For the fourth time this season, interstate rivals Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC face off for a place in the penultimate round of the finals series, competing in a knockout-tie for the first time since the 2010 Grand Final.
Both coaches look set to name similar starting line-ups to the teams that featured in the last match between these two sides – a 1-1 draw back in late March.
Scott Galloway and Adama Traore has been Kevin Muscat’s preferred full-back pairing in the league, while Adrian Leijer is out with a foot injury – meaning Pablo Contreras and Nick Ansell will start at the back, although it’s possible Leigh Broxham could drop back there, with James Jeggo coming into the midfield. With Tom Rogic out, the front four is at least predictable.
Farina has less concerns – he’ll likely name the starting team from the win over Perth last Sunday, which was unchanged from the 4-1 win over Wellington.
Muscat’s side will need to record their first win over Sydney in this campaign if they are to progress, having fallen to defeat twice and been held in that aforementioned 1-1 draw, which was the preceding fixture between these two sides.
That encounter feels like a particularly telling precursor to this tie, which should predominantly be about Victory’s possession against Sydney’s deep defensive shape – even though Muscat would probably prefer his side to play on the counter-attack. That’s been a long-standing feeling, ever since Ange Postecoglou reshaped the side into this unique 4-2-2-2 variant that features two playmakers and two wide forwards – when attacks are quick and direct, it works, with the two wingers getting into the space created in behind by the movement of the front two into deeper positions.
However, when with the ball for long periods, the Victory always feel sterile – able to work the ball into advanced positions, but without a ‘proper no.9’ to attack crosses or space in behind the defence to get the attackers on the ball, lacking in penetration.
That largely explains why Sydney have a good record against them this season, particularly in light of Frank Farina’s increasing preference for a reactive style of football. Far from the pre-season promise of a possession-based approach lead by assistant coach Rado Vidosic, Farina now uses a 4-3-3 that generally appears 4-5-1 with the wingers dropping back to protect the full-backs.
However, the first issue to consider is whether Farina might, as he has been wont to do this year, suddenly change shape – something that seems slightly plausible when you consider how successful the diamond formation was against the Victory back in January. With Muscat instructing his side to press reasonably high up on Sydney’s back four, but neglecting to recognise the numerical disadvantage he had through the centre of the pitch (4v2), there was always a spare man through midfield to receive possession for Sydney – the ‘bottom three’ of the diamond, Terry McFlynn, Milos Dimitrijevic and Hagi Gligor, all recorded outstandingly accurate pass completion rates, misplacing just three all game.
That, in turn, gave them the freedom to find Alessandro Del Piero in advanced positions – that was one of the Italian’s genuinely excellent games for Sydney this year, and he pulled the strings in a fine 5-0 win, contributing two of the goals.
Getting Del Piero on the ball facing forwards remains Sydney’s best attacking outlet, and Farina’s decisions generally revolve around that – whether it be using a 4-2-3-1, a 5-3-2, 4-4-2 diamond, or, as what still seems overwhelming likely here, a 4-3-3. Originally, he was used from the left, given the freedom to cut inside into the channel, but after that caused problems in wide areas against Western Sydney Wanderers, Farina actually decided to shift him central for the first time against Adelaide, as something of a false nine.
While Del Piero’s lack of defensive contribution – discussed at length elsewhere - causes problems no matter where he plays, it’s less of an issue upfront: largely because Sydney don’t press high up, and generally concede time on the ball to deep-lying midfielders anyway, and in the context of the Victory, because their deep-lying midfield duo always control games with their passing anyway. Mark Milligan and James Jeggo dominated the passing statistics in the 1-1 draw.
Milligan and Broxham (or Jeggo) will continue the trend. Farina won’t be concerned with them being free in deep positions, but rather about preventing them causing damage with that freedom.
With that in mind, it’s worth considering the role of Rostyn Griffiths in last Sunday’s match between Sydney and Perth – where the latter used a diamond formation that allowed them to dominate the centre of the pitch, with Griffiths constantly free at the base to distribute the ball forwards. He was the game’s most frequent passer, and commendably positive with his passing – looking to knock balls over the top, and trying to not only pass forwards, but into the feet of his teammates in dangerous positions.
Space either side of Antonis?
The problem was how deep Sydney were – they packed the centre of the pitch with effectively five players, crowding out the space. It’s unlikely they’ll be so reactive here, so there should be slightly more room to manoeuvre in midfield (and overall, a more open game), in which case the key space for Milligan and Jeggo to target will be to either side of Terry Antonis, the deepest player in Sydney’s midfield trio.
That was another key zone in the 1-1 - Guilherme Finkler moved into the right channel and looked dangerous whenever receiving passes in the zone, supported by other players drifting over to that flank to cause overloads past Matt Jurman (the left-back). Fittingly, Victory’s equaliser came from Finkler slipping James Troisi in on goal from that exact position, and although Antonis has done a fine job defensively in recent weeks, must be wary of a similar combination here.
Finkler (and Troisi) will be encouraged by the performance of Marcelo Carrusca a couple of weeks back – the Adelaide playmaker started centrally, but drifted to the sides to find space, causing real problems for the holding midfielder that day, Hagi Gligor (who, perhaps not coincidentally, has not started since that match).
Another minor reason why there was space in that particular area is because the left-sided Sydney central midfielder, Ali Abbas, had a demanding role going forward, and so played slightly ‘higher up’ on that side, giving Antonis less support in that zone between him and left-sided centre-back, Nikolai Petkovic.
It’s a sacrifice worth making, though, because Abbas has increasingly become Sydney’s key attacking weapon. To paraphrase a column for FourFourTwo:
[Abbas is used in] a demanding role that requires him to go both around the outside of Del Piero to provide width (when he drifts inside on the ball), as well as track back in defence to protect the left-back and maintain Sydney’s balance. Abbas is perfect for the role. Originally a left-sided player when he first emerged at the Newcastle Jets, and hugely energetic, he is fit enough to withstand the tremendous amount of ground he has to cover.
The Victory have prior warning of this, of course – it was Abbas driving forward on the counter that lead to Sydney’s opening goal in the 1-1. Furthermore, Abbas has been key in nearly all of Sydney’s recent games – either driving attacks forward with his sheer energy, or combining neatly with Del Piero. The two share a good understanding, and the Italian seems to appreciate the ‘running’ Abbas does ‘for’ him – the verticality off the ball gives him a target for through balls.
Interestingly, though, Abbas was relatively subdued in Sydney’s last match against Perth, primarily because Kenny Lowe instructed Jacob Burns to play very high up on the right hand side of the diamond – therefore pushing Abbas into deeper positions, opening up space for Griffiths, and furthermore, meaning there was someone close to him at transitions. Unsurprisingly, Burns was booked for dragging back Abbas when the latter was springing forward on the counter.
Victory’s right-sided central midfielder, then, might be encouraged to be similarly positionally bold – but because there’s only the cover of one midfielder (as compared to two for Perth – Griffiths and Steven McGarry), this doesn’t seem as likely.
Therefore, Abbas will probably be key going forward for Sydney – along with Richard Garcia and Joel Chianese on the flanks, it’s very important he gets forward in advance of Del Piero to give Sydney runners on the counter-attack. With that in mind, Muscat won’t ask his full-backs to get forward too much, wary of conceding space in behind for Sydney’s wide players.
Another area of concern for Muscat will be the space between the lines of midfield and defence. Del Piero has a handy knack for drawing fouls, which both kills momentum and gives Sydney set-piece opportunities, and concerningly for the Victory coach, he has to play Pablo Contreras – a centre-back who has had problems against deep-lying forwards in the past, and could be dragged upfield by Del Piero. Indeed, Victory have had problems in this zone in the past, notably when David Williams dropped short in front of the centre-backs in the Melbourne Derby - he was therefore always a passing option, and thus the catalyst for many of the Heart’s attacks.
Del Piero’s delivery (and shooting) from set pieces, too, is important – especially when you remember Sydney have four tall centre-backs to be able to send forward at corners and indirect free-kicks, which might be a factor particularly if the minuscule Leigh Broxham starts at centre-back. In fairness, Broxham does a decent job accommodating for his lack of height, but it’s still a flaw in his game, no matter how well he plays.
At the other end, Muscat might try and replicate Perth’s approach to corners, which lead to their equalising goal (and was something Lowe suggested they’d specifically worked on): basically, it’s packing the near post and assigning runners to pull their man-markers towards that area, and lofting the corner high so that it falls to the untracked runner at the far post (in Perth’s case, Griffiths).
It’s worth remembering, too, that the Victory will have opportunities to hit Sydney on the counter, and Kosta Barbarouses and Archie Thompson will, as always, be the outlets – that’s if they can stay onside, which, along with their profligacy, has been a real problem this season. That’s not really a tactical thing, but more about the individual players, and whether they can ‘perform’ on the right.
With four centre-backs across the back, there’s no real attacking full-back who the Victory can target to get in behind, although Sebastian Ryall tends to get forward more than Jurman on the opposite side – as Victory themselves will attest, seeing as Ryall got forward to score a spectacular goal against them in the 5-0.
Finally, it’s entirely possible Muscat himself will switch formation, having experimented with a more defensive 4-3-3 in the Champions League. That, though, seems to his ‘continental approach’, against superior sides, and knowing Sydney will play on the break, he’ll want to include the extra playmaker in his 4-2-2-2.
The Champions League, too, is another thing to consider – Muscat’s generally done a good job of rotating the squad, which seems to be corroborated by their recent good form, and Thompson, Adama Traore and Scott Galloway have had the benefit of a full week’s rest, but the core of the side will have to adapt to the demanding fixture list and extra match on Monday night, which, in a potential 120 minute match, might be crucial. They will be, though, buoyed by their big underdog win against Guangzhou Evergrande mid-week.
“I think a lot of teams come and play against us and sit back but Melbourne like to press and I think that helps us in a way,” says Ryall. It’s true, and should be the overriding theme of this match – particularly because neither coach really makes clever in-game switches or tactical adjustments. This, then, will be about the overriding battle of the two systems, and how well either side can execute those approaches.
More specifically, whether the Victory can contain Abbas, and create chances against Sydney’s deep defence, will be the key issues.