Contentious penalty decisions overshadowed what started as a game of great intensity, before the tempo dropped and neither side could find a breakthrough.
Jacob Pepper returned to the bench despite a good showing in last week’s 2-1 win against Newcastle Jets as Tony Popovic returned to what has been his preferred starting XI this season.
Guillermo Amor made no changes to his own recent winning formula, with Craig Goodwin keeping his place on the right wing, and Jordan Elsey continuing at centre-back alongside Dylan McGowan.
Adelaide’s medium block
The Wanderers are the form team of the A-League – unbeaten in nine, with a new system of play of effective possession starting from the back, building up attacks through their Spanish midfield duo of Dimas and Andreu.
Adelaide’s strategy against this was to defend in a medium block when the Wanderers were building up play from deep positions. With Bruce Djite applying some pressure to the two centre-backs, the wide players dropped back alongside James Jeggo and Marcelo Carrusca (Adelaide’s two #8s) to form a compact medium block. The block was positioned at the Wanderers midfield line (where Dimas and Andreu operate), with Jeggo and Carrusca stepping forward to apply pressure and prevent their direct opponent in the midfield battle from being able to face forward and progress the ball upfield.
On the whole, this worked quite well. Both Andreu and Dimas had one of their quieter games of the season, able to get on the ball but receiving it with their back to goal, finding it difficult to be effective in possession due to the pressure from Jeggo and Carrusca.
Adelaide’s wide players, Goodwin and Cirio, were also important because they tucked in alongside the two #8s and made the midfield line compact, while also preventing the Wanderers centre-backs from playing easy out-balls to their full-backs.
Another key component was Adelaide’s full-backs, Tarek Elrich and Michael Marrone, who stuck very tight to Romeo Castelen and Mark Bridge respectively. Both Castelen and Bridge come narrow during the Wanderers build-up, but Elrich and Marrone were happy to follow them all the way inside and prevent them from receiving the ball in pockets of space between the lines.
This did cause some issues when the Wanderers full-backs got forward. Scott Jamieson dribbled all the way into the box and nearly scored early on, while Scott Neville had some promising moments on the opposite side, but his delivery was underwhelming.
Nichols finds space
The main area of opportunity for the Wanderers, however, was when Mitch Nichols drifted to the space behind and either side of Isaias. As Djite was not always able to apply pressure to the Wanderers centre-back on the ball, both Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Alberto Aguilar had moments where they could step forward from the back and play penetrating passes into Nichols (the new-found ability of the former to distribute the ball has been one of this season’s fascinating developments).
Particularly in the opening twenty minutes, Nichols was able to receive balls in space away from Isaias and quickly turn and play early balls in behind Adelaide’s last defensive line. The problem was Adelaide was that if their two #8s had to move high up the pitch to close down the Spanish players, it would leave a large distance between them and Isaias that was difficult for the #6 to cover by himself. Two examples are shown in the video below.
Sometimes, as Adelaide wanted to stay compact, the back four was pushing high up the pitch to minimise space between the lines. This would leave a lot of space in behind, however, with Federico Piovacarri caught offside 3 times in the match.
Adelaide’s high line began to be problematic even when the Wanderers played simple long balls from the back – Nichols nearly got on the end of a Piovaccari flick-on, then Piovaccari himself got in behind and actually scored, but was flagged for a foul on Dylan McGowan.
Following this chance, Adelaide’s defensive line seemed to adjust and play slightly deeper. This meant rather than turning and chasing balls in behind, the danger was from the Wanderers winning second balls in attacking positions.
Adelaide in possession
It wasn’t all Wanderers possession – Adelaide had good chances attacking slightly more on the break, with Cirio hitting the bar and Marrone probably unlucky not to win a penalty off Topor-Stanley’s clumsy challenge.
They’ve had a good form turnaround in recent weeks – from no wins in the opening six games to three in the last five, primarily because they’ve become braver in attack. It hasn’t been through any revolutionary tactical maneuvers, but simply through returning to the key components of the Josep Gombau era – forward runs from midfield, and wide players frequently moving towards the penalty box. Both Jeggo and Carrusca now have more licence to make darting forward runs towards the channels, while the wide players will now come short to the far post if the ball is on the opposite side, giving the side an extra goal threat. The return of Djite has also been important, as he comes deep towards the play and holds the ball up.
A Goodwin header in the second half summed it up – Jeggo sprinted forward down the left side and received a reverse pass from Elrich near the byline, chipping a cross in towards the far post which Goodwin connected with, only to be stopped by an excellent save by Andrew Redmayne. It was the type of chance they created last season under Gombau, but the type of chance they weren’t creating at the start of this season.
Also important in this game was Adelaide’s commitment to building up from the back. Isaias often dropped in between the two centre-backs to make a back three, which gave Adelaide a numerical advantage (3v2) against Western Sydney’s first line of defence, allowing them to progress the ball forward more easily.
It’s worth noting that in this regard, Adelaide currently rely heavily on McGowan, who is purposeful on the ball and will drive forward into midfield. On the other hand, Elsey is weak on his left foot (despite playing on the left-hand side) and plays a high number of sideways passes back to McGowan because he is uncomfortable receiving and passing on his left.
Attack-minded game loses intensity
Quite disappointingly, this game lost its intensity in the second half, as the tempo slowed and periods of controlled possession became more pronounced. The Wanderers saw more of the ball, and were able to get their full-backs high and their wide players inside. The front four came very close to scoring from some clever, quick combinations on the top of the box, though the final touch was often lacking.
It also almost seemed like both teams agreed to make substitutes at the same time. Both made like-for-like changes in attack at the 65” minute mark, before waiting until five minutes to play make their second change. This summed up the cagey evenness of the game – cagey in the sense that both teams were reliably getting the ball into dangerous positions, but not entirely clear in terms of who could make the breakthrough, and thus, neither coach wanted to risk opening up the game too much with an attack-minded sub.
An even game, both in performances and results. Tactically, the main points of interest were in how Adelaide set up without the ball to prevent Western Sydney’s Spaniards being as influential, with Amor doing a good job of blunting their build up play while still retaining a goal threat. As the game wore on, the Wanderers enjoyed more possession and probably had the more dangerous territory, but Adelaide were never really on the ropes, remaining compact without the ball and then attacking with their usual possession-based approach.
It is probably more instructive to take a broader look at this game and at how both teams were quite clearly trying to build up from the back and play controlled, possession-based football. This contributed to the open feel of the game, and the overall positive vibe. It’s probably worth highlighting this game as yet more evidence of how the majority of A-League teams have evolved in their style of play towards what can be called the ‘modern’ approach – possession-focused football starting from the back, and collective, compact defensive lines without the ball.
There aren’t huge stylistic contrasts between the likes of Melbourne Victory, City, Sydney FC and the two teams featured here – their main differences are in formations, the structures they use in possession, and of course, the unique attributes of their personnel. Still, it shows how the league has developed tactically, and the direction the modern game is heading towards.