Jason Culina’s return could prompt Sydney’s tiki-taka promise

The signing of Jason Culina may prove pivotal to Sydney’s season.

The thirty two year old has signed for the Sky Blues on a one year contract following eighteen months of lengthy rehabilitation on a knee injury suffered during the 2011 Asian Cup. The former PSV midfielder had been training with Ian Crook’s side throughout pre-season working with club physio Stan Ivancic to prove his fitness.

His first game for Sydney will not be his first in the A-League. Instead, Culina first appeared in Australia’s domestic competition in the yellow and blue strip of the now-defunct Gold Coast United as the club’s marquee signing. Culina was a standout, with his vision and technical ability allowing him to take control over games and steer his side to finals football.

Culina then signed for Newcastle Jets, infamously working with his father Branko Culina, before suffering a further setback to his knee and being ruled out of the entire 2011/12 season. In that time, it has been easy to forget what Culina brought to the competition, an intelligent and versatile midfielder whose ball distribution was crucial to Miron Bleiberg’s flexible system.

It is those attributes that make him so valuable to his new side. Ian Crook’s appointment in the off-season heralded a change of playing philosophy for Sydney as the club looked to move away from the conservative and reactive tactics of the predecessor, Vitezslav Lavicka to a more proactive, possession based game.

In possession-based sides, midfield is the most important zone as the heartbeat of the side, responsible for ball retention and transitioning defence into attack. Last week against the Phoenix, Sydney fielded Terry Antonis and Terry McFlynn as the midfield pairing in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the duo’s inability to keep the ball under the pressure a vital factor in their disappointing 2-0 defeat. Antonis is technically able but is better suited in an attacking midfield role, while the captain McFlynn is more of a pure holder: combative and aggressive, but lacking the calm and intelligent passing required to play Crook’s desired type of football.

This is where Culina’s signature could prove pivotal. He is able to play in any role in midfield, but will most likely play in the pivot, looking to collect the ball and spread it to the flanks or vertically towards Alessandro Del Piero. The Italian is clearly Sydney’s biggest asset, and they need to ensure the marquee is provided with as much ball as possible. Too often, Del Piero was seen dropping deep against the Phoenix, removing his ability to play in between the opponent’s lines of midfield and defence. Culina clearly understands his role. “As a holding midfielder you’re expected to be involved all the time, picking ball up from defence, starting up play and dictating the tempo of the game.” Culina isn’t just a holding midfielder – he has a keen understanding of the game and can play in both shuttling and advanced midfield positions. This clarity is crucial. Last season, Sydney changed formation from game to game and lacked cohesion. Now they have a number of options to fit a particular type of system, and the onus is on Crook to ensure his players have a complete understanding of what is required.

Culina’s arrival could also be crucial for Sydney’s other marquee, Brett Emerton. The two were frequent teammates in the Socceroos and with Emerton playing in a new right-back role this season, Culina’s defensive discipline will allow Emerton to push forward and make more aggressive runs down the flank. The defenders tendency to move inside against the Phoenix contributed to Sydney’s congested play and by instructing him to play in more advanced positions, Sydney will be playing Emerton in his natural position and thus increasing the size of the active playing zone and stretch opposition defences.

Of course, Culina’s impact is reliant on other factors; with his fitness an obvious issue, but Sydney also have other options, with Paul Reid another option in Crook’s midfield. The former Adelaide player seems set to take Antonis’s spot tomorrow night and in front of a bumper crowd anticipating much from the two marquees, Reid could be the game’s decisive factor. “It’s about being confident to get on the ball and pass it, but also to go after the ball in difficult situations,” says Reid. “Alessandro gets in really good positions and the more we can find him the better we’ll be. It will take time to get on the same page as Alessandro but he does suit my style of play.” Ultimately, Sydney’s season will come down to how well the team integrates with Del Piero. It would be dramatic to completely overhaul the midfield by starting Culina and Reid ahead of Antonis and McFlynn tomorrow night, and it is expected that McFlynn will retain his starting spot, but with the former pairing far more comfortable in what Crook is trying to achieve, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them become Sydney’s first choice midfielders.

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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