If Josep Gombau’s first season at Adelaide United was about revolution, this year is firmly about evolution.
His appointment signalled a radical change of direction by the club, with a clear remit for Gombau to implement a “Barcelona-lite” system. This would become the club’s definitive identity. “I want to make Adelaide United play one football style,” he said in his first press conference, a message that has been constantly repeated and re-emphasised throughout his tenure. It’s been all about cultivating a style that is distinctively “Adelaide”, although the irony is that in reality, they’ve copied another club’s identity rather than carving out their own.
That club is, of course, Barcelona, where Gombau worked for six years as a youth coach between 2003 and 2009. It was there he completed the UEFA Pro Diploma, making him one of the most qualified coaches in the league. After four years working in Hong Kong at Kitchee, Gombau came to Australia, quickly becoming one of the competition’s cult figures. His manic celebrations, at-times insufferable loyalty to his system and most of all, that infamous “shit goalkeeper” remark made him a divisive figure, especially after Adelaide went ten games without a win at the start of the season – but as their fortunes improved, so did Gombau’s popularity.
By the end of the season, his side were widely acclaimed for their entertaining, idealistic style of football, and Gombau was popular enough to be voted the coach of the A-League All-Stars. It was a drastic turnaround, but a ridiculous one in many ways, for it was obvious the sweeping changes he was looking to effect would take time to implement. The rush to criticise him from elements of the media was bizarre. It seemed much of the criticism stemmed from Gombau’s pointed comments about a lack of relegation, which he admitted left him free to focus on the long-term development of the side ahead of short-term gains – many fans and journalists didn’t seem to take kindly to the idea of “writing off” a season, though.
Gombau always reiterated that the second season would be a title challenge, though. Having won over the fans and media, he must now deliver on his promise.
What then, exactly, constitutes the Adelaide system? In broad terms, it’s possession-based, with the passing kept short and tidy even in deep positions and worked forward from the back. Patience with the ball is emphasised, and the 4-3-3 formation is constant, with a trio of midfielders allowing the side to theoretically dominate the centre. Gombau rarely wavered from this, and these features were a constant of Adelaide’s play throughout the season. We became very familiar with his first-choice side, and their particular patterns of play.
While Adelaide borrow heavily from the ‘original’ Barcelona template in many aspects – such as dropping the holding midfielder, Isaias Sanchez, in between the centre-backs to create a back three and allow the full-backs to push on (just as Sergio Busquets does) – they also have their own interpretations of certain elements in attacking play. Whereas Pep Guardiola (the pioneer of the ‘Barcelona’ template that we refer to, and who Gombau worked under) structured his attack around the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, Gombau doesn’t have that luxury – so he instead, he used either Bruce Djite or Jeronimo Neumann upfront, effectively as a target man. Djite, in particular, became adept at coming short towards the play to hold up the ball, and inviting attackers forward.
The crucial difference, however, was in the positioning of the wide players. Whereas Barcelona ask their wide players to make diagonal runs in behind, Cirio and Fabio Ferriera stay wide and receive passes into feet, looking to take on opposition full-backs 1v1. Furthermore, Gombau’s also made a slight modification to the format of the midfield triangle. Instead of a 1-2 format like Barcelona, he uses a 2-1 (so sometimes the formation appears 4-2-1-3), which accommodates Marcelo Carrusca in a roving #10 role at the tip of the triangle. Carrusca’s a wonderfully intelligent playmaker and drifts laterally towards the sides to find space, and is central to the technical style of play Gombau has encouraged.
This season, we can expect many of these patterns to continue when Gombau uses his standard 4-3-3, with the full season of familiarisation meaning the emphasis will now be on increasing the speed of decision making. Gombau corroborated as much in an interview with Football Central, saying “we need to make the same movements but faster, this for me is where I am more concentrating.”
However, an even more fascinating development of the off-season has been his desire to implement a new 3-4-3 system. Again, the interview with Football Central is the source. “At Barca we worked two styles, two systems. One is 1-4-3-3, one is 1-3-4-3…this depends how many strikers that they (the opposition) have…I want to work in 1-3-4-3 for these games were the other team just defends, they don’t allow us spaces.”
True to his word, much of pre-season has been focused around deploying this new formation, with one friendly actually conducted behind closed doors specifically so the side could work on it. It’s very Barcelona-esque, especially true to form of the Guardiola era, who constantly tinkered with his side’s shape to try and coax the best out of his players. This is obvious in the Spaniard’s current job at Bayern Munich, where he’s altered the previous 4-2-3-1 system – one that won the German treble – to a 4-3-3 in his first season, and now to a 3-4-3 in his second season. He followed a similar curve when in charge of Barcelona, using 4-3-3 in his first two years, before becoming more and more unorthodox in regards to formation in his final season.
While the positions may change, though, the principles remain intact. No matter what shape Gombau uses, his side will still look to keep possession wherever possible. The differences, rather, are positional. As he suggests in the quote above, a 3-4-3 works well against teams that play with two strikers, because it allows for tight marking as well as a spare man defensively. Marcelo Bielsa, a deeply idealistic football manager and one of Guardiola’s mentors, often switches between three and four-man backlines depending on the format of the opposition’s attackers, and we may see something similar from Gombau this season.
The ramifications of three centre-backs are also significant when Adelaide have possession. Last season, many teams often allowed the two centre-backs to have time on the ball, but stayed very compact to prevent them from passing through them. While Jon McKain, Osama Malik and Nigel Boogard were all comfortable bringing the ball forward, and were capable of sometimes being incisive enough with their passing, it’s clear this is still something Gombau is keen to address.
A three-man backline would provide enough cover that one of these defenders could push forward on the ball and be more aggressive with their forward running, thus providing a potential solution in games where Adelaide lack penetration. Dylan McGowan, a local boy signed during the off-season, is ideal for this – he’s very confident on the ball and brings it out from the back purposefully.
Furthermore, the three-man backline allows the full-backs – who become wing-backs – to push higher up the pitch. This would seem to perfectly suit new signing Craig Goodwin, a left-winger at Newcastle who can play at left-back. Left wing-back, thus, is the perfect compromise. On the right would be presumably Michael Marrone or Tarek Elrich, although the latter has been used as a centre-back in pre-season, while Scott Nagel and Bruce Kamau, players from the youth academy, have also been given opportunities in these positions.
The flow-on effect of these wing-backs is to allow the front three to play much narrower and closer to each other. This would seem to suit Cirio, in particular, who’s more of a goal threat than Fabio Ferriera and naturally makes well-timed runs into the area from a left-sided position. New signing Pablo Sanchez is similar, and could play from the right, although Fabio Ferriera shone last season with his direct dribbling down the flank. Awer Mabil, too, is another option upfront, and he can play from either side with his electric pace. Adelaide have lots of similar options in these wide positions, and Gombau will probably simply favour the player in form.
The only player who doesn’t seem to benefit from the 3-4-3 system is Carrusca, who would have to play a slightly deeper role as one of two central midfielders. Instead, Gombau has preferred Jimmy Jeggo when using the new formation in pre-season, and the former Victory midfielder seems ideal for the system – full of energy and running, technically sound, young and with lots of potential. He’s exactly the sort of player, like Cameron Watson and Michael Zullo, who Gombau seems to get the best out of.
It’s very easy to get excited about Gombau’s Adelaide, because not only has he clearly improved the side as a whole, introducing a structure and consistency to the way they play, but he’s also simply improved several individual players. He’s complemented the foreign contingent (who are the key attacking players) with a variety of local South Australians, many of whom had stuttering careers before Gombau arrived. It’s all part of his missive, of course. This isn’t just about finding success with the first team, but about constructing a long-term project to overhaul and maintain Adelaide’s identity.
To this end, he’s implemented many of the concepts of Barcelona’s youth development, such as the appointment of technical director Guillermo Amor, and plans to create a pathway from the youth sides all the way to the first team, with the same playing style implemented at each age group.
It is with the senior side, however, that he will be judged this season. He has shaped the club firmly in his image – now, the challenge is to prove he can succeed with it.