And then there were two. Grand finals at Suncorp aside, the 5-4 thriller that unfolded at Pirtek Stadium on Sunday was the most exciting A-League finals match in years, with Western Sydney Wanderers emerging victorious against Brisbane Roar in extra-time to earn a place in Sunday’s grand final against Adelaide United. The match represented a turnaround from the 3-1 loss the Wanderers suffered at the hands of the same visitors in round one in October. While the same head-shaking defensive errors plagued them in this return fixture, this time around the attack conspired to score five goals and lift them to victory.
Although they ultimately finished in second position at the end of round 27 when it mattered most, Tony Popovic’s side can stake a good claim to be the most consistent side throughout the regular season and topped the league at the conclusion of ten different rounds, the joint most with Brisbane. After failing to register a win in the first three weeks, when their form and underlying numbers suggested they were performing better, they went on a run of seven consecutive wins and ten matches undefeated before back to back losses in January kick-started a poorer run of results in the second half of the season. In the first thirteen games (8 W, 3 D & 2 L) they earned 2.1 points per game (PPG) while in the fourteen games on the run home (6 W, 3 D & 5 L) they accrued just 1.5 PPG.
With Adelaide’s numbers and results on the rise in the second half of the season, the Wanderers’ took a dip. After the first thirteen weeks they were averaging +5.3 shots per match and +1.9 shots on target. By the end of the season these had dropped to +4.6 and +1.4 respectively.
Despite the drop in results, the Wanderers finished the season as the most balanced side in attack and defence across the 27 matches. While they only took the third most shots and fifth most shots on target, they conceded the second fewest of each to finish with a total shots ratio* (TSR) of 59.6% and a shots on target ratio* (SOTR) of 58.6%, both the best in the league ahead of Adelaide. They outshot their opponents 20 times in 27 attempts (also the best record in the league) only once had more than four shots fewer than the opposition, and only recorded fewer shots on target on two occasions.
(*TSR and SOTR are the share of shots and shots on target that a team has during their matches)
After the disappointing season last year following their success in the Asian Champions League (ACL) it was a welcome return to form and vindication for Tony Popovic, after the clearout of the playing squad at the end of last season. The former Socceroo defender has proven to be arguably the best and most consistent manager in the league over the last four seasons, with his side recording the second best TSR and SOTR in the league in his first season, the best in his second and again this season. There can now be no doubt of his ability and that last season was a blip due to the new challenges that a deep run in the ACL brought. In just his fourth season as a senior coach, Popovic has finished second, first, ninth and second in the league and will be competing in his third grand final. In a competition with a salary cap it is a remarkable achievement.
After assembling the inaugural Wanderers squad in a short space of time and leading them to their first grand final inside 12 months, the revamp over the last year has been equally impressive with seven of the starting XI against Brisbane on Sunday not with the club 12 months ago. The transformation has not just been amongst the playing squad though but also the team’s style. Lead by Spanish trio Dimas Delgado, Andreu Guerao and Alberto Aguilar, along with compatriot and assistant coach Andrés Carrasco, the Wanderers have dominated possession and territory unlike in previous seasons.
Popovic had tried at times during previous seasons to evolve the team into a more possession-dominant side with fluency and rotations in the final third but it was not until this season that the transformation was properly realised. The Wanderers enjoyed 55.34% possession across the regular season (second behind only Brisbane) and completed the second most passes in the league – after being ranked in the bottom two in each of their previous three seasons. But it is not just that they are controlling possession, it is where it is being controlled, averaging 45 more passes in their final third than their opponent – nearly 20 more than the next best sides.
As the table below shows, the Wanderers average 100 more passes this season than last, while their passing figures in the final third all increased sharply compared to previous seasons.
The 4-2-3-1 shape from previous seasons remained, but with the attacking trio behind the central striker regularly interchanging positions and mixing their movement, there is more fluency in the final third and an increased desire to maintain possession and slowly build attacks. As the number 10 Mitch Nichols has enjoyed arguably his best season in the A-League. Rather than dropping deep into midfield, the former Brisbane championship winner plays high up the pitch to make runs beyond the central striker and into wide areas when the wingers drop deep or narrow. On the right Romeo Castelen has completed 4.2 dribbles per90 this season, more than double anyone other player, and provides an option as a more direct winger. The Dutchman’s technical ability means he is also able to operate in tight spaces and he will regularly drift inside into pockets of space to create overloads centrally too. While his shooting has at times been wayward and wasteful, his hat-trick on Sunday takes his season tally to seven at a rate of 0.35 non-penalty goals per90 – a better return than Aaron Mooy.
The problem area for Popovic’s side has been at centre forward. Marquee man Federico Piovaccari failed to adapt and fit into the team and has not been seen since Round 15. With just the two goals in 808 minutes and 10 starts it is unlikely the Italian will feature on Sunday evening. Mark Bridge has provided good cover and with nine goals enjoyed his best return since the Wanderers first season. The versatile forward featured on the left against Brisbane though with super-sub Brendon Santalab given the nod to start. He has made just four starts this season though, with 18 appearances from the bench, but with 11goals in just 661 minutes of football the striker has scored at nearly double the rate of Jamie Maclaren and Bruno Fornaroli – though with 11 goals from just 16 shots on target it is a conversion rate unlikely to continue in even the short-term. Dario Vidosic provides the final option in the final third. The marquee player has featured in all but one Wanderers A-League match this season, but with just the 17 starts.
Behind the front four are the Spanish duo of Andreu and Dimas who are key with and without the ball for Popovic’s side. One of the most important aspects heading into the match this Sunday will be whether the Wanderers are able to control the tempo of the match through their midfield pairing and assert their possession-based game on the Reds. Although Adelaide have become more possession-shy and willing to sit back to soak up pressure this season under Guillermo Amor, they are also capable of pressing high up the pitch. In defeating Melbourne City last week they suffocated the visiting side, stopped them from passing to feet in midfield when playing out from the back and finished the game with 52% possession. If Western Sydney are able to play through the press, and quickly move the ball into the middle and final thirds, they can push the Reds midfield deep as they did against Brisbane.
With Castelen and Bridge looking to come narrow and create overloads, the Wanderers’ can force Stefan Mauk back alongside Isaias, as they did to Matt McKay and Corona on Sunday, allowing Scott Neville and Scott Jamieson to push forward and provide the width in attack. From here Dimas and Andreu look to sit deeper, ready to break up any counter attack from the opposition and recycle possession to the players in the final third. While they are capable of well-timed and dangerous runs forward into the box, they generally hold their position – wary of their role in defensive transition with the fullbacks higher up the pitch.
This Sunday’s grand final represents a chance for both sides to win their first championship in their third attempt with the most consistent team in the Wanderers coming up against an Adelaide team that has continued to improve as the season has gone on. The home side will enter as favourites, but if the Wanderers are able to assert their game plan early and ride out the Adelaide press their midfield will have the ability to dictate the tempo and push Amor’s side back. They did this in the 0-0 draw in round twenty-four, a match they were unlucky not to win.