Five things to watch: A-League Round Seven

Broich v Berisha, Newcastle’s new full-backs, recurring problems for Sydney and Melbourne City and the Mariners tactical flexibility dominate the talking points for the seventh round of this unpredictable A-League season.

Broich v Berisha, Newcastle’s new full-backs, recurring problems for Sydney and Melbourne City and the Mariners tactical flexibility dominate the talking points for the seventh round of this unpredictable A-League season.

Broich the false nine v Berisha the true nine

For three years, Thomas Broich and Besart Berisha were the league’s deadliest attacking combinations – Broich provided the creativity, Berisha finished them off.

At his new club Melbourne Victory, Berisha has continued in more or less the same vein with different providers – he’s had a spectacularly good start to the season, playing upfront in a 4-2-3-1 and playing his usual all-action, hungry centre forward role.

Broich, meanwhile, has struggled far more due to Brisbane’s overall malaise. Last Friday night, though, the Roar sprung back into life with a commanding 4-0 win over Newcastle Jets. The key reason for that was Mike Mulvey’s use of Broich as a false nine. By constantly dropping between the lines to create an extra man in midfield, Brisbane overpowered Newcastle in this zone and were comfortably able to create a number of chances – amazingly going into half-time at 0-0, but finding their shooting boots after the break to drum up a convincing scoreline.

Therefore, the reunion of Berisha with Brisbane sees a fascinating subplot between two former partners in crime likely playing the same position at striker, if interpreting the role slightly differently. However, both will cause problems with their variety of movement – Berisha’s so unpredictable in the way he makes runs in behind, drops deep to link play and sometimes even pulls wide, while Broich is clever at drawing defenders out of position with lateral movement from an advanced position into midfield. It will be fascinating to see if Broich can help create overloads in behind Victory’s midfield two, while Brisbane’s back four will inevitably have their hands full with Berisha’s dynamism.

This tactical battle is made all the more interesting by the fact before last week, the last time Brisbane used Broich as a false nine was in a fixture between these two sides in December 2013 – Berisha was suspended, so Broich played upfront and was magnificent at conducting Brisbane’s attacking play, simply overpowering the Victory in a 3-0 Roar win.

Will Risdon be influential again?

In last Saturday night’s fixture between Perth Glory and Western Sydney Wanderers, Josh Risdon constantly got forward from right-back to create a stream of chances that ensured Perth’s dominance of the first half. The key was the fact Wanderers left-winger Alusine Fofanah was constantly been drawn upfield to press Dino Djulbic, which meant whenever Perth worked past the pressure they were easily able to get the ball out to Risdon and Youssouf Hersi to create 2v1 overloads against Antony Golec.

The emphais on playing down the right was at times ridiculous, like Perth’s left-hand side weren’t even in the game. It didn’t lead directly to goals, but the right-sided bias was responsible for Perth’s high shots tally, and thus, their control of the game.

This week, Perth play Wellington, a side who are flexible with their formation having used 4-3-3, a lopsided 4-4-2 diamond and a 4-4-1-1 so far this season. The safe assumption would be that they’ll continue with the asymmetrical 4-4-1-1 used against Adelaide, where Roy Krishna tracked back quite deep to form a second bank of four in midfield, and Jacob Burns stayed higher up, basically as a right-sided forward. Vince Lia was the man responsible for shuffling out to cover right-midfield when Wellington were defending.

Regardless of shape, though, Michael McGlinchey should return to the side in the left-sided role he’s been played in all season. He’ll have an important job up against Risdon, who will look to get forward and combine with Hersi up against either Josh Brindell-South or Manny Muscat, depending on whether Merrick chooses to bring Michael Boxall or Tom Doyle into the side after international duty.

There are a lot of variables here, but the general concept – that Perth’s right-hand side will be dangerous up against Wellington’s left – is the most pertinent issue of this match.

New full-backs for Newcastle

Try, for a second, to guess the starting line-ups for both Newcastle and Western Sydney in Saturday’s afternoon fixture. If you get all 22 players correct, it’ll be a fluke. Newcastle, for their part, have tinkered incessantly this season as Phil Stubbins looks to find the right balance, while Popovic has been even more extreme with his player rotation, making nine changes to the starting line-up for last Saturday’s game against Perth, and then another nine for the midweek match against Central Coast Mariners.

Exactly what the tactical battle will be here, then, is unpredictable. What’s interesting, though, is that Newcastle have brought both Scott Neville (returning from injury) and Sam Gallaway (promoted) back into their matchday squad, with Sam Gallagher dropping out completely. That suggests we will see a completely new pair of full-backs for the Jets, something of a problem position for them this season.

First, David Carney was used at left-back, got forward nicely but probably left the side a little exposed, so Stubbins has increasingly preferred to use him high up. In recent weeks, then, centre-back Gallagher’s been pushed out wide, where it’s basically the opposite – rarely gets forward, and instead stays quite deep and narrow. Stubbins doesn’t seem to quite know what he wants from that position, but Gallaway might be a nice compromise as a natural full-back, capable of balancing both his defensive and offensive responsibilities.

On the right, the problem is more simple. Neville is the clear first-choice, but his troublesome knee meant Kew Jailiens was required to play at full-back against Brisbane. While the former Dutch international has experience in the national side in this position, he appeared woefully out of his depth against the Roar – constantly dragged out of position by the diagonal runs of Henrique and Jean Carlos Solorzano, and often guilty of moving so far infield he overlapped past Taylor Regan and broke the structure of their defending.

Whether Neville is fit to start is another question, but having a new pair of full-backs should help Newcastle find some fluency in search of a first win.

Early starters v late risers?

This is the first ‘replayed game’ of the season, with Melbourne City having travelled to Sydney in the opening round in what was an entertaining 1-1 draw, where David Villa scored a fine equaliser.

Since then, Villa has moved on, but the narrative for either side tactically has remained fairly similar. City have continued to start games very quickly, as if built up with energy and looking to expend it all in the opening quarter – often pressing very high up and attacking with pace. Then, fatigue seems to set in, as they have dropped off significantly in the ‘second half’ of each half in nearly every game this season, allowing an opposition fight-back.

We’ve seen it against Melbourne Victory, Adelaide United, Brisbane Roar and the Central Coast Mariners, and it’s demonstrated by comparison of their average shots v opposition shots in 15-minute segments (credit to @DougKors for the original idea).

City shots v oppositon shots

On the other hand, we have a Sydney FC side who Graham Arnold last week bemoaned his side’s recurring poor starts to matches.

“If you’ve got one or two players that looked flat first half, then you start thinking, ‘well, that’s OK – it’s only one or two’, but I thought everyone looked quite flat in the first half,” Arnold said after last week’s Victory game.

Centre-back Nikolai Petkovic agreed with him. “We should do better than the first half because really in the first half we did not do our best, we switched on in the second half,” Petkovic said. “I don’t know, it happens all the time, I don’t know what the problem is. We think about this and we have to talk about this.”

One explanation for this is that Sydney have relied upon tactical changes from Arnold throughout the season. At first, it was about switching Alex Brosque in the centre, but more recently, it’s been about the defensive approach – for example, against Adelaide, he initially wanted to press high up the pitch, but eventually realised they needed to sit deeper. Meanwhile, last week against the Victory, Peter Triantis and Alex Gersbach were called upon to solidify the side at half-time, giving the team the impetus to turn things around from a poor first half performance.

Early risers v late starters – ill the trend continue for both City and Sydney?

Moss’s tactical flexibility

Phil Moss has constantly been at pains this season to point out that he’s attempting to transition his Mariners side towards a new style of play. “Now is the time to work our way into a new cycle, with new players. We have to be patient, and let the process unfold. It’s important for us to be tactically adaptable, to learn to play in several ways. But our philosophy is consistent, of being confident with the ball and playing through the lines.”

That quote about being tactically adaptable is particularly interesting when considering how tactically flexible the Mariners have been this season, especially when comparing to previous years under Graham Arnold (who largely kept with the same starting XI, same formation and same approach, only making minor tweaks). Moss, by contrast, has switched between 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 and even a 5-4-1 this season, while also instructing his side to vary between a possession-based game, and a more counter-attacking approach. Furthermore, Moss also likes to create very structured patterns of attacking play in specific matches, like against Palm Beach Sharks where he asked Richard Vernes, Glen Trifiro and Isaka Cernak to rotate positions in the final third.

In recent games, he’s preferred the 4-1-4-1, or a 4-3-3, with Nick Montgomery a holding midfielder between the two lines of four. Against Adelaide, he will probably look to play on the break against a side that will inevitably dominate possession, and hope for a similarly effective attacking performance like in the 1-0 win in the Finals Series last season. Key to that win was the pace and power of Nick Fitzgerald and Bernie Ibini on the break, who carried it forward purposefully on the break. Perhaps with different personnel – although there’s a valid question about the suitability of Matt Sim to this role – we might see Moss plan for a repeat.

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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