At the halfway point of the A-League season, it is hard to ignore the general gloomy feeling surrounding Australian football.
While Sydney FC is undeniably one of the league’s all-time great teams, there has been a distinct lack of consistency from other teams this season, with the exception of the Newcastle Jets. Melbourne City started brightly, but have since faded, while Melbourne Victory has played in fits and spurts.
Traditionally strong teams Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney have significantly struggled. Incredibly, only three teams have a positive goal difference (Adelaide, in fourth, are just +2).
That poor goal difference is somewhat indicative of a wider overall trend. Teams are typically taking a defensive, conservative approach, focusing on containment, rather than entertainment. This is entirely justified, as ultimately senior coaches are judged by results in a league that is plainly not about development, but it does make for less entertaining games and a general feel of reactivity.
It does not feel like teams want, or can, take initiative with the ball. The primary focus is to be organised defensively.
This partly stems from the success of Sydney FC. Just twelve goals conceded last season (an all-time record) was a remarkable feat, resulting from their supreme defensive organisation.
As discussed previously at length, Sydney defends very compactly, and apply pressure collectively, so they are capable of defending both high up the pitch or in deep positions, or simply protecting the space in between and behind their lines. It is a great tradition in the A-League that teams copy the tactics of the previous season’s Champions, which has been evident again this year in the approach that many sides have taken – focusing on being well-drilled defensively.
Yet an easy assumption that has been made from Sydney’s strong defensive record is that they are a defensive team. This fallacy ignores the fact that Graham Arnold’s teams scored more goals than all but two previous A-League Premiers (acknowledging the fact some of those came in seasons with fewer games).
While undoubtedly Sydney are strongest on the break, scoring a significant number of goals from regains in the opposition half (based on research by Ron Smith), that should not detract from their ability to break teams down. They have countless patterns and rotations in the attacking third to maximise the playmaking ability of Milos Ninkovic and Adrian Mierzejewski.
They also are able to get the fullbacks high up the pitch where they can deliver dangerous crosses into the box, or use the hold-up play of Bobo to get runners such as Alex Brosque in behind. Sydney has a variety of attacking weapons to complement their defensive strengths.
Does every A-League team have this? Obviously, it is harsh to judge all others against the barometer of a legacy team, but nobody else in the competition feels as balanced as Sydney in their approach. You cannot replicate Sydney’s defensive organisation without the variety going forward to match, which many teams have struggled to achieve.
Beyond this, though, the sense of stagnation and mediocrity also stems from a lack of bravery in tactical approaches. There are no teams really trying to do anything different, or, if they are, they’re not doing it very well.
Wellington Phoenix, for example, in using a 5-3-2 formation recently, became a rare exception to the widespread prevalence of a back four. They completely conceded possession (opponents Melbourne City had over 70 per cent of possession, despite averaging just 47 per cent so far this season) but the Phoenix still lost 2-1.
The Central Coast Mariners, meanwhile, have been brave in trying to play Paul Okon’s high-possession style of football, always looking to build up from the back and create goals from long, neat and intricate passing combinations. Yet they’ve struggled on two fronts: to consistently be incisive with their possession and to defend against quick counter-attacks. As a result, they are entertaining to watch but one of the weaker sides in the competition.
Yet the Mariners are persistent in their style of play, which perhaps explains why they seem to be more liked by neutrals than most teams. There is something endearing about a team having a clear idea, or clear beliefs, and sticking to these.
It is possibly why fans seem more attached to the great Brisbane Roar team, even though the current Sydney team are smashing the records set by Ange Postecoglou’s side. There is a sentimentality in remembering the way they changed the tactical landscape of the game in Australia.
In reality, we cannot expect A-League teams to push tactical boundaries when considering the quality of players, the salary cap and the nature of the league in comparison to major football leagues.
Nevertheless, it would be refreshing to see clubs stray from the vanilla. In many ways, the parity created by the aforementioned contextual factors means that anyone who strays from the norm (and does it well) can achieve great success because it would be at odds to the majority of what the other teams are doing.
The reason why clubs don’t do this is because it is risky, and does not guarantee success – but if we currently have a competition with a clear runaway team showing very little sign of being stopped, a few teams fighting for second and the rest scrapping away for a spot in a finals series that rewards losing more games than you win, what is there to lose?