The league’s best attack met the best defence in an exciting, high-tempo A-League classic.
John van’t Schip made several changes from last week’s 2-2 draw with Sydney FC, with Ben Garuccio, Aaron Mooy, Erik Paartalu and Paulo Retre all returning to the starting XI.
Tony Popovic kept with the same team from their 0-0 draw with Adelaide United, with the exception of Jacob Pepper replacing the injured Scott Neville at right-back.
Melbourne City’s 3-5-2
The most significant outcome of the team news, however, was the inclusion of Jack Clisby, Patrick Kisnorbo, Aaron Hughes and Garuccio in the same side, which made it obvious City were continuing with the 3-5-2 that worked excellently against Sydney FC last week.
To give a brief recap of that game, Sydney FC dominated proceedings in the opening twenty minutes. They had particular joy creating overloads in wide areas, with the combination of Alex Gersbach and Andrew Hoole on the left causing real problems for the right-hand side of City’s defence, Matthew Millar and Hughes. Sydney were able to get in behind the fullbacks with pace and had a number of chances from cut-backs across the face of goal – only their poor finishing prevented them from taking a sizeable lead.
Van’t Schip’s reaction was to change to a 3-5-2. While on paper the lack of natural wingers in the formations theoretically meant they had less presence in wide areas defensively, it meant that the fullbacks – now wing-backs – now had the support of a centre-back able to move out and provide support, because of the balance and cover provided by having three centre-backs.
Furthermore, by virtue of having Bruno Fornaroli and Harry Novillo high up as a front two, City were able to generate counter-attacks by breaking into the spaces behind Sydney’s advanced fullbacks.
City’s 3-5-2 v Western Sydney’s 4-2-3-1
Buoyed by their much stronger performance against Sydney FC following the formation change, Van’t Schip continued with the new system for this top of the table clash. It had a significant impact on the tactical battle. With both teams looking to apply pressure high up the pitch, both teams playing with the ambition to try and build up from the back, and both teams counter-attacking smoothly, it meant the game was a classic ‘end-to-end’ affair – both teams had periods of control and dominance, creating lots of chances.
The start of the game was particularly characterised by high pressure from both sides. We know this season Western Sydney have become a proactive possession team, with Adelaide’s response to this last week to defend in medium block. Here, City were more aggressive, pushing right up onto the back four when Western Sydney had goalkicks, with Novillo and Fornaroli marking the two centre-backs when they split to the edge of the penalty box.
In spite of this, though, Andrew Redmayne still tried to play short, with Nikolai Topor-Stanley often dropping off quickly down the side of the penalty box to receive a pass from the goalkeeper before Novillo had time to react. With Mooy preventing passes into Western Sydney’s Spanish midfield duo, Topor-Stanley’s closest passing option was often Jamieson.
When this pass was made, City’s lack of natural wingers defensively in their 3-5-2 formation meant the player closest to the ball was the wing-back, Retre. Therefore, in keeping with City’s ambition to press high, Retre would often cover a distance of 20-30 metres to sprint forward and press Jamieson.
This became a theme of the game. The full-backs and wing-backs were direct opponents, and all four got forward throughout the game, creating dangerous opportunities. Garuccio, for example, delivered a fine cross from which Fornaroli’s header was well-saved by Redmayne. Barely a minute later, Jamieson was unpressured in a wide area and played in a dangerous ball.
City go 3v3 at the back
When City’s wing-backs moved forward to pressure the Wanderers fullbacks, it meant they were going 3v3 at the back. This was an aggressive defensive strategy and again was another key factor in the game’s openness.
The best example of this was the way in which Kisnorbo repeatedly came up the pitch to proactively defend against Mark Bridge. There was a moment on the half-hour mark where he dispossessed the left-winger deep inside Western Sydney’s half – certainly an unusual position for a centre-back to be tackling his opponent, and typifying City’s bold approach at the back.
Another example was Clisby’s yellow card, where he dives in on Dario Vidosic from behind.
While it was brave, though, it also was very vulnerable. Hughes, for example, was up against Piovaccari, and struggled sometimes in tracking the runs of the Italian – even though the striker isn’t the most overly mobile player himself.
The problem was exacerbated whenever Mitch Nichols’ made his characteristic darting runs forward. The Wanderers looked most dangerous when playing long balls in behind for their attackers to chase – Piovaccari slipped over after outpacing Hughes, Bridge had a volley that nearly chipped the goalkeeper, and then Nichols scored with a volley from a simple ball over the top that Sorenson fumbled into his own net.
City’s pressing creates chances
On the flipside, City’s pressure high up nearly created some good chances. An excellent example was in the 33rd minute, when they won the ball high up and quickly countered, with Mooy’s low shot well saved by Redmayne.
City also looked promising when able to build up past Western Sydney’s first pressing line. In the first half, the two wingers pressed on the outside centre-backs, which meant, as aforementioned, the wing-backs were often free. With Jamieson and Pepper having a lot of ground to cover, and wary of leaving space their centre-backs exposed 2v2 against Novillo and Fornaroli, Garuccio and Retre had time on the ball to progress the ball forward.
Sometimes, they looked to play passes inside to either Paartalu or Melling, who would quickly return the pass back wide. This would draw the Wanderers #6s (Andreu and Dimas) forward, creating space between the lines for the wing-back to then quickly play into Mooy between the lines.
Despite all this, City’s goals were relatively straightforward – the first from a direct free-kick, and the second from a two-pass counter-attack stemming from a Wanderers counter-attack. Nevertheless, they were still reflective of the game’s overall pattern of openness, which, generally speaking, meant their talented individuals upfront had more space to work in, and thus were extremely dangerous whenever City got the ball forward.
The major change after the half-time break was Western Sydney pressing higher up the pitch, and changing their structure slightly. Rather than having the two wingers press inwards on City’s outside centre-backs, they now sat in the space between the outside centre-backs and the wing-backs, preventing those passes into Garuccio and Retre where they had time and space. Additionally, Nichols moved forward and applied pressure to the centre-backs (rather than blocking passes into midfield), and the two Spanish #6s pushed up higher onto Paartalu and Melling.
This high press caused City significant problems, something Van’t Schip admitted post-match. It meant they were forced to hit longer balls from the back, and struggled to control possession and territory in the first fifteen minutes of the second half. Crucially, even though the two #6s were pushing up onto Paatalu and Melling and subsequently leaving Mooy free between the lines, City weren’t able to get the ball to their playmaker because of the pressure high up.
This tactical adjustment changed the complexion of the game, with the introduction of Romeo Castelen firmly shifting the momentum in Western Sydney’s favour. This wasn’t a clever tactical change, but rather simply about adding fresh, new attacking quality at a time when the Wanderers had a huge territorial advantage. Castelen’s first touch was to assist the equaliser, a dangerous low cross that Hughes put into his own net.
Following that, Castelen was consistently the most dangerous player. In the space of five minutes, he first got to the byline and played a great cutback, then had a shot well saved from which Bridge came close himself with the follow-up, before later drawing another low save from Sorenson.
With his side on the back foot, Van’t Schip turned to David Williams, bringing off Melling, moving Mooy deeper and shifting Fornaroli into the #10 position. This was an attack-minded move perhaps intended to get Mooy on the ball in deeper positions, where he may have perhaps been able to break past the Wanderers pressure. However, City’s best chances were on the counter, exemplified by the Novillo shot that hit the side netting – a simple 2-pass move that started from a long Sorensen kick.
Still not happy with the flow of the game, Van’t Schip then brought on Jason Trifiro for Hughes. At first, Paartalu dropped into centre-back, but it became clear City were going back to their usual 4-2-1-3. They simply seemed more comfortable in this shape because of their familiarity with it. Somewhat against the run of play, Novillo scored a typical Novillo goal, cutting inside from the left and shooting from outside the box.
City won it, but Western Sydney probably deserved it. The controversy about the disallowed goal aside, they created a large number of chances in the second half inspired by both the introduction of Castelen, and their high pressing block. This turned the game in the Wanderers favour after an even first half that City probably edged, with their 3-5-2 formation creating an interesting tactical battle in wide areas between the wing-backs and the full-backs.
An open, attack-minded game suited City better, because it meant there was more space for their attackers to work in. Their success is dependent on Novillo, Fornaroli and Mooy – three outstanding attackers who provide additional quality in attack that perhaps only one other side in the league can match. That was extremely clear in the second half, when City were on the back foot throughout and yet still scored thanks to some individual quality from Novillo.
Therefore, Van’t Schip might continue with systems of play like the 3-5-2 that fit this trio into their favourite positions with a large degree of freedom – it might leave the rest of the side more exposed, but it’s worth the gamble that Novillo, Mooy or Fornaroli does something magical, and allow City to win games by simply outscoring the opposition.