The football didn’t live up the pre-match hype or the off-field atmosphere as a scrappy third Sydney derby was defined by errors and ill-discipline.
If you’ve got one of those mates who wishes the worst for both teams in an upcoming match between neutral teams, this might have been his or her fantasy fixture. There were injuries and red cards for both camps and the draw left neither set of fans particularly satisfied. Both still need a result next week to achieve their respective goals.
Brett Emerton’s red card early in the second half was the main twist in the plot. Before that point the Sky Blues had controlled the game by giving the Wanderers a taste of their own tactical medicine. Against ten men Western Sydney took charge but were still shown up as a team lacking the nous to break down a set opponent and, more importantly, they were shown to be sorely missing their absent players. In short, the Wanderers were forced to play with more possession than ever in the match where they least had the cattle to do it well.
Tony Popovic fielded perhaps his weakest XI this season. Youssouf Hersi, Michael Beauchamp, Aaron Mooy and Jerome Polenz were all missing. Those four players represent the entire right hand side of the team, which has been their main strength. The absence of Hersi through suspension was particularly important as we’ll soon discuss. On top of this, Adam D’Apuzzo went off injured at half time and Shinji Ono followed midway through the second half. Popovic had few choices to make – most of the players have natural replacements, so it was simply a matter of plugging the holes with whoever suited. One choice he did make was the decision to omit form goalscorer Labinot Haliti for Dino Kresinger at the point of his 4-2-3-1 for “tactical reasons”. Perhaps he felt Kresinger’s physical power would be more suited to a fiery derby or to an opponent less likely to leave themselves open for the counter that Haliti is suited to exploiting.
Frank Farina finally had a bit of continuity in his counter-attacking 4-4-1-1, but he did bring fit-again Lucas Neill back in at the expense of Adam Griffiths next to Tiago. An injury to Neill reversed that change at half time, returning Sydney to the starting XI from last week’s Big Blue.
General strategies: Copy cats better than the real thing
We know the Wanderers’ preferred tactics by now. And we know Sydney have been imitating them to some extent, or at least rebuilding from the back forwards under Farina’s reign. So this match was never going to be a classic. When two reactive teams face off it can become a game of hot potato: ‘you have the ball and let us counter-attack you,’ ‘no, you have it’. A lot of the play in the first half did fit that description.
Farina said of his opponents afterwards:
“There’s a view that they always play out from the back and always play on the deck, but they don’t, they play a lot of long balls a lot of the time.”
I’m not sure where exactly that initial view has been espoused. Certainly not on this site.
In any case, the two sides did look to go long and put pressure on their opponent. Neither side was willing to leave themselves too exposed with risky passing in midfield or aggressive positioning. For whatever reason, perhaps the strength of individuals on the park as we’ll soon get to, or perhaps due to a weight of numbers in the centre of the pitch, match tipped in Sydney FC’s balance. They didn’t pour forward looking for the second ball like they did in the Big Blue, but they did push their compact shape fairly high up the pitch and forced errors. Ali Abbas in particular was quick to close down Shannon Cole when he got the ball from Iacopo La Rocca.
Cole’s distribution in the 1st half. Only 4 successful passes – Opta Chalkboard (442)
They won a string of corners in the first half by turning the Wanderers defenders around with long passes and harassing them. They won a lot of the loose possession in midfield and built their attacks from there. Terry Antonis and Abbas came narrow to help win the midfield battle, but also cleverly provided width in an alternating fashion, one spreading wide as the other tucked in on the far side. The fullbacks were careful to push forward, waiting until possession was obviously secure. Seb Ryall did make some good overlapping runs down the right in these instances. Generally Sydney were outnumbered when they did attack so they didn’t create a lot. A good example of this was when one of Ryall’s bursts produced a lovely ball across the face of goal with no one running onto it. But they were at least having the better of a stop-start match.
Weakened Wanderers, and Hersi’s influence
The secret to Western Sydney’s success has been continuity. During their ten-match winning run they had practically the same full strength team to choose from every week. A strong first XI full of quality foreigners with an all-weather game plan that suited all types of opponent proved impossible to stop. Sometimes they played well and won, sometimes they played poorly and still won by virtue of their structure and familiarity.
Hersi has been their most important player this season. Incredibly, they haven’t won in the five matches he hasn’t played. They have won the last 15 matches he has played in. Sometimes these stats just materialise by chance, like how Tottenham didn’t win in any of Gareth Bale’s first 24 matches for the club, but there’s something to this Hersi thing. The Wanderers rely heavily on Hersi as a cheap out ball. They don’t get the ball to Hersi by the most sophisticated means, certainly not the type of service a winger might usually thrive upon, but they instead use his magical ability to free himself of his marker’s attentions and receive the ball in space. Some wingers are known for the quality of their end product – think Marco Rojas and his stunning goals – but if Hersi has a trademark trait it might be his movement before he gets the ball. It is perhaps because he expends so much energy moving forward and back to run his marker away from him, and also because he is so frequently utilised, that he has only managed to complete the full 90 minutes six times this season.
For a team with a low-risk approach to their possession play, Hersi’s constant availability on the right wing is a key tactical feature. And his effectiveness is what has allowed Mark Bridge to get so many goals from the left, playing narrow like a second striker in the knowledge that he won’t need to provide width down his flank.
Wanderers lack solutions in possession
Here Kwabena Appiah-Kubi took up Hersi’s station. The young winger had an interesting match. He started poorly and was dominated by the close attentions of Rhyan Grant. He has similar mobility to Hersi but not the same intelligence of movement. However, he improved as the match went on. He got in behind a couple of times later in the first half but was let down both times by a too-heavy touch. In the second half he managed to receive the ball facing forwards with more ease and got to run at Grant and even try a few tricks. On occasion Ono drifted to his side to create the extra man and Appiah-Kubi was able to use his pace to go past Tiago Calvano and cut the ball back for a good chance for Jason Trifiro.
But the Wanderers certainly took their time to adjust to Hersi’s absence. They started out playing Appiah-Kubi like he was Hersi, overcooking the use of his wing and delivering him unfavourable, easy-to-defend service straight up the sideline to feet. Their left was more profitable when they went there. One move started with a rare-ish straight ball from Nikolai Topor-Stanley into Bridge’s feet and resulted in a decent chance for Kresinger after D’Apuzzo’s run in behind. It was straight out of the Mariners’ playbook. But moves like this were too few and far between.
Ono was kept out of the game by the excellent defensive work of Peter Triantis, who was my man of the match. Ono might not have been 100% fit, which would explain his inability to find his usual pockets of space, but Triantis was excellent at cutting off the channels to him and then closing him down when he did receive the ball. Even on the break, where Ono is usually so effective, Triantis was very quick to change mindset, locate his man, and burgle him.
Del Piero swoops
La Rocca is competent technically but he looked a bit flustered in possession at the back in this match. It was Topor-Stanley who gave up the goal by passing straight to Alessandro Del Piero but the signs were there that the Wanderers weren’t totally comfortable. Topor-Stanley’s imperious defending has elevated him into Socceroos discussions but his Achilles’ heel is his ball-playing ability, which probably isn’t up to scratch for the international level. Young bucks like Connor Chapman and Trent Sainsbury show more potential in this aspect. The Wanderers play in such a way that ‘Hyphen’ usually doesn’t need to do a lot with the ball but credit here to Sydney for tempting them into trying play out a bit more, and then pouncing.
Topor-Stanley has the option to pass to D’Apuzzo, but decides to turns anti-clockwise on the ball (Image: Fox Sports)
Del Piero anticipates and collects the misdirected pass aimed for La Rocca (Image: Fox Sports)
Half time changes
Neill went off for Adam Griffiths and Tarek Elrich came on for D’Apuzzo, shifting Cole to left back and leaving the Wanderers with no lefties on that side. Popovic seemed to free his men up to push forward a bit more, with Trifiro and Mateo Poljak taking turns to push forward from holding midfield. Those two also swapped sides at half time. Sydney FC had less of the game but were content to sit in their defensive block untroubled.
Emerton’s red and Sydney’s discipline
On the challenge itself, sometimes too much is made of the positioning of the feet and studs on a slow-mo replay, but what also needs to be taken into account is the force with which the challenge is executed. Raising your studs to knee height while stationary is not likely to cause as much damage as coming in at foot or ankle height but with speed and with your leg extended. Contrary to some punditry, it doesn’t matter that much where Cole’s feet or legs were positioned and certainly not how he reacted. What matters is the force and technique of Emerton’s desperate lunge, which was sufficiently dangerous for a red card.
Of course, Emerton had just been booked, so lunging in at all was silly. Young Triantis was booked early and then stayed out of trouble – Emerton should have known better. There is a discipline problem at Sydney. Joel Griffiths was needlessly booked for arguing the red card and Tiago could easily have seen red for lashing out with his hand into Bridge’s face earlier. Navigating a derby with a card-happy referee is hard enough without making more problems for yourself. There were few signs the team was seriously seeking to kick its shocking habit of card-collecting.
Farina’s post-match comments hinted at the root of the problem. By criticising the Emerton red decision, Farina was publicly absolving his captain of responsibility for a silly tackle that would have seen him sent off even if a more lenient yellow card was awarded. Regardless of what he said behind closed doors, there’s no reason not to send a message through the media after six red cards in five away matches. Tony Popovic candidly accepted that La Rocca should have been sent off for his later indiscretion, and on a broader level, the likes of Ange Postecoglou and Graham Arnold are quick to say so when their players do something they deem unacceptable. Farina should have the experience and standing to feel comfortable putting his foot down and demanding a change in their costly free-wheeling mentality.
11 v 10 and the marquee water carrier
Farina correctly identified the red card as the turning point in the match, making it even more of a wonder he was again so forgiving of the ill-discipline. The tactical reshuffle saw Del Piero drop from No.10 into Emerton’s role next to Triantis, leaving Griffiths up front in a 4-4-1. This seemed crazy. Del Piero spent most of the rest of the match doing defensive donkey work, shuttling around to close down spaces in front of his penalty area. Occasionally he got the ball and showed a bit of magic to retain possession where another player might have lost it, but the most he could then do was lay off a simple non-threatening pass. Due to his lack of speed and the tactical demands of his position, he couldn’t get into the front third. Surely Antonis should have moved into the middle with Del Piero either sacrificed or moved wide.
Sydney eventually welcomed the pace of Joel Chianese and Yairo Yau, allowing them the odd moment on the counter. It was painful to see those two and Antonis combining as a front three knowing Del Piero was lagging way downfield, unable to put his quality to use where it was needed.
The Wanderers had to attack at 1-0 down and then once they got the equaliser, there was nothing to lose and a Premiers Plate to gain by trying to finish Sydney off. So they went for it for the rest of the match, enjoying near total domination of possession and field position. But they didn’t do it particularly intelligently or effectively. Whether it was because they aren’t used to making the play or because their best players were out, they struggled to break down Sydney’s two banks of four.
Their main attacking strategy was crossing, which proved largely ineffective as it did early in the season. They also took unnecessarily rushed or low-percentage options. La Rocca might carry the ball out of defence and randomly rip a long range chip to the back post. Against ten men and with Del Piero the antithesis to Gennaro Gattuso as far as defensive midfielders go, the Wanderers should have focused on playing through the middle. When they did go central it worked. Bridge moved to No.10 once Ono went off with a sore groin and he played the role well. Trifiro had total run of the pitch in the space between Sydney’s striker and midfield and from this position he picked out Bridge between the lines a few times. From there Bridge won a few fouls and created chances from himself or others, particularly Haliti as the new man on the left. They lacked a final combination once in that tight central space and getting Kresinger out of the way for a Haliti or a Joey Gibbs was probably what the situation called for. But playing into Kresinger’s feet instead of up to his head gave the Wanderers the free kick which led to the equaliser. Unfortunately, often they ignored these options and went wide for hopeful crosses or over the top for desperate through balls.
Wanderers attack at goal after Emerton’s red card – Opta Chalkboard (442)
Ivan Necevski seemed to have his wall in wrong spot as Cole curled home the equaliser. That and Del Piero’s role aside, Sydney did it pretty well. They didn’t sit too deep and they still pressured the man on the ball where it wouldn’t lead to a loss of defensive structure. Chianese and then Yau used their fresh legs to do the defensive work of two men up front, hassling La Rocca and Topor-Stanley into rushed options that just shouldn’t be taken by a team that can play out from the back competently. But it was more a case of the home side not adjusting well enough to pick on the obvious chink in Sydney’s armour, Del Piero as a holding midfielder with no protection in front of him.
And even in the dying minutes, as Sydney bravely pressed high again, the Wanderers failed to play out of their own corner when it seemed easy to go back to Covic and out the other side. La Rocca’s season-ending red card was the result, not in a cause-and-effect sense, but perhaps symbolically of the frustration the Wanderers had experienced being outside their tactical comfort zone all match.
Just as the Mariners were knocked off their perch by teams adopting just the tactics they don’t like to face, the Wanderers saw their run ended by a team unwilling to fall into their usual trap. Emerton’s red card probably gifted them a point that was otherwise looking unlikely. Not that there would have been any shame in succumbing to their long list of key absentees; not many A-League squads would have handled those sorts of ‘outs’ as well as this. Now they face the prospect of one final hurdle in the Premiership race and a finals campaign with a weakened squad. One could say that injuries (and suspensions) have come at the wrong time, but it could equally be said that they’re only in the position of being contenders due to the incredibly lucky player continuity they have enjoyed this year. This bit of bad luck must be viewed as the challenge they must fairly conquer to be considered champions.
Sydney FC continue to transform into serious contenders whilst simultaneously shooting themselves in the foot. The suspension of Emerton upsets a side that might finally have been settled. Discipline problems aside, they’re looking good. They’ve just taken five points from nine against the top three sides, and their Wanderers-esque tactics are clearly well suited to this season’s competition. They’re a worthy finals prospect, should they make it as expected.