Sydney FC came from 2-0 down to defeat the Western Sydney Wanderers in a highly-charged, aggressive Sydney Derby.
Bernie Ibini and Marc Janko went straight into the starting XI after international duty, playing right-wing and upfront respectively, while left-back Alex Gersbach showed enough in his cameo off the bench last week to be given the start ahead of Matt Jurman.
Tony Popovic started his new foreign attackers in the A-League for the first time, with Vitor Saba the #10 behind Brendon Santalab, and Romeo Castelen on the right. Nikolai Topor-Stanley returned at centre-back, so Antony Golec went back to left-back – meaning it was the back four we’ve become familiar with from their run in the Asian Champions League.
As predicted in the Five Things to watch for Round 2, this was a ‘typical‘ Sydney derby – scrappy, stop-start and constantly broken up by fouls. The fractious atmosphere of the game inevitably contributes to this, and while the game was entertaining, both sides lacked fluency at times and were happy to play direct, long-ball football.
The pressing from either side was key to this, with both coaches keen to occupy the other’s deep-lying midfielders. From a Western Sydney point of view, this is their ‘classic’ approach – the front two, Santalab and Saba, started close to the two banks of four behind them to make the side compact, but when there is a backwards pass, a poor first touch or the possibility to win the ball, they press high up, with support from the wingers.
Here, they did a very good job of preventing passes into Sydney’s deep-lying midfield duo, Terry Antonis and Milos Dimitrijevic, but also maintained pressure on the ball by pushing forward to close down the centre-backs, Nikolai Petkovic and Sasa Ognenovski. In particular, they were keen to press aggressively on the latter, with Santalab often springing forward from a deep position to close him down, and being booked for one particularly vicious challenge on the defender.
The pressing naturally lead to Sydney playing a high number of long passes from the back, particularly in the opening twenty minutes – like against City last week, Antonis and Dimitrijevic struggled to get on the ball facing forward.
In terms of shape, Sydney were actually fairly similar – they’ve switched to a flat 4-4-2 having originally used a 4-4-2 diamond under Arnold, and here the front two, Janko and Gameiro, were instructed to drop goalside of the Wanderers midfielders, Iacopo La Rocca and Mateo Poljak, and prevent them from receiving passes. Janko’s early dispossession of La Rocca witihn 30 seconds of the kick-off set the tone for this tactic.
The Wanderers, however, want to play direct – they like to hit long passes towards the forwards and try to win the second ball, and naturally did that throughout this match. Sydney were fairly comfortable dealing with this attacking approach, with both Ognenovski and Petkovic dominant in the air.
Therefore, much of the game was about long balls going back and forth – very little possession football, and lots of fouls being won from aerial challenges. Therefore, set-pieces became an important element, especially with Sydney winning an astonishing number of corners (15). Their primary tactic from these was to drag the Wanderers man-markers (Mullen on Ognenovski, Topor-Stanley on Ibini and Poljak on Brosque) very close to the goalkeeper and goalline, and then whip in inswinging balls.
The main problem, from a Western Sydney point of view, was that they simply couldn’t clear their lines off these corners. This, of course, lead directly to the Sydney equaliser. Tellingly, just moments earlier, the Wanderers had failed to clear the ball effectively, leading to a goalmouth scramble.
A set-piece was also responsible for the two Wanderers goals. The Bridge volley came from the second phase directly after a corner, which explains why Gameiro was even in the box to leave Bridge unmarked, while the second goal was that farcical goalkeeping from Vedran Janjetovic, who flapped at a miscued clearance by Ognenovski.
Brosque goes central
A key moment was Arnold’s decision on 35 minutes to switch Gameiro and Brosque, moving his captain into a central role. Like last week, when using two ‘pure’ strikers upfront, they’d lacked a link between midfield and attack, with both forwards focusing on making runs in behind rather than linking play.
That had again been the case here, especially obvious because of the long balls Sydney were knocking in behind. When Brosque, became a #10, however, he moved between Poljak and La Rocca to become an option between the lines, giving Sydney three players in central midfield and allowing them to move the ball through the middle third far more easily. Simply having that link significantly improved their build-up play, and revealingly, their possession went from 52% to 70% in the ten minutes after the switch.
The game’s decisive moment, however, came when Saba was dismissed for a horrific lunging tackle on Antonis, taking his side to 10 men. Popovic’s reaction was to switch to a 4-4-1, with Santalab alone upfront, which had serious ramifications for their press – he lacked support, and the Sydney centre-backs were able to carry the ball upfield unmarked.
Furthermore, with just one forward to defend against at the back, both Sydney full-backs pushed much higher up the pitch, which still left Ognenovski and Petkovic 2v1 against Santalab at the back. With natural width on either side and lots of time on the ball, Sydney were able to hit clever switches of play to either side, getting both Gersbach and Ryall on the ball in dangerous positions.
There were two clear examples of this before the goal, shown in the video below.
This was a less entertaining tactical battle than the scoreline suggested, with the majority of goals coming from the set pieces won through the direct, long-ball tactics of either side. Western Sydney were more effective at using their press to force Sydney into this approach, but as the quality of that closing down decreased, the more Arnold’s side were able to get into the game. The positional switch of Gameiro and Brosque was crucial in creating that link play through the middle, and Sydney combined this with good use of width and quick passing after Saba’s red card to find a winner.
That’s twice now in two weeks that Arnold has had to tinker with the format of his attacking quartet to find that balance between ‘forwards’ and ‘playmakers’. They feel much more balanced when using a #10 behind a striker, rather than having two upfront chasing balls in behind.
The Wanderers, meanwhile, need to find that defensive cohesion again – like against the Victory, they struggled when Sydney were able to build up play from a deep position, suggesting that the press, although effective in the first half, needs to be sustained for a full 90 minutes.