A-League 13-14 previews: general themes

This site will feature in-depth tactical profiles of each of the ten teams for the upcoming A-League season, but first, here are some general themes.

Predominance of 4-2-3-1

Even Australia, on the other side of the world, is not immune to football’s tactical cycles. In recent years, particularly in European football, the 4-2-3-1 formation has become the staple shape, and in the A-League this season every team looks set to play a back four, three midfielders, two wide players and a striker.

Formational diversity will rely on movement, but even then, the style of the wide players is similar across teams. Pace and directness has become more and more prominent, with Wellington, Heart and Perth all moving for wide forwards over the winter – Kenny Cunningham, Iain Ramsay and Sidnei Sciola respectively will all dart inside into the space between the full-back and centre-back, and will be expected to contribute goals from wide. In that regard, Ange Postecoglou’s 4-2-2-2, with the use of two no.10s as the nominal most forward players, should again be one of the more intriguing setups.

Brisbane, meanwhile, perfected the art of dropping a midfielder into the back four to allow the full-backs forward, which creates a hybrid 4-3-3/3-4-33. Under Ange Postecoglou it was generally Erik Paartalu who did that but now Luke Brattan will be expected to become the pseudo-defender, which should suit his outstanding long-range passing. It is the same line of thinking that has inspired Frank Farina’s decision to shift Nicky Carle into a deeper-lying role, while Isaías Sánchez and Osama Malik will battle for that position in Josep Gombau’s first team.

Prevalence of ‘playing out from the back’

That, in turn, correlates with the widespread focus on playing out from the back. Last season, the focus on positive distribution out from defence was almost overwhelming – practically every single coach insisted it was part of their philosophy, even if that didn’t necessarily manifest itself in practice.

Some of the attempts from teams to play out from the back was disastrous – Sydney FC spring immediately to mind, which is why Farina brought Rado Vidosic onto the coaching staff for the new season. Wellington’s board, meanwhile, demanded a more entertaining, proactive style mid-season, which indirectly lead to the departure of Ricki Herbert. In many ways, the issue isn’t always with the defenders – often the problem was with the transition through midfield, with the back four often spending long periods in possession but unable to work the play past the oppositions first line of defence.

The trend continues in 2013/14. It’s become quite rare for a team to deliberately play direct, long balls from defence, and the overriding focus now is on short, tidy distribution, starting from the defence. Like with formations, it’s symptomatic of a global shift, as the A-League continues to keep pace with global trends.

Focus on defenders

Another indirect consequence of the focus on playing out from the back is the specific recruitment of experienced defenders. The list includes Kew Jaliens, Rob Wielaert, Marcel Seip, Patrick Kisnorbo, Nikola Petkovic and, until his sudden departure, Ljubo Milicevic – as well as Pablo Contreras, a rare defender-marquee. It is the arrival of the Chilean that is most telling, most illustrative of how teams are looking to shore up defences, after last year’s splurge on attacking players.

Better defenders don’t necessarily mean better defences, however, and it’ll be interesting to see if midfields are asked to sit deeper and protect the defence. The two sitting midfielders in ast year’s two most successful teams, Western Sydney and Central Coast, were rarely allowed to foray forward, often leaving attacks to the front quartet, and coaches will have observed that both both teams ended with the best defensive records.

Shift towards structure

That, in turn, is probably going to be the most overarching theme to the new A-League season: a stronger emphasis on structure and organisation. Whilst there were subtle differences between the Wanderers and Mariners, particularly with their patterns of play in attack, Tony Popovic and Graham Arnold are similar in the importance they both stress on two solid banks of four, and little space between the lines.

Compare that with the two teams that finished directly beneath them on the table – the gaps between bands in Adelaide and Melbourne Victory’s formations was at times, staggering.

It’s all well and good to pledge to play an open, attacking brand of football, but the key lesson, in tactical terms, from last season was that a structured, organised team can be entertaining, efficient and spectacularly effective.

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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