the opposition box.
All this isn’t to say that the Wanderers are now be-all and end-all when it comes to possession in the theme of Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar, but rather, that they have evolved in their use of the ball. They now have a clear process and method to their build up, with the three Spaniards representing the shift in style that Popovic himself described as not being a drastic change of direction, but rather the next step in what has been an ongoing shift.
“We made the decision that now was the right time to take the next step in our evolution as a Club and that includes our playing style,” he said in an open letter to the club’s fans.
“While we maintain the core values that are so important to this Club – the discipline, hard work, hunger and winning mentality – values that must always remain as they are the cornerstones of this Football Club, within that we want to improve, we want to get better.”
It’s too early to judge whether this change in style can take the club to the same heights in the A-League of their first two seasons, but there’s little doubt that at least, in the A-League alone, the Wanderers have improved on last season, both in results, performance and style.