Brisbane Roar 2-1 Adelaide United: Berisha brace settles possession battle

Brisbane triumphed in a battle between the A-League’s two possession-based sides.

The starting line-ups
The starting line-ups


Mike Mulvey was with practically his full complement of players, so he named his strongest side – with Dimitri Petratos ahead of Henrique on the right. Corey Brown was a late injury replacement for Jean Carlos Solorzano on the bench.

Josep Gombau made one change from last week’s 5-1 thumping of Wellington, with Jon McKain returning at centre-back. This meant a defensive reshuffle, with Osama Malik shuffling across to the right, Tarek Elrich switching to left-back, Michael Zullo moving further forward on that flank and Cirio shifting inside to a central role.

Both sides made subtle adjustments to their tactics to counter an opposition strength, but although Adelaide controlled the majority of possession, neither team really consistently dominated in terms of creating chances.


The key issue in this game was possession – both sides obviously like to monopolise the ball, and it was fascinating to see who would be able to get an early foothold on the game and implement their natural game.

From the opening moments, it was clear Adelaide would win on this front. They completed nearly twice as many passes as Brisbane in the opening twenty minutes, controlling possession comfortably at the back so that we saw Brisbane defend for long(-er than usual) periods – not something we’re particularly used to.

Adelaide and Brisbane passes in first 20 minutes

However, Adelaide’s possession lacked penetration – they knocked it around the back four, trying to work openings through the centre, but happy to go back and start the move again if the forward pass wasn’t on. This is much like what the Roar do against the rest of the competition, and it was fascinating to see them on the opposite end of their usual approach.

Brisbane pressing

That was particularly the case because of how Brisbane adapted their pressing structures to force Adelaide towards the flanks. The key was Berisha’s energy – he works tremendously hard to close down as the lone striker, often racing between two opposition centre-backs to prevent them time on the ball, but here he was noticeably keen to go ‘around the back’ of them, practically forcing them to play forward and not allowing McKain and Nigel Boogard to hit square balls to each other.

The two Adelaide centre-backs often take turns to move forward on the ball and play incisive balls to the attackers through the middle, working the ball backwards and forwards in deep positions to each other until one has an opportunity to go forward – but couldn’t that here because of the way Berisha angled his runs.

Berisha’s pressing was supported by Brisbane’s midfield trio defending very proactively, cutting off passing angles into Cirio, Cameron Watson and Isaias by closing down quickly in the centre – on a few occasions, Luke Brattan was unusually high up the pitch, because Isaias was splitting the Adelaide centre-backs, meaning Miller and McKay could cover Cirio and Watson, and so Brattan, with no clear man to mark, could push forward to increase Brisbane’s pressure on the ball.

The result of this pressing was that although Brisbane weren’t winning the ball, they were forcing Adelaide towards the flanks, where of course, the angles for forward passes are decreased by the touchline – so although they dominated the ball, Adelaide weren’t really getting it into dangerous positions because of Brisbane’s well-organised press. Possession, without penetration.

Adelaide midfield tweaks

Meanwhile, Gombau made a tweak of his own, flipping the format of his midfield so that it was 2-1, rather than 1-2, without the ball – Cirio was a central attacker ahead of Isaias and Watson, with clear instructions to sit on and occupy Brattan when Adelaide didn’t have the ball.

The effect of this was that Brattan saw far less of the ball than he usually does. A reverse fixture between these two sides is an appropriate comparison – the midfielder completed nearly half the amount of passes here than he did back in December.

Brattan passes v Adelaide - Dec and March comparisonThis, too, restricted Brisbane’s ability to work the ball forward, because Brattan is normally free to drop off and receive passes from the centre-backs – but with Cirio sitting close to him throughout the first half, he struggled to get freedom on the ball.

However, Adelaide didn’t extend the midfield tweak to their own patterns of play with the ball – when in possession, it was the usual 4-3-3, with Cirio the left-sided central midfielder and Isaias the deepest of the trio (as discussed above).

For the first 20 minutes, though, there were actually very few chances, and Brisbane’s opening goal, from a neat cross-field ball by Petratos, came against the run of play both in terms of the game’s flow and its tactical features.

Wing battles

Another interesting feature was how little Adelaide’s wingers got involved, particularly in the first half. This was simply a case of Brisbane players being victorious in 1v1 battles – Zullo only got the better of Franjic once in the first half, when McKain bypassed Brisbane’s press in the 7th minute with a long searching diagonal towards the flank that saw Zullo cross dangerously into the area. Meanwhile, Shane Stefanutto bossed Fabio Ferriera throughout.

Meanwhile, Brisbane had that familiar playmaker-wide forward combination down their flanks – Thomas Broich drifting inside from the left, and Petratos playing more directly on the opposite side. Rather strangely, though, the former was dismal in the first half, frequently giving the ball away with sloppy passes. In a previous fixture between these two sides back in December, Broich’s movement inside gave Brisbane a 4v3 advantage in midfield – you feel like that could’ve been important here, too, had Broich not been off his game.

As it were, the one time Broich controlled the ball well when slipping inside into that left-central channel, he fired home a spectacular 35-yard strike that was wrongly disallowed.

Second half

The teams after an hour
The teams after an hour

Both coaches made changes at half-time – Mulvey because Franjic was forced off injury, replaced by Jack Hingert, while Gombau unsurprisingly introduced extra creativity with Marcelo Carrusca in place of Watson.

He also switched a few players around, with Zullo dropping to left-back, Elrich across to the right (his ‘natural’ side) and Malik moving into midfield, Isaias shift slightly further forward and Cirio go wide left, that too also being his normal position.

The fact Adelaide now had two ‘natural’ full-backs made a difference to their attacking play – Zullo and Elrich got into more advanced positions than Malik and Elrich in the first half, and this got the wingers more involved, with Ferriera cutting two dangerous balls back across goal from the right at the start of the half.

Then, though, Berisha doubled Brisbane’s lead with a stunning strike from the edge of the area – again, against the run of play, although it felt important that Broich had scored early from a similar sort of range, which suggested they were vulnerable to long-range strikes.

On the hour mark, Mulvey made a curious, seemingly rest-based decision to remove Jade North and introduce Brown (who originally hadn’t even been in the matchday squad), which meant Stefanutto went inside to left centre-back.

That might have been encouraging for Ferriera, but he was quickly withdrawn too with Awer Mabil coming on – a fairly basic change, as was the like-for-like swap of Michael Marrone for Elrich. The key attacking inspiration, however, was coming from Malik, who pushed forward from his new deep-lying position to become a late, unmarked midfield runner – coming close with a header off a Cirio cross, and later attempting a spectacular bicycle kick which went high over the bar.

Jeronimo pulled one back with a late screamer, but Adelaide didn’t do enough to recover the deficit.

End notes

An interesting game, if not as open or exciting as expected. Brisbane’s modified pressing, designed to force Adelaide wide, worked nicely, while the tilting of Adelaide’s midfield triangle prevented Brattan from enjoying his usual freedom on the ball – so both sides struggled to turn possession into genuine attacking play.

This was a game of narrow margins – individual errors and brilliance proving more decisive than the overall battle between the two systems.

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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