Sydney FC expose the gaps in Newcastle’s midfield

Sydney FC regularly exposed the gaps between Newcastle’s midfield and defence to dominate proceedings in a narrow 1-0 win

Sydney FC were far more superior against Newcastle Jets than the narrow 1-0 scoreline suggested.

Graham Arnold’s side had four times as many shots on target, and were on top for large parts of the contest. The gap between Newcastle’s midfield and defence was the main reason for this, and was the key tactical feature of the game.

Phil Stubbins set his side up in a 4-5-1 formation, with Edson Montano alone upfront. Newcastle’s two wingers, Andrew Hoole and Enver Alivodic, tracked their direct opponents, Sydney full-backs, into deep positions, while the midfield trio of Zenon Caravella, Mitch Cooper and Ben Kantarovski defended man-for-man, with Caravella and Cooper particularly keen to move forward and close down their direct opponents, Terry Antonis and Milos Dimitrijevic.

That meant the Jets were effectively man-marking in midfield – a tactic we’ve seen from then before this season, most notably against Melbourne Victory. In that match, they were able to successfully nullify the Victory midfield, preventing them from playing forward into the final third.

Here, although they were successful in preventing Antonis and Dimitrijevic from enjoying too much time on the ball, the Jets were unable to cope when Sydney’s wide players moved infield and created overloads between the lines.

Caravella and Cooper pushed up onto Antonis and Dimitrijevic, leaving Kantarovski - already occupied by Brosque - vulnerable to being overloaded by Ibini and Naumoff moving inside
Caravella and Cooper pushed up onto Antonis and Dimitrijevic, leaving Kantarovski – already occupied by Brosque – vulnerable to being overloaded by Ibini and Naumoff moving inside

Chris Naumoff, on the left, repeatedly drifted into pockets of space near the channels. With Alex Brosque occupying Kantarovski, and Scott Neville uncomfortable following Naumoff when he moved inside, the Sydney attacker was able to receive passes in front of Newcastle’s back four, turn on the ball to face forward and look to shoot on goal.

Naumoff between lines 1

This video highlights a moment in the game when Naumoff found space behind Kantarovski and was able to shoot from the top of the box. This example sums up Sydney’s most prolific attacking approach in the game.

Bernie Ibini, on the right, also found space to overload Kantarovski between the lines.

Example two

Ibini between lines 1

Example three

Ibini between lines 2

Sometimes both Ibini and Naumoff were free between the lines…

Example four

Naumoff and Ibini between lines

…and when Robert Stambolziev came on as a second half substitute, he too looked to exploit the space to either side of Kantarovski.

Example five

Stambolziev between lines

The narrowness of Sydney FC’s wide players is illustrated by the positioning of the passes they received.

Naumoff and Ibini passes received

The eagerness of Caravella and Cooper to close down Antonis and Dimitrijevic was encouraging in terms of the fact that Sydney found it difficult to play forward during the first half. Both deep-lying midfielders wanted to drop into deep positions to receive passes from the back four but often found themselves pressured and unable to face forward.

However, when Sydney did advance upfield – often when one of the two centre-backs carried the ball forward – Newcastle had problems, as Steve Corica mentioned on TV. In a rare example of one of the half-time interviews being of actual interest, the Sydney assistant coach said:

“They have made it difficult to play out – they are compact at the back and it is causing us a few problems – but we have sorted it out at half-time, there’s space either side of Kantarovski – we’re going to look to exploit that and then get in behind their defence.”

Sydney’s goal didn’t stem directly from this pattern of play – rather, Lee Ki-Je made an unfortunate error to allow Marc Janko to score – but they built up pressure on Newcastle’s goal by overloading the gaps between the lines.

Sydney’s tactic of bringing the wide players inside, between the lines, has been a common feature of Graham Arnold’s team not only at Sydney FC but also at the Central Coast Mariners. Nevertheless, Newcastle were unable to deal with their movement, and were consigned to an eleventh defeat of the season.

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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