Five things to watch: A-League Round Three

In a huge weekend for Australian football, there’s several tactical talking points from a round featuring not only a Melbourne derby, but also an Asian Champions League final where the Wanderers’ approach might finally prove unsustainable.

In a huge weekend for Australian football, there’s several tactical talking points from a round featuring not only a Melbourne derby, but also an Asian Champions League final where the Wanderers’ approach might finally prove unsustainable.

Does Arnold go with a #10?

A recurring feature of Sydney’s games this season has been the lack of a link between midfield and attack – the two striker format backfired against Melbourne City and Western Sydney Wanderers, with Arnold forced to introduce a #10 (Terry Antonis and Alex Brosque respectively) in order to regain balance in the centre, with the switch working successfully on both occasions. In Tuesday night’s FFA Cup tie against Adelaide United, Hagi Gligor, a clever, technical midfielder, played in behind Marc Janko, but struggled to make an impact – but it suggests, at the very least, that Arnold recognises the problem with his preferred 4-4-2.

With Corey Gameiro and Brosque in good form, it remains to be seen how Sydney will line up for Friday night’s match against Brisbane, but on the evidence of the season so far a player that can drop between the lines and link play through the middle appears crucial for Sydney’s success in the attacking phase. Without the ball, too, it might prove important, especially against a Roar side that will dominate possession with Luke Brattan instigating play from a deep-lying #6 role. Not only will Sydney’s theoretical #1o play an important role with the ball, it seems vitally important Arnold gets someone in close proximity to Brattan that prevent him from having lots of time and space on the ball.

Victory’s left-back problems

Jason Geria has started both Melbourne Victory’s A-League fixtures this season at right-back, and has impressed in both. His positive forward running has contributed towards their bias of playing down the right, and he’s also been very solid defensively, competing well against Craig Goodwin in a series of 1v1 battles in last Friday’s match against Adelaide United.

However, he is a doubt for the Melbourne derby with an ankle sprain, which might require a defensive reshuffle. In an otherwise strong squad, full-back depth is a concern for Kevin Muscat – he can either bring returning U19 international Scott Galloway straight into the side at left-back, or alternatively, use Dylan Murnane at left-back. Both cases require switching the impressive Daniel Georgievski over to the right, and while he might flourish with the freedom to push forward in support of the Kosta Barbarouses-Guilherme Finkler combination, playing an inexperienced player at left-back could cause the Victory real problems.

Damien Duff gets lots of service as Melbourne City’s right-winger because the right-sided central midfielder, Massimo Murdocca, pulls very wide towards the flank to both allow the full-back to overlap, but also to find space to feed Duff in behind. This combination was decisive in the first round match against Sydney, where Duff provided the assist, and again in last Sunday’s fixture against Newcastle Jets. Duff has been one of the most impressive players of the new season, and it’s not the ideal time for Victory to have problems in their left-back zone.

Asian Champions League final – how deep do the Wanderers defend?

Western Sydney Wanderers will face off against Al Hilal in the first leg of the Asian Champions League final at the same time as the Melbourne derby. The two leg format of the final poses an interesting question for Tony Popovic. It feels almost inevitable his side will defend very deep, as they have throughout the tournament, in two compact banks of four. This feels even more predictable against a team stacked with attacking riches, and a side so clearly the favourites – it’s the classic ‘underdog Wanderers’ situation.

However, there’s the risk they sit ‘too’ deep, as there always is for a side that plays defensively. The problem can be that you invite too much pressure, with the opponents given too many opportunities to attack, and this has been particularly obvious at times against Guangzhou Evergrande and FC Seoul, where they’ve been trapped inside their own area and forced into desperate clearances and blocks.

Over two legs, this approach can be unsustainable, especially if there is no lead to protect. Either the Wanderers will have to score early, or ride their luck once more.

Will Flores pick up Riera?

The Newcastle Jets struggled in the first half against Melbourne City on Sunday because they didn’t press high enough up the pitch, meaning Erik Paartalu got lots of time on the ball, dropping in between the two City centre-backs to create a 3v2 overload around the Jets front two, allowing the home side to easily bring the ball up the pitch.

At half-time, Phil Stubbins asked the front two, Edson Montano and Marcos Flores, to close down much higher up, with the latter sticking particularly tight to Paartalu, the deepest player in the Jets midfield. It worked much better – Paartalu got less ball, the Jets disrupted City’s rhythm, and got back in the game with a swift counter-attack.

Against a Wellington Phoenix side that will also look to play through midfield, the Jets might again need to press like this. Albert Riera, playing as the #6 in the Phoenix 4-3-3, is very intelligent with his positioning and moves towards space to receive passes in order to play forward – if the Jets don’t close him down, he’ll be able to establish Wellington’s dominance of possession and set the tempo of the game. It might be another big job for Flores, a #10 who will come into direct combat in a fascinating Spanish v Argentine midfield battle.

Do Adelaide go three at the back v two forwards?

In a season where a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 is the most common formation, Sunday’s fixture between Adelaide United and Perth Glory is a refreshing change of pace, between two sides utilising unorthodox formations. Adelaide’s 3-4-3, of course, has been the subject of much debate for it’s innovativeness, while Perth’s flat 4-4-2/diamond 4-4-2 is a more basic, ‘classic’ British system – it could prove to be the tactical battle of the season so far.

Put simply, when Adelaide have possession, they have three centre-backs – Tarek Elrich, Nigel Boogard and Dylan McGowan – providing cover at the back. As Adelaide have come up against three teams (in Brisbane Roar, the Victory and Sydney FC) that have played with just one upfront, Elrich has been able to push forward from left centre-back to provide an extra attacking option, creating a lopsided back three that is still defensively strong because of the 2v1 advantage against the opposition’s lone striker. This was most obvious when he provided the assist for Cirio’s goal in the match against the Victory.

Perth, though, present a different challenge. They use a hard-working strike partnership up front, which this week will probably be Andy Keogh alongside Jamie MacLaren (or else Youssouf Hersi). Again, in theory, it’s a 3v2 match-up at the back, with Adelaide having the cover of an extra centre-back – but Elrich’s tendency to push forward, and the fact Perth’s strikers work across the width of the pitch, often pulling towards the channels, means the formation battle may not be quite so simple.

Will a front two work against Adelaide’s 3-4-3? It’s the most intriguing question of the weekend.

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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