Why are A-League sides attempting to play out from the back?

The biggest trend of the A-League offseason was sides pledging to play more proactive and retain possession. Hand in hand with this philosophy is playing out from the back, and that tactic was a recurring theme of the opening round.

Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane and Melbourne Victory all showed great commitment to playing short from goal kicks regardless of the opposition’s strategy, and it was the latter’s attempts to do so that drew the most attention. Ange Postecoglou’s success at the Roar was fostered on a commitment to fluent, passing play, and he instructed goalkeeper Michael Theo to play short whenever possible. This allowed his side to continue to monopolise possession, and implement their system.

That system, of course, was not original, instead stemming from the ideas and practices implemented by Barcelona, whose success is unrivalled; as is their ability to play out from the back. Not only is their model frighteningly efficient, it also makes for some extremely aesthetic football, hence why so many sides seek to copy it. When something becomes fashionable, the tendency is to try and copy it, but teams looking to play from the goalkeeper tend to learn quickly of the consequences of being weak at it.

Indeed, Postecoglou’s tenure at the Roar began poorly, with the 2009/10 season ending with five losses in the last seven games. It was his current side, the Victory, which illustrated the perils of his high-risk system when they exploited Brisbane’s dedication to passing from the goalkeeper in a 3-0 defeat in October 2010.

Similarly, his first game at the Melbourne Victory saw his side’s attempted transition to his preferred possession game ruthlessly exploited by a brave pressing strategy from John Aloisi. In this situations, it was easy to pinpoint what the problem was, and easier to suggest that goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas should have booted it downfield.

But that betrays what Postecoglou is trying to achieve at Melbourne, and Thomas was actually selected specifically for his ability to pass out from the back. “Lawrence is pretty comfortable with aspects of our game, particularly playing out from the back, and he’s a good keeper as well, but that is a big part of what we do and that gives him the edge at this stage,” said Postecoglou.

Eventually, the Victory will adapt to Postecoglou’s style, but somewhere down the track they will again be are caught attempting to play out from their own penalty area. But while it’s near certain that they’ll attract criticism when that happens, this overlooks the fact that by ensuring they keep the ball from goal kicks, they actually deny the opposition the chance to even compete for possession, and thus actually increasing the chance that they won’t concede.

By “playing the percentages” and clearing long, more often than not they’ll lose the ball as a result of the size of their frontline. The frontline that started against the Heart, Marcos Flores, Archie Thompson and Marcos Rojas, would never be able to compete in aerial battles. Therefore, ball retention is paramount, and it starts from the back.

Possession is equally a defensive measure as an offensive strategy, and Spain belie this: they play pragmatically, keeping the ball as an aim to prevent the opposition from scoring. As Sid Lowe put it, “If you don’t have possession, you cannot attack Spain…safety first is seen as hoofing the ball miles away. But it is safer to keep hold of it.” Keeping possession is crucial, and it’s become the desired way to play in modern football. But doing something in practice is far different from doing it theory, as Sydney learnt to their cost against the Wellington Phoenix.

Not only were the Sky Blues ponderous and narrow, they were also extremely poor at transitioning the ball from inside their own half. This can be linked to the patterns of play, or rather, the lack of. Again taking the Roar as the model side, they have very deliberate setup to ensure the goalkeeper always has a short pass available. Erik Paartalu, as the holder at the apex of the midfield triangle, would drop in between the centre backs, with the defenders splitting wide to the edge of the box.

The full backs would then be available on the touchline, and if a measured chip to those players wasn’t available, Theo would look for one of the central midfielders, who would be aware to their situation and ready to rotate with Paartalu. The latter’s clarity was crucial, and he acknowledges the importance of playing out from the back.

“We want to keep the ball coming out from the back or we end up like every other team just trying to play it long when we get in trouble,” he said. “It is a risk but it’s a great risk to take because if we can get out of those tight situations there’s going to be a part of the pitch that’s very open.”

Solid arrows indicate possible passing options. Transparent lines denote secondary movement if Paartalu’s initial run is tracked.

By contrast, Sydney never had a clear idea of how they were going to achieve their aim, and fault of this has to lie at the coach, Ian Crook.

He is, of course, limited by both late transfer business and the abilities of his squad, but too often Sydney were caught out technically (with Terry McFlynn’s first touch often back towards goal, thus giving his marker more time to press). The enforced selection of Paul Reid for Saturday’s match against Newcastle, in Terry Antonis’s absence, although in unfortunate circumstances, should be beneficial, with the former Adelaide midfielder more comfortable on the ball. Rumours of a move for Jason Culina would likewise help Sydney’s midfield problems.

Melbourne also had similar difficulties with their midfield against the Heart, and in specific regard to playing out from the back, both Leigh Broxham and Jonathon Bru tended to stay higher up the pitch, rarely dropping deep to provide an additional outlet for Thomas. Granted, this was a consequence of the Heart’s pressing game, but the movement was still poor and demonstrates a greater need to work on this phase of play in training.

The Victory’s next opponent will be Postecoglou’s former Brisbane side, where Rado Vidosic has continued to implement the high pressing game. Therefore, Thomas will come under similar pressure when attempting to play it out, as will his counterpart Theo, whose words from earlier this year seem thoroughly appropriate. “There’s a purpose to why we play out from the back and we want to keep possession. At times we make mistakes but that’s going to happen and we get on with it.”.

Further reading – Kate Cohen’s statistical analysis of Sydney FC

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.


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