Western Sydney Wanderers 1-0 Brisbane Roar: Late Ono penalty

As it were in the reverse fixture, a 1-0 win for the Wanderers over the defending champions.

The starting line-ups. Henrique and Halloran switched midway through the half

Tony Popovic made three changes to the side that was beaten last week by the Wellington Phoenix, with Youssof Hersi returning from suspension and Shannon Cole and Joey Gibbs handed starts in place of Tahj Minniecon, Mark Bridge and Dino Kresinger respectively. Aaron Mooy remains on international duty, so Iacopo La Rocca retained his spot in midfield.

Matt Jurman and James Donachie kept their starting spots in a makeshift back four as Rado Vidosic kept with the same team from last week’s 1-0 win against Newcastle.

The contrast between the two teams preferred style of play had a key role in the tempo of the match.

Wanderers approach

Tony Popovic has created an Wanderers side that is well structured defensively and plays predominantly on the break, funnelling play towards playmakers Shinji Ono and Aaron Mooy, who look to release the wide players down the flanks on the counter-attack. The attacking dynamic depends on the identity of the central striker: when Kresinger starts, there is more crossing from wide positions and more attempts at long goal-kicks, while Gibbs prefers to work the channels and encourages the wingers to come narrow into penalty box positions.

It was the latter who was handed a start here – with the Wanderers fans audibly in agreement – meaning that Hersi focused on moving quickly into central striking positions. On the opposite side, as a versatile defender, Cole was more concerned with keeping good defensive positions.

Brisbane approach

The Roar famously have a style centred on long periods of possession  and patient, intricate passing. The major change under Vidosic has been a more ‘direct’ approach, with the new coach keen to utilise Ben Halloran’s pace down the right side through balls into space played immediately after turnovers. Although that was a hugely successful ploy earlier in the season, most noticeably in the rampant 5-0 win over the Victory, it’s become less of a feature in recent weeks, because of a combination of both Halloran’s dip in form and improved opposition defences.

Despite these subtle tweaks, a three man midfield has remained a constant in both the Postecoglou and Vidosic regimes. The formation of the triangle has generally been a 1-2, with Erik Paartalu sitting at the base. Here, Vidosic flipped it, with Thomas Broich given licence to roam in a central playmaking position, Massimo Murdocca sitting flatter alongside Paartalu, and the two taking turns to move forward.

Formations benefit playmakers

Two similar formations, and two similar midfield shapes. However, Broich made more varied movements than Ono, occasionally coming deep towards the ball and tended to move into right-sided positions, whereas the Japanese playmaker focused on being free prompt counter-attacks. The chalkboard comparison below sums up this contrast neatly.

Both sides were vulnerable to the others strength. Halloran had perhaps the best chance of the first half with a tight chip after Broich had time to pick him out inside the penalty area, while Gibbs was narrowly caught offside chasing a spectacular Ono pass. Neither coach made an adjustment to the specific threat, contributing to an open first half with plenty of chances.

Brisbane playing out

Another key feature of the game was the Wanderers ability to restrict Brisbane’s abilities to construct meaningful attacks. This was something they did fantastically well in their first ever win, a match in which Popovic instructed his side to alternate between pressing and sitting deep. The strategy here was more about compactness between the lines, with Ono and Gibbs working as a duo to prevent passes being played into midfield.

That sometimes made it difficult for Brisbane to play out from the back. They looked better when Paartalu split the centre-backs to create a back three, creating 3 v 2 situations and thus allowing the spare man to move the ball up the pitch.

Attacking phases

Therefore, as one would expect, the game became about Brisbane’s long periods of patient passing and the Wanderers direct counter-attacks. Besart Berisha dropped deep frequently but this removed Brisbane’s threat in behind, a problem accentuated by Henrique’s peripheral performance. Brisbane looked better when something was moving beyond the Brisbane lines, as Berisha did early on in the fourth minute but was flagged offside.

There was a notable focus from the Wanderers to exploit the spaces around Brisbane’s two sitting midfielders near the edge of the penalty area, with cutbacks or dribbles inside often resulting in good opportunities, and Hersi’s fine strike that struck the bar was an excellent example of this trend. There were also promising signs that youngster James Donachie would struggle to track the runs of Gibbs, but the striker had a poor game and didn’t exploit this enough.


Combined passing chalkboard of Nicholls and Stefanutto

The second half resulted in a more prominent demonstration of counter-attacking v possession, with the contrast becoming more and more pronounced. The Wanderers sat a tiny bit deeper – a difference of five metres or so, as made noticeable by the positioning of the midfield in accordance to the halfway line – which might not sound like much, but it proved crucial in establishing Brisbane’s enormous dominance of possession in the second half, as summed up by the long, patient build-up from Brisbane in the fifty-third minute.With the Wanderers sitting deeper, there was less space for Broich, and there was little creativity for the majority of the second half.

There was a flurry of changes around the hour mark. Popovic acted first with Jason Trifiro coming on for La Rocca to add more legs in defensive midfield, then Vidosic introduced Mitch Nicholls for Henrique, in an intriguing straight swap. Nicholls has played on the left before and was presumably intended to add more creativity, but he tends to play narrow and congest the midfield further. On the flipside, this might have been intended to provide room for Shane Steffanutto to push forward, but the interim captain was unusually reserved and less attacking than usual – perhaps concerned with the makeshift centre back partnership of Donachie and Matt Jurman.Later, Popovic would substitute Cole for Minniecon, an attacking move, but the most influential substitution was to be Kresinger for Gibbs. The German won the match-winning penalty by virtue of his more physical style, and the sudden change in defensive strategy required was probably a key factor in Jurman’s struggles to contain Kresinger inside the penalty area.

End notes

The flow of the match had suggested the game would be decided by which side could execute their game-plan better, but it was the Wanderers ability to vary their striker that proved crucial. Late, attacking substitutions from Vidosic were a non-factor in the remarkeable late surge on the Wanderers goal, a period more appropriately attributed to desperation rather than tactics.

Berisha is a superb striker, but his movement deep was a problem here, as Brisbane didn’t have the style to take advantage of the space it opened up in behind. Vidosic was keenly aware of this as demonstrated by his frequent positional switching of the wingers to place them on the flank inverted to their preferred foot, but this was to little avail.


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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