On the back of a blistering first-half performance, Adelaide United became A-League champions with an accomplished 3-1 win over Western Sydney Wanderers. In front of a packed Adelaide Oval the Reds pressed their opponents relentlessly in the opening stages, and after forcing a slew of turnovers from a Wanderers side who are usually assured in possession, they converted two of those into goals.

That allowed them to take a 2-0 lead into the interval, and although the second period was more of a slog, they held firm to deny Western Sydney before Pablo Sanchez scored a late goal to complete the grand final victory. It was the first time the Reds had claimed the A-League title in their history, and given that they were both winless and sitting on the bottom of the table after eight games, the achievement was a truly remarkable one.

Perhaps fittingly for a team coached by Barcelona legend Guillermo Amor, Adelaide laid the foundations for success with a proactive pressing game.

Adelaide press

Prior to the grand final, the Reds booked their place in the showpiece with a 4-1 semi-final victory over Melbourne City. During that encounter the South Australian club produced an extremely cohesive performance, something which was most apparent in their first-half pressing display. They created chance after chance during that period of play but, after failing to capitalise upon those opportunities, had to wait until the second 45 to hit the scoreboard.

Adelaide implemented the same pressing strategy against Western Sydney on Sunday afternoon, and although there would be little difference in their efficiency in defence, they would be far more clinical in front of goal. Bruce Kamau would strike first on 22 minutes and Isaias would add another soon after. That left Tony Popovic’s side with a mountain to climb, something they were ultimately unable to do.

In the lead-up to both of Adelaide’s first-half goals pressing would be the key. In general terms the Reds pushed high up the pitch, with centre-forward Bruce Djite and wingers Kamau and Sergio Cirio compressing the space available to Western Sydney’s back four. They were then supported by the important work of midfielders Stefan Mauk and Marcelo Carrusca who closed down Dimas and Andreu, the two prime movers in Popovic’s possession game.

These initial lines of pressure made it extremely difficult for the Wanderers to play out from defence. The precision that they’ve demonstrated for much of the season deserted them, and a combination of turnovers and hurried clearances replaced it. There was plenty of examples of this, especially early in the contest, but the first to lead to something tangible arrived just prior to Kamau’s well-taken opener.

Here things kicked off with a throw-in. Wanderers right-back Scott Neville, stuck deep in defence, threw the ball towards teammate Alberto Aguilar but with Djite bearing down upon him and all three of Western Sydney’s central midfielders covered, he rushed a pass into the heart of the ground. Mauk reacted to it quickly, cutting it out with his left foot. The ball then spilt out to Carrusca, who took it down beautifully along the left-hand side and subsequently played it back to fullback Craig Goodwin.

That sparked a well worked triangle of passing, with Adelaide overloading the flank to create confusion amongst the Wanderers defence. Goodwin found Mauk, and although Neville initially tried to cover Cirio, he ended up moving towards the ball carrier. That left a space vacant in the Wanderers right-back zone and Mauk took advantage of it by playing a neat pass in behind for the onrushing Carrusca. The Argentine charged down the touchline, taking a couple of touches in the process, before curling a cross into the box. Kamau sprinted in ahead of Wanderers defender Scott Jamieson to turn it in and with that Adelaide hit the lead.

It wouldn’t take long for the home fans to have even more to smile about. A little over 10 minutes later, Andreu would take possession following a deflected Nikolai Topor-Stanley header. He would then try to turn away from Kamau, who was applying immediate pressure from one side, only to find that Mauk was applying pressure from the other. The Adelaide duo quickly combined to dispossess the Spanish midfield metronome and another quick-fire exchange of passing followed. Mauk found Djite and Djite found Kamau, and just as the wiry attacker started to acceleration, Topor-Stanley brought him down just outside the area.

The big centre-back received the yellow card for the mistimed challenge, but the worst was yet to come for the Wanderers. Isaias stepped up to take the ensuing free-kick, addressed it with confidence and curled his shot into the top left-hand corner. It was a sublime piece of skill in isolation but it wouldn’t have been possible without the moments leading up to it, moments that were characterised by pressure and an ability to win the ball back high up the pitch.

Many top coaches talk about the value of pressing. The press-heavy tactician Pep Guardiola has described defensive organisation as “the cornerstone of everything else I want to achieve in my football”, while Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp once famously argued that gegenpressing is “the best playmaker there is”. And on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Adelaide Oval the Reds applied these principles to bring about their own success.

Western Sydney

Although Adelaide’s pressing was clearly the highlight Western Sydney actually did a good job of pressing too. They pressed into very advanced areas and, in general terms, prevented the Reds from getting their own possession game going. This allowed them to control 57% of first-half possession but whereas Adelaide played in a more pragmatic manner, clearing the ball to safety when hemmed in by the opposition press, Western Sydney tended to try and play out anyway.

That got the Wanderers into the kind of trouble discussed above, but that doesn’t change the fact that they pressed pretty well themselves. Popovic talked about this in the post-match although in an uncharitable way that probably stemmed from the frustration of losing his third grand final in four years. “We didn’t allow them to play either, so they went long,” he said. “We didn’t deal with the second balls. It’s not like they played it out. They didn’t play football, they played forward, long balls.”

Pushing the suggestion that Adelaide “didn’t play football” to one side, there is an element of truth to these comments. The Wanderers did converge upon the Adelaide defenders as they attempted to play out, usually ensuring that deep-lying playmaker Isaias was covered in the process. Yet while this hampered Adelaide’s ability to get out from defence on a regular basis, the Reds weren’t overly concerned with going long when required. They have morphed from the Josep Gombau-coached side who showed a greater propensity to possess the ball, sometimes at all costs, to a team who will assess the dangers attached to that approach.

Western Sydney, meanwhile, were more eager to impose a short-passing game. They continued to play out from the back, even after conceding because of it, and eventually started to get some joy. This is illustrated by the example below, which came just before half-time, as right-winger Romeo Castelen darts into a space between the lines to receive possession. Free of his direct opponent, Reds left-back Craig Goodwin, the Dutchman turns sharply before finding Mitch Nichols. The momentum of the move is continued as Nichols puts Mark Bridge in behind along the left-hand side, and though the attack is halted by a blocked cross, the Wanderers began to have a few more moments like this.

About five minutes after the interval, with Adelaide still pressing, Bridge managed to draw Adelaide right-back Michael Marrone infield, something which allowed Jamieson to motor into space down the flank. Isaias made an excellent challenge to intervene but perhaps due to Western Sydney creating a few of these openings, together with the energy-sapping nature of a high-pressing game, the Reds gradually aimed to sit off to a greater degree.

Second half

With Adelaide sitting deeper after half-time, Western Sydney were presented with the chance to possess the ball more readily. They still had to break down a very sturdy opposition defence, however, and they generally looked to the flanks in order to do that.

The Wanderers manufactured openings down both sides, but they appeared to be most fluent along the right. It was where the excellent pairing of Castelen and Neville were situated, and as the two players have done for much of the campaign, they showcased their strong understanding on the day.

One thing they did particularly well was take advantage of Cirio’s central positioning. The Spanish winger would tend to protect the centre while Adelaide were defending, and though this assisted in stopping the Wanderers from playing through the heart of the ground, it also left Neville wide open on a number of occasions.

The lead-up to Western Sydney’s 58th minute goal, shown below, is a good example of this. Cirio moved in off the flank, initially to try and make something happen offensively before the ball fell for Wanderers midfielder Dimas. Cirio tried to apply pressure but Dimas was too quick for that. He switched the play to Neville on the far side of the ground, who followed up with a vertical pass for Castelen. A neat combination between Castelen and Brendon Santalab then ensued, and while Cirio worked his way back into the same vicinity as Neville, he couldn’t stop the former Newcastle Jet from slashing in Santalab’s clever flick.

That moment had the potential to rattle Adelaide, but they stuck to their guns. They continued to defend in two deep banks of four, with their most advanced attackers, Carrusca and Djite, aiming to keep tabs on Dimas and Andreu. This in itself shows how deep they were defending, but it’s not as if they haven’t done this before. In Round 24 they travelled to Pirtek Stadium for a clash with the Wanderers, and with Carrusca out of the side that night, they spent much of the match sitting back. They had to withstand heavy pressure but they did enough to eke out a 0-0 draw.

That probably gave them the confidence, and the knowledge, that they were capable of keeping Western Sydney at bay. Yet in contrast to that match they crucially managed to retain more of a threat on the break this time around. In the clip below they won the ball back a long way from goal, and through some sharp combination play and blistering pace from Goodwin and Cirio, they quickly transitioned from defence into attack. Alberto just about did enough to stop the move, with Cirio’s attempted nutmeg cannoning off the defender’s standing foot, but Adelaide’s ability to offer something going the other way meant that they weren’t just resisting for the final 30 minutes.

Not too much later Djite would narrowly send a shot wide of the target and, from the subsequent corner, Adelaide would see a goal disallowed. In that sense, they were still well and truly in the game despite having to spend much of it defending, but the Castelen-Neville partnership continued to trouble them. Around 77 minutes in the two men coalesced beautifully, again aided by the fact that Cirio found himself caught out of position and up the ground.

Bridge won a header in between the lines and flicked it onto Castelen. The dynamic winger moved the ball to Neville along the touchline, and with Cirio nowhere to be seen, Carrusca had to shuffle across to cover the right-back. Neville and Castelen then fashioned an astute one-two, and as the ball rolled back towards the centre, Carrusca couldn’t recover his central position to stop it and Isaias couldn’t get there either. Neville surged his way towards the byline but, despite a decent cutback, couldn’t find a teammate in the area.

The pattern continued throughout the remainder of the match, and perhaps on the back of their experience at Pirtek Stadium, Adelaide held firm to deny the opposition an equaliser. They even added a third late on, and by this time, it probably wasn’t any surprise that a mix of Adelaide pressure and a Wanderers mishap brought about the opportunity. Sanchez pounced on an errant touch from Kearyn Baccus, stormed into the area and rifled his shot beyond the clutches of goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne.

The supersub had done it again and Adelaide were champions.

Conclusion

Adelaide may have taken a bizarre road to the final, and they may have required a remarkable turnaround to get there, but the South Australian club added the A-League Championship to their Premier’s Plate in style.

Fittingly, the win came on the back of a strong defensive performance, as Adelaide conceded fewer goals than any other team over the 27 round regular season. Amor organised his side into a pressing machine and they were emphatic in the implementation of that strategy, scoring twice in the first half to leave Western Sydney with only the faintest of hopes of getting back into the contest.

Ultimately they were unable to do that. The Wanderers pressed well and eventually got their possession game going, something which allowed them to see 65% of the ball over the 90 minutes, but they struggled to find much in the way of cutting-edge in front of goal. That was a service Federico Piovaccari was meant to provide, and without his involvement for much of the season, this is an area that Western Sydney will undoubtedly be looking to boost for the next campaign.

Overall though this was a well-deserved victory for Amor and his men. They produced an excellent display in front of over 50,000 people in a home grand final, and within the wider context of their incredible 2015/16 resurgence, it really was the ideal day for Adelaide.