Brisbane became the first ever back to back champions with another late win in a Grand Final.
Both sides were unchanged from their last game, meaning Brisbane were in their usual 4-3-3, with Thomas Broich and Henrique flanking Besart Berisha up front, while Perth played 4-4-2, with Miller and Burns competing in central midfield.
A dramatic finish distracted from the overall poor technical quality of the match. Both sides were wasteful in possession and uninventive in the final third. This contributed to the poor standard of goals in the match: one was an own goal, the other a penalty.
Stylistically, Perth and Brisbane are extremely diverse. The Roar play a probing possession game, while the Glory sit in two banks of four, and either attack on the break or through the individual quality of their front two.
This lead to an interesting pre-game build up, where the focus was firmly on how Perth would contain the Roar passing game, and then in turn how Brisbane would deal with the quality of Smeltz and Mehmet.
In the first half, it was Perth who adapted better to their opposition’s strength, as Iain Ferguson ordered his players to press high up the pitch, and look to place pressure on the player in pressure. While they didn’t play extremely high up the field, the defensive line was looking to squeeze up the pitch in accordance to the ethic of the midfield and strikers. In particular, Shane Smeltz worked hard to stay goal side on Erik Paartalu – an important tactical factor. The only issue with Perth’s pressing was that when the defensive line wasn’t squeezing, there was space between midfield and defence.
This meant that when a Brisbane player, mainly Mitch Nicholls, or Thomas Broich dropping in from his left wing position, managed to receive the ball between the lines, there was time for them to pick out a pass between the Glory centre backs and full backs.
However the Perth defensive line was extremely well structured – they were tight, and were easily able to cut out any attempted balls. They were assisted by two factors: firstly, that Dodd and Miller were constantly working hard to assist their full back, and secondly, that the attempted through balls were extremely lateral in contrast to the diagonal runs being made by the Brisbane wingers.
Perth were very disciplined in their approach throughout the first half – they pressed when a Brisbane player was lacking supporting runs from his teammates, and they dropped deep when the Roar grew into a rhythm and steady possession. Perth were also highly aggressive in transitions, leading to a disjointed first half, exactly what Ferguson wanted – it slowed the game down, and didn’t allow Brisbane to settle into their rhythm.
Brisbane sit high
Brisbane’s approach to countering the threat of Smeltz and Mehmet was to play extremely high up the field – they wanted to push the two strikers as far away from goal as possible, presumably in anticipation of their aerial threat. The flipside of this is that it gave the attackers space to get in behind, but Perth struggled to gain momentum offensively for most of the first half, due to the wingers being so deep. With Burns and Howarth combating well in central midfield, the scores stayed level, and neither side showed much sign of taking the lead in the first half.
The lack of fluency in the game translated to a lack of Brisbane fluidity – key to their game is players changing position, and making runs in behind. At the interval Postecoglou was shown to be telling his players to “play their natural game”.
However, Perth would be the side to come out and break the deadlock, and although the goal was a failure to clear more than anything, the situation in the box came about as Mehmet was finally able to find one of his supporting wingers through the Brisbane defence, who were uncomfortable chasing balls in behind.
Immediately after the goal, Murdocca and Broich swapped positions, confusing Risdon, who had been having an excellent game containing Broich. Immediately, Broich put a dangerous ball across the middle from the right – this was symptomatic of what Brisbane was missing in the first half – stretching the play, numerical overloads and fluidity of positions.
Erik Paartalu is a key player in this Brisbane side – as the holding midfielder, he drops in between Adnan and Smith as an auxiliary centre back, and when in possession controls the tempo by switching the ball from flank to flank. Therefore disrupting him is pivotal to playing Brisbane, and with Smeltz pressuring him (which made Perth’s shape at times appear 4-4-1-1), he was unable to play his usual game.
His reaction to this issue was to generally move into a more advanced position, which meant he brought Smeltz with him into an attacking zone, which lead to more numbers for the Glory to defend with, while Paartalu himself struggled while in possession in the final third. This prompted Postegoclou into his first changes, introducing Brattan for Paartalu and Fitzgerald. This didn’t prompt a change in shape – Brattan went into the apex of the midfield triangle, while Fitzgerald went on the left, with Thomas Broich coming inside and opening up space for Stefanutto on the overlap
Brisbane improved as the half continued. This came down to their increased confidence on the ball, but also due to the Glory dropping deeper and deeper, looking to preserve their lead. Postecoglou looked to introduce fresh legs – these players had all played away in Asia mid-week – and Meyer came on for Henrique. Yet the Brazilian lacked from Franjic, who continuously came inside when he had the ball, leaving Henrique isolated on the right wing. It’s also important to note that considering the way in which Brisbane play, it’s not surprising they often break opponents down towards the end of the game: their incessant control over possession often wearing opponents down. In this game, moving Broich inside was crucial, allowing the playmaker more touches and more time to play penetrative passes.
Crucially, Smeltz stopped pressuring Paartalu, giving him time to calmly distribute upfield, and an equalizer looked inevitable. Ferguson didn’t overtly look to fix this problem – he was presumably confident in his player’s ability to hold Brisbane, but he was clearly concerned about the lack of pressure from his strikers, evidenced by the introduction of McGarry for Smeltz, and later, Scott Neville for Travis Dodd.
The shift in momentum was similar to last year’s Grand Final – Graham Arnold had taken a 2-0 lead, and instructed his players to sit deeper, inviting pressure onto the defence, until inevitably, Brisbane broke them down.
It’s twice now that a side has managed to stop Brisbane playing at their best in a Grand Final, but still managed to lose by inviting too much pressure. Brisbane will receive less credit for their comeback this time round due to the manner of the winning goal,, but it’s also important to note that here, they were less committed to their system, often losing their way with aimless long balls forward.
They were the best team in the competition yet were well below their best in the Grand Final. This was symbolic of the season in general – a lot of teams lacking any clear system or purpose, meaning an under par but well established side could win the trophy.