In front of over 15,000 fans at Coopers Stadium Adelaide produced a dynamic semi-final display to book their place in next week’s A-League grand final. They dismantled a Melbourne City side missing Harry Novillo, and through a combination of intense pressing and purposeful attacking play, the Reds managed to achieve a resounding 4-1 victory.

Yet while Adelaide only started scoring after the interval, they actually built the win upon an impressive first-half performance.

Adelaide press

From the outset Adelaide aimed to be the more proactive team. Spurred on by their home fans, they pressed high up the pitch in a bid to disrupt City’s possession game. This started at the pointy end of their 4-2-3-1 formation, with centre-forward Bruce Djite making use of his enviable athleticism to get in the face of the opposing centre-backs. Playmaker Marcelo Carrusca would offer support, closing down City holding man Osama Malik, while wingers Bruce Kamau and Sergio Cirio would straddle the line between applying pressure centrally and sprinting out to cover the Melbourne fullbacks.

Behind them Stefan Mauk and Isaias occupied Aaron Mooy and Anthony Caceres, City’s two most advanced central midfielders, and through this configuration they imposed themselves upon the contest. Adelaide invaded the spaces that would have otherwise been available to City’s deep-lying ball distributors, and in addition to allowing the Reds to enjoy a greater share of first-half possession, this intensity quickly became their primary source of attacking invention.

Twenty-two minutes in, for instance, Sergio Cirio regained possession inside Adelaide’s forward half. The Spaniard then carried the ball upfield and slipped a short pass into the path of Carrusca, who continued the momentum of the move by finding an overlapping Craig Goodwin out wide. The Reds left-back followed up with a whipped cross to the far post, and although Kamau latched onto it, City goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen produced a solid save to deny him.

As if to illustrate the dominance of Adelaide’s pressing game, they utilised it only two minutes later to create an even better chance. This time Carrusca pushed up onto Malik in energetic fashion, and with Caceres and Mooy also covered by the remainder of Adelaide’s central midfield trio, the City holder launched a speculative long ball. Goodwin pounced to cut it out and once the ball landed at the feet of Cirio, Malik had to choose between covering Carrusca and stopping the diminutive winger. That brief piece of hesitation allowed Cirio to burst beyond him. He assessed his options and, with Djite darting in behind, played a delicate through ball. The burly forward fashioned a decent strike at goal but, as in the example above, Sorensen prevented the ball from rippling the back of the net.

These opportunities, in conjunction with a Carrusca long shot not long after, were the best chances generated by Adelaide’s first-half pressing game. They still needed to be good on the ball once they won it back though and through their characteristically varied attack they were exactly that.

Despite the lack of goals, Guillermo Amor would have thoroughly enjoyed this assured start to the contest, especially when viewed within the context of the club’s early-season performances.

Adelaide’s poor start and subsequent resurgence

Put simply the current Adelaide bears almost no resemblance to the start-of-the-season Adelaide. If there’s anything that demonstrates this with precision, it’s the fact that the Reds sat on the bottom of the A-League table eight games into the campaign.

During this period their play was characterised by a lack of efficiency in attack. They only scored seven times throughout their first eight matches, and it wasn’t as if they were just failing to convert on the back of some free-flowing football either. They weren’t great and a lot of that had to do with the early absence of Djite. He is, in many ways, Adelaide’s focal point, and without him they not only lacked a genuine presence in the box but also a physical hold-up man to bring others into the game.

Throw in the fact that they struggled to work the ball forward with any great fluency, largely due to an inability to hit their wingers quickly, something which has become a feature of their play in recent seasons, and there wasn’t much to write home about for the Reds. They weren’t even getting the usually hard-running duo of Carrusca and James Jeggo up in support of the attack, so much so that the Argentine maestro was even relegated to the bench for a couple of games throughout this difficult stretch.

Eventually they would get the likes of Djite and goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic back into the team, and after a few weeks of adjustment, things would pick up. The improvement commenced in Round 9, with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Perth Glory, and from there things started to snowball.

The once hapless Adelaide, as if transformed overnight, went from failing to win any of their opening eight games to going unbeaten in their next 14. And over the course of that club-record unbeaten streak, Adelaide would win an impressive 11 times.

The turnaround was nothing short of remarkable and it had a lot to do with Adelaide becoming more like the Adelaide of recent seasons, complete with high energy runs from midfield, hold-up play from the powerful Djite and some impressive variation out wide.

This allowed the Reds to become that mobile, dynamic attacking threat, and though they would have to endure the loss of James Jeggo who left for Sturm Graz of the Austrian Bundesliga, they would reshape the team through the acquisition of Stefan Mauk. Amor moved towards a 4-2-3-1 following Jeggo’s departure, as opposed to the 4-3-3 he had regularly selected up until that point, in order to push Carrusca into the No 10 role and slot Mauk in a little deeper alongside Isaias.

How this played out against Melbourne City

As Gil Albertson has noted on Leopold Method in the past, this subtle shift gives Adelaide a slightly different look. Carrusca doesn’t make as many forward runs in this configuration, and instead operates as more of a playmaker, drifting in and out of pockets of space to create quick interchanges of passing with his teammates. Against City he regularly floated out towards the flanks, either to create overloads, as he did in the example below to win a free-kick, or as a means through which to switch positions with one of Adelaide’s wingers.

The latter is something highlighted in the following clip, where Carrusca moves out wide to the right-hand side in order to allow Cirio to move infield. This enables the Spaniard to take up a space in between the lines, and after some customarily excellent hold-up play from the in-form Djite, he receives the ball in a left-of-centre location. Cirio then runs through the middle, draws the attention of City centre-back Alex Wilkinson and slips a pass in behind for Kamau. The youngster’s shot is eventually cleared off the line by City fullback Jack Clisby but due to the space vacated by Carrusca, Adelaide’s wingers were able to link-up freely through the middle of the pitch.

This of course is another aspect of Adelaide’s game that has gone to another level since the early weeks of the season. Their wingers are far more adventurous with their movement now, and rather than staying wide and hugging the touchline, at least one of them tends to drop short into a more central position.

Although nothing came of their efforts in the 36th minute they showcased the value of this variation across two separate attacks. Firstly, as Adelaide probe for an opening, Cirio drops short to receive a pass. After initially taking possession with his back to goal, he wheels around Malik, fends off Caceres and drives towards goal. The Spaniard tries to follow up by lifting a ball out towards Kamau, who has notably stayed wide to provide width on the right-hand side, but Clisby does well to cut it out and clear the danger.

The problem for City, however, is that the ball falls to Isaias and another Adelaide attack ensues. This time the Reds still have numbers through the centre, and perhaps because of this, City’s defence is very narrow was well. So instead of trying to play through that packed part of the pitch Adelaide defender Iacopo la Rocca punches a long diagonal into the feet of Kamau. The swift switch of play enables the fleet-footed winger to isolate Clisby in a one-on-one contest, but despite going around him, Kamau is unable to create an opening.

Despite the lack of end-product, the key takeaway is the way in which Adelaide’s wingers offer so much in terms of movement. It’s common to see one of them stay wide while the other drifts inside, and when combined with Carrusca’s craft in between the lines, there is a real cohesion to their play. Djite is also important for his hold-up play and as for Mauk, the newest member of the Adelaide attacking group, he regularly filters forward when the Reds are in possession.

He doesn’t provide the outright box-to-box running power that Jeggo once did, but he has a keen sense of timing attached to his runs. He knows when to burst towards the box, often arriving late on the scene to make something happen. This wasn’t as prevalent against City on Friday night, but in the previous meeting between the two teams Mauk made a late run into the area before being brought down by Sorensen. That was enough to win the South Australian side a penalty, and once Djite dispatched it, they were 2-0 up and on the way to yet another victory.

Throw in the fact that Djite has found his scoring boots – he has bagged 11 goals in 13 matches after failing to find the back of the net until round 16 – and things are looking good for the Reds. In the example below, where Djite thundered home the semi-final opener against City, all of the elements discussed above were present. Carrusca had shifted out to the right, while Kamau had come inside. At the same time, Cirio was retaining Adelaide’s width out on the left, and as Carrusca took possession in between the lines, Mauk was making one of his trademark runs into the area.

Djite would be the man to conclude the move with an exceedingly crisp finish, but with all of these moving parts in attack, it’s no surprise that Adelaide powered their way into the grand final with a strong performance against City.

Conclusion

From the foot of the table in late November to the Premier’s Plate and a home grand final, it’s been a remarkable rise for Adelaide. Amor and his players will face Western Sydney Wanderers next weekend in the A-League decider, and though they were second-best the last time the two teams met in a 0-0 draw at Pirtek Stadium, Carrusca was absent that evening.

Regardless of that encounter, this should be a fascinating game between two teams with a very Spanish flavour. The Reds have been solid in defence and increasingly cohesive in attack, and after such a bizarre resurgence to the apex of Australian football, it would be genuinely incredible if they could end the season as champions.