How Josep Gombau has already evolved the Western Sydney Wanderers

The big question surrounding Josep Gombau’s appointment at Western Sydney was whether he would evolve the style of play, or revolutionise it.

While the Wanderers started off as a high pressing and excellent counter-attacking unit, Tony Popovic shifted the side towards a more patient approach.

The style of play in his final season was about circulating the ball carefully from the back, before trying to penetrate the opposition by bringing the wide players inside into playmaking positions, who looked to play quick passing combinations to release runners in behind.

This tactical approach was evident even in Hayden Foxe’s interim period, with Alvaro Cejudo a stand-out. The Spaniard could start on either flank but drifted intelligently into pockets of space behind opposition midfielders (in the vein of Sydney FC’s Milos Ninkovic), where he could create opportunities with his clever touch and vision.

While Gombau’s general approach is similar – possession-based, build up from deep positions, try and win the ball back quickly – there are certain tweaks within that style of play that make him different from his predecessor. It’s the same tactics school, but there are different lessons.

The main differences are that he likes the centre-backs to bring the ball out from the back. Popovic’s build up was more about getting one of two #6s on the ball at the back of midfield to start attacking moves, whereas Gombau uses one 6, whose role is to facilitate rather than create.

I wrote three weeks ago that if Gombau was to make the expected formation change, from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, then either Chris Herd or Kearyn Baccus would be the lone 6, but Gombau sprung a surprise in his first official game in charge, starting Roly Bonevacia in this position.

The use of Bonevacia makes sense. The Dutchman is extremely calm on the ball, has an expansive passing range and can dribble past defenders with ease. The main argument against him was that it’s been reported he signed for the Wanderers on the assurances he would play in a #10 position (where he did in the first seven games). From a purely footballing standpoint, however, Bonevacia is a logical choice for the 6 role.

In the opening 20 minutes before Robert Cornthwaite’s controversial red card, the specific player tasks Gombau had given Bonevacia were extremely obvious. As Adelaide started their pressing from around halfway, in the same 4-4-2 shape we saw against Sydney FC in the FFA Cup Final, the Wanderers were able to start their build up high up the pitch, with the centre-backs and Bonevacia circulating the ball from the bottom of the centre circle. 

As the ball moves to one side, Adelaide’s first pressing line (a front two) shift to block the forward pass into the Western Sydney’s midfield. When this occurs, Bonevacia moves from the opposite side into into a position outside of the first line. This attracts the attention of Karim Matmour, creating a moment where a centre-back gets the ball with time and space facing forward.

This is a cue for a long, diagonal pass towards the wingers (who always position high and wide, up against the opposition full-backs) to try and create a one-on-one situation. In this instance, the pass is overhit.

In another moment, Bonevacia drops in between the two centre-backs. As Adelaide press with two in their first line, this allows the Wanderers to create an overload at the back. However, as the two 10s stay high, behind the double 6, it is difficult to play penetrating passes centrally.

Bonevacia gets free and looks to play another long diagonal. Raul Llorente receives and tries to combine with Jumpei Kusukami ahead of him, but the ball goes out.

The final example combines the two moments described above. Again, Bonevacia drops in between, allowing one of the back three to get free past Adelaide’s front two.

There is the long diagonal to the wide zone, but in this case, the full-back cannot face forward, so the ball moves back inside where the Wanderers still have that three-on-two advantage at the back. This allows Bonevacia to be free, who plays a long diagonal towards Jaushua Sotirio, who is unable to control the pass.

There are some key underlying themes in each of these build up moments. Firstly, with the 6 constantly dropping in front or in between Adelaide’s first line, there is a clear emphasis on creating a numerical overload at the back. This allows one of the back three players to receive the ball in time and space, where they can look for forward passes.

A second theme is the positioning of the 10s. In each moment, Jacob Melling and Alvaro Cejudo stayed high, behind the Reds’ second line (a flat midfield four). The 10s were occupying this space so that Adelaide’s midfielders could not move forward and pressure a back three player bringing the ball forward, without leaving a player free between the lines. The negative effect of this, however, was that it was then difficult to connect the back three to the 10s, because of both the large distance between those players, and also because they focused on blocking passes into those areas.

That leads to the third theme, which was the emphasis on long, diagonal switches of play. This is a fundamental concept of Gombau’s, evident even in his short time as Young Socceroos coach, and a significant talking point when he was in charge of the Reds.

Graham Arnold called them ‘long balls’, which was not inaccurate, but a more accurate description might be long ‘passes’. This is because Gombau’s intent is to pin opponents back by keeping his wingers as high and as wide as possible, stretch the opposition by moving the ball from side to side, then suddenly change tempo with a flat, pacy diagonal pass.

If the pass is good, it creates a moment where the wide player can take his direct opponent on in a one-on-one situation. That justifies the selections of Sotirio and Jumpei over the likes of Mark Bridge, or Álvaro Cejudo.

Where Popovic had the latter coming in from the flanks to create, Gombau does the reverse, starting the playmakers centrally and keeping them there, with the wide players providing the runs in behind.

The fourth, and perhaps most important theme, however, was that none of the chosen moments were truly effective. That is because the Wanderers remain a work in progress, where the ideas are evident but the execution was not quite right. The red cards changed the dynamic of the game, but in the first 20 minutes we could clearly see the dynamic of Gombau’s side.

How quickly they adapt to these new lessons will determine whether they make it to the school of finals football.

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