Leopold Method analysts have dissected the strengths and weaknesses of Sydney FC since the pre-season. One analyst who has been close to the action, Kate Cohen, sat down with Frank Farina to discuss his system, tactics and player selections.
Leopold Method: You mentioned in your latest blog that no one had asked the reasons behind starting Nick Carle in the ‘Number 6’ role. So to start off, what was the reasoning behind starting the season with Carle in that role?
Frank Farina: I think the main reason was, with us trying to play out from the back, the need for good ball players in key roles. And the ‘Number 6′ role is a key role. When we started to talk about the centre halves splitting and going into the fullback areas, you need someone to fill in between the centre halves. To do that you need someone who is comfortable on the ball and a good passer and Nicky fitted the bill in that sense.
For him, he’s worked hard there but obviously he has had different roles before. That [‘Number 6’] role is more structured as well, in terms of the expectations, the rotations and the structure you have to play.
But basically, whether it is Nicky or someone else, you want that from your ‘6’. Then once you break the first line [of the opposition], the ‘6’ [can] move into the midfield. So we work on it in segments and try to get past that first line of defence.
That first line of defence is normally three people, so we want to have a situation where we always outnumber the three. Then once the ball is played into that second zone, then we want the ‘6’ to come in and work rotations with the two ‘10s’ or the ‘8’ and the ‘10’.
LM: When pre-season started, Sydney started with the 4-3-3 formation, but then by the time the A-League season started you had moved to having two players sitting (in a 4-2-3-1), so why the change from pre-season coming into the season?
FF: I think with the 4-3-3, if you are going to play with the three up front ideally you would like to have two out and out wingers who are very quick but also technically good too. But we thought, with the personnel that we have available, that we would have to change to accommodate what we had and what would best suit us.
In this competition, particularly for us, it is about results. So really, it is about doing whatever it takes to get the job done. [Josep] Gombau said that in a different manner because he had a three year contract and they had bought into the long term plan. So he said at the beginning “there’s no promotion or relegation so we are just going to work on certain things” and after the first ten rounds it has turned around for him, for whatever reasons.
Even some of the games that we have won, I didn’t feel like we played exceptionally well – I mean the [Melbourne] Heart game away from home was probably one of the best and Perth away from home as well.
At the end of the day, I have gone for [a formation that suits] whatever personnel we have got, what is available and how we can accommodate certain types of things and to get the result.
For example, people spoke about playing Matt Jurman at left fullback on the weekend (against Perth Glory) but he did exceptionally well, as did young Aaron Calver who I thought was great as well. So defensively they were both solid and that was what we were looking for.
There is that sort of pressure, like I said, where you have to win. You have to win. And that is pressure in itself on players, but I thought they did well.
In this competition, particularly for us, it is about results. So really, it is about doing whatever it takes to get the job done. [Josep] Gombau said that in a different manner because he had a three year contract and they had bought into the long term plan.
LM: When you had the two deeper midfielders [in a 4-2-3-1], there was always that one player that would drop in to form a back three. Was that done so Sydney always had extra numbers back when you were playing out?
FF: Yes pretty much – to make sure we always outnumbered the opposition more often than not even with the three strikers that are defending. Also, it enables us to get our two fullbacks to push high and then the ‘Number 6’ comes into the deeper position and you have your two stoppers who would split. So you would have three plus the two fullbacks who are not pushed right up but to create triangles.
So if the ‘Number 6’ comes into the right back role [like what occurred in the 4-2-3-1] then we try to get our rotations going which are: the ‘6’ gets [the ball], the ‘10’ comes short and the fullback pushes forward. So we are always trying to create those triangles.
So the ‘6’ can move into the fullback role or in between the two stoppers, but that is to really outnumber the opposition and play through that [first] line. Once we get through that [first] line, then we want to move into midfield where it is again all about rotation and moving into certain areas.
LM: One thing that was noticeable, especially at the start of the season, when the six dropped in and formed a back three, Sydney often lacked numbers in the centre of midfield which forced them to play out through the fullbacks. Was that one of the factors behind changing to the midfield diamond – to get more numbers in midfield?
FF: Pretty much. We changed to the diamond because I felt we had to at the time.
Let’s face it, 99 times out of a hundred the game is won in the middle of the park.
LM: So was that also to suit the players?
LM: Throughout the season the team has suffered a lot of injuries to key players at unfortunate times – McFlynn, Emerton, Del Piero etc. How much have those injuries to important players affected how you want the team to play?
FF: In a big way. The real blow was when we lost Terry Antonis before the season, Peter Triantis before the season and Rhyan Grant. I jokingly refer to them as my ‘dogs’ because they will run all day and chase everything. We lost all three of them, and when you talk about mobility, we lost a lot of that which was disappointing. Every team has situations with injuries but it was disappointing to lose those three.
LM: Back to Nick Carle, when you made the decision to move him into the ‘Number 6’ role to play out from the back as opposed to a more counter attacking game, did you think it suited the players to play that way?
FF: Yeah, we wanted the ability to play out from the back but it is not always going to happen because teams in the A-League, all across the board, press. So, I think the team needs more strings to their bow.
We saw Melbourne Victory when they played against us conceded the last two goals after poor mistakes when trying to play out from the back.
But again, we wanted the ability to be able to [play out] if and when we needed to. It’s also good to have that ability because if you go one or two nil up you have to have the ability to hold the ball. So in those key midfield roles – ‘6’, ‘8’, ’10’ – you have to have players that are comfortable with possession in tight areas. Nicky fitted the bill in that sense.
LM: Was there ever a consideration to play with two number tens? Say for example, last season, you played with a Christmas Tree Formation at times with Jason Culina and Alessandro Del Piero behind Joel Griffiths; was there ever that thought to do similar with Del Piero and Carle next to each other?
FF: I felt in terms of defensively and with the issue of mobility, it was never a real option for us. You have to be solid in that middle third, so having two ‘10s’ going forward is ok but as the game pans out defensively – in the middle third and the final third – I just felt that together it would take away a lot of mobility in that midfield area.
Let’s face it, 99 times out of a hundred the game is won in the middle of the park.
LM: You have mentioned repeatedly, when Sydney have had poor results, that the team didn’t keep the ball well enough and that was an area to improve, but what does that come down to? Individual errors or structural errors?
FF: I think if you look back through when we have turned over possession, I would say 80 per cent of the time we either weren’t under pressure, played a bad pass, or had bad ball control.
For me that comes down to bad decision making or individual errors where you are not under pressure. That is an area where we are always saying to the players they have to improve. We have to improve on our possession play. Whilst we have the ball, no one can hurt us.
Our turnover rates, and the reasons for turnovers, most probably 80 per cent of the time have been due to poor decision making, poor passing or poor control. That has nothing to do with structure.
LM: So what does it come down to? A lack of consistency?
FF: Consistency, but consistency in everything. Players are always going to make mistakes; we all know that and accept that. But what we are saying we want to improve is the percentage of errors we make. If you look at the statistics against Melbourne Victory, Terry McFlynn had about 98% pass completion (actual; 100%). Alessandro (70%), Milos (Dimitrijevic; 94%) and Hagi (Gligor; 100%) were all high. And the turnover rate was low, hence we kept possession, we created and scored goals.
But if you compare that game with other games, there is a marked difference.
LM: How do you work on improving the consistency then? If consistency has been a problem from game to game, how do you work at training to solve that issue?
FF: By trying to reproduce match situations, whether that be 11v11, 5v5, 8v8 etc.
Football is repetition, it is not something where you can flick a switch and make something happen. By consistently working together, and also having consistency in the team that is on the park. If you only have to make one or two changes, that is not a problem but if you are constantly having to move people around, that causes problems because you are not familiar with playing week in week out with your teammates. That can also lead to losing possession as well.
Once you are on the park, whether you are playing a 4-3-3 or whatever, systems are just what can be put on the television.
LM: Do you think the issue with consistency has also come down to the number of changes to the system as well as the injuries that the team has suffered?
FF: Systems for me aren’t that important. Once you are on the park, whether you are playing a 4-3-3 or whatever, systems are just what can be put on the television. The players are constantly moving and rotating and that is how you win and try to open teams up.
So I don’t think the changes in formation have been disruptive. Most probably more so has been our player rotations.
LM: Against Perth, there was another change and Del Piero played on the left. Was that a decision made to relieve him of his defensive duties?
FF: Yes, that and also we have found that Alessandro gravitates to that side of the park anyway. Even looking back on his career with Italy and Juventus, a lot of the time he gravitates to that side. So we will start him out there.
He still has a job to do defensively, as best as he can. But, there will be occasions where Alessandro will find himself centrally and Ranko [Despotovic] will cover.
We have found, with [Alessandro] being in that role and Ali Abbas on the left of midfield going past him, Ale can hold the ball up. You can see Alessandro in a lot of the games start on the left and then cut inside anyway and it was deliberate.
LM: The move worked against Perth, and the win sees Sydney very close to the top three. What are the ambitions for the rest of the season and how are you planning to get there?
FF: The ambitions have always been the same – we want to play in the finals and finish as high as possible. There have obviously been a few distractions along the way.
How are we going to get there? I think defensively we can shore things up. I thought the defensive play was pretty good on the weekend.
We will create chances. Even games that we have lost, we have created chances. As we know in the A-League, if you get that first goal it makes it very hard for the opposition.
I think we will always create chances. How are we going to get there? I think we need a collective effort from everybody. Hopefully we keep everybody on the park, unfortunately Seba [Ryall] is out for a week or two weeks, and Milos as well so we have that merry-go-round again. But we are going to get there with consistency and defensive structure because we will create chances.
*Feature image by Pete Nowakowski