Adelaide United 1-1 Melbourne Heart match analysis

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There are multiple prisms through which to perceive this match; a ‘relegation’ scrap for one, a grudge match between former colleagues (on the pitch and in the dugouts) another, a double Dutch affair, perhaps even a fight between the two highest paid and most ‘underperforming’ managers in the league.

Thanks to the audacity of John van’t Schip however, PM is going to treat this match as a fascinating tactical exhibition.

The first half was a see-sawing affair. Heart dominated play initially, thanks to their monopoly of possession. But Adelaide battled through, unsettling the Heart and conjuring threatening periods of play. What set this fixture alight however, was the late sending off of Colosimo, and Adelaide’s equaliser from the resultant free kick. Both sides really battled in the closing minutes; Slory came close to twice creating open net situations, while Hoffman actually tapped in a shot from close range, only to be called off-side.

Adelaide system:

Rini Coolen sent out the Reds in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 shape, with modifications. Coolen kept faith with Galekovic between the sticks. Susak was restored with McKain in the central defensive pair. Watson was withdrawn at right fullback, with Cassio advanced on the left. Caravella was shifted back to his preferred central midfield, in a double pivot with Levchenko. Ramsay, Vidosic and Djite formed a nominal attacking trident behind lone striker Van Dijk.

The Reds front four was extremely fluid. Initially, Vidosic was deployed on the right, with Djite as a withdrawn striker. Djite spent time in each position in the trident, swapping with Ramsay and Van Dijk.

On the other hand, the other six outfield players were rather conservative. Levchenko and Caravella, while by no means purely defensive players, didn’t contribute enough in an attacking sense. Cassio wasn’t able to beat his marker for pace, while Watson did not advance to support. This would become a significant weakness for Adelaide.

Heart system:

Van’t Schip deployed Heart in a 3-3-1-3, a formation that is almost the Bunyip of football tactics, so rarely is it glimpsed. Thompson was the sweeper, and along with Hamill on the left and Colosimo on the right, formed a three-man pivoting backline. Germano sat just advanced of Thompson, in a second trio, with Behich and Marrone tucked in quite narrow at wingback. Shroj was in central midfield. Williams and Dugandzic were inverted on the left and right wing, with Terra reprising his role as the False Nine.

If like PM, your experience of elite football is heavily focussed on the Premiership, it’s unlikely you’ve seen anything like it (It is perhaps better to think of it as 3-3-3-1/3-6-1 or even a stretched 3-4-3 diamond). There are however two relevant examples, one of which might surprise you.

The first is Marcelo Bielsa. As one Roar commenter pointed out, Bielsa is perhaps the only top level manager in the world to use the 3-3-1-3 as his preferred formation, which he famously utilised to great effect in leading Chile through qualification and then competition for the 2010 World Cup.

The second is Guus Hiddink. His name alone sends shivers of admiration down the spines of most Australians and why wouldn’t it. Guus was renowned for leading Australia out of the darkness and back to the summit of international football after a three decade absence. His stellar work for the Socceroos deserves an article, television film and national monument all by itself, but what was relevant tactically, was his preference for a 3-3-1-3 formation.

Bunyip, thy name is 3-3-1-3:

So what is the big deal with a 3-6-1? Isn’t it all just a bunch of odd-numbers and hyphens? Well no. The 3-3-1-3 is a formation that promotes, or rather requires three things; versatility, pressing and possession.

Versatility is required because of the sheet amount of shuttling players in the formation. Arsene Wenger once said of the 4-4-2 that it was the most optimal formation when it came to covering space; two banks of four spread evenly horizontally. Compare that to the 3-3-1-3; two banks of three shuttling across the pitch. The 3-6-1 therefore trusts to a greater level, the athelticism and awareness of the defenders, as fewer are relied upon to cover the same amount of horizontal space.

But versatility is also required because of the division of defensive and attacking responsibilities. Consider the modern deafult of 4-2-3-1. In a conservative sense, it can become a case of sticking six defenders behind the ball to cover for an attacking quartet. This was the approach the Dutch used in South Africa, with six defensive players, allowing Van Persie, Robben, Sneijder and Kuyt to sow mayhem. For an Australian example, consider Rini Coolen’s approach last season; six defensive players, allowing Pantelis, Leckie, Van Dijk and Flores wreak havoc.

But the 3-3-1-3 has a more equitable distribution of responsibilities. Wingbacks are probably the prime example. They are given more license to attack because of the extra body in central defence. Centre backs are required to spread even wider to occupy the space vacated by the advanced wingbacks, but are still required to mark the opposition forwards. The inside forwards must pin back the opposition fullbacks but are also required to attack central.

Pressing receives greater emphasis due to the attacking nature of the formation. Using only one defensive midfielder instead of a double pivot means that the forwards are required to press the opposition, lest the centre become overrun. So to put it more simply; whereas a 4-2-3-1 can fold back into two banks of four to reset the defensive lines in the event possession is lost, theoretically in a 3-3-1-3 only the three centre backs and single holder are in a position to do so.

The security of the 3-3-1-3 is trusted almost entirely to the high press, winning the ball back instantly so as to osfuscate opposition attacks. The advantage to this is the high intensity can unsettle an opponent, and the press can prevent them for constructing attacks. The downside is that the high press obviously requires greater energy and there is less security behind the ball if the press is beaten.

So basically, the successful 3-3-1-3 is dependent on those three measures; versatility, pressing and possession. Van’t Schip is nothing if not a canny theoretician; having assessed the strengths of his squad to be so, he has chosen to implement a pro-active formation which makes best use of them.

Heart most definitely have versatility; despite making one like-for-like change in the starting XI, van’t Schip was able to completely change the system. Thompson is comfortable in defence, defensive midfield, attacking midfield and fullback. Behich is a converted left winger, so is literally a wingback. Marrone began his career in central midfield before being shifted wide.

Terra can operate as a lone forward, winger, trequartista and false nine. Dugandzic and Williams are comfortable inverted from their preferred sides. The core of the squad is relatively young, fast and fit, and as for possession, Heart are the only other side besides the rampant champions seeking to implement pro-active possession football.

Advantages:

There are specific changes in regards to Heart’s shift from 4-3-3 to 3-6-1, namely the shift from fullback to wingback, the three-man defence, the surplus in midfield and Terra’s False Nine.

The fullback to wingback shift is probably the easiest to conceive. During the Melbourne Derby, PM noted that Heart’s attack was suffering due to lack of width. The inverted wingers, Williams and Dugandzic, were attacking too fast for the advanced fullbacks, Behich and Marrone, to catch up, let alone overlap.

With the security of an extra player in central defence, the wingback is given more license to attack than the fullback. There is also a logistical element to be considered. Nominal fullbacks are deployed more or less in line with the central defenders. Wingbacks are stationed nearer to the halfway line; the shorter distance to the forward line facilitates aggression.

In the Brazilian tradition, the ‘lateral’ or fullback is actually largely absolved of defensive duties, but that is due to packing the midfield with defensive players. In a 3-3-1-3, there is only one holder in midfield, instead of a double pivot, or conservative trio. So for aggressive fullbacks in a conventional 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, there is really only one route of attack; overlap on the outside.

In a 3-3-1-3, the wingbacks are actually closer to carilleros (side midfielders) in a 3-4-3 diamond. They are encouraged to cut inside, in a parallel to the inverted wingers, which is what Behich and Marrone did against Adelaide.

The three-man defence is a little harder to explain, given its absence in contemporary European football. The three-man backline developed in response to the prevalance of 4-4-2. Two of the centre backs would mark the two strikers, with a third for cover; the rationale was the impetus for retaining a spare man at the back. Since the advent of lone striker systems, the three-man backline has fallen out of favour. Against a single striker, one marker and one for cover is required; one of the centre backs is left redundant, leaving a shortfall in the side.

Coolen has never deviated from a nominal 4-2-3-1, so why was Heart’s three-man backline effective? The answer lies in the difference between Vidosic and Flores. That notion deserves an article all by itself, but in short, Flores was an old style trequartista while Vidosic is much closer to the modern reinterpretation of a second striker; closer to the mould of Mesut Ozil than Steven Gerrard. Therefore in effect, Adelaide were using a strike partnership and a pair in midfield. Instructing Vidosic to stay high played into van’t Schip’s hands, the second week in a row that Coolen has been outsmated by his opposite number.

Having six players in midfield meant Heart outnumbered Adelaide, but the most important point is that having a surplus enhanced Heart’s ability to transition between defence and attack and their ability to maintain possession.

Finally, Heart’s false nine Alex Terra. It is a testament to how experimental Van’t Schip has been, in that even with a False Nine on the pitch, the most tactically interesting feature was his formation. There is a more full explanation of the false nine in the Match Analysis of the Melbourne Derby, but basically, a false nine can be conceived of as trequartista used as the most advanced forward.

In possession, the false nine drops deep looking to vacate space and dictate play. Among the advantages is the ability to retain possession due to an extra player and the absence of a fixed point of reference for the attack, therefore rendering opposition centre backs redundant.

Dreams versus reality:

Having laid out the theoretical tactical advantages Heart held over their hosts Adelaide, why was the match a relatively even contest? PM has made the comparison of Heart to Arsenal before, and again curiously, the Red and Whites of Melbourne and London strike up an uncanny resemblance. Williams and Dugandzic were guilty on more than one occasion of displaying poor judgement; at times they tended to run when they should have passed, laid off when they should have dribbled and tried to play the killer pass when they should have retained possession.

Again, there seemed to be a lack of, if not exactly leadership, then a ‘controlling presence’ in midfield to patiently dictate play. Dugandzic was very good in patches on the ball, playing in Terra to great effect in the first half. But really, it should have been a midfielder playing in Dugandzic, making a diagonal run through Adelaide’s defence, not the left winger playing in another forward with a vertical ball, which are harder to execute.

Heart’s advantage in midfield was felt, but Djite in particular exhibited an excellent work rate off the ball, harassing the flat midfield trio in possession.

The curious case of Matt Thompson:

Strangely enough, van’t Schip seems to be particularly reluctant to deploy the No. 6 as the anchor in midfield. Initially deployed in attacking midfield, then converted to central defence for his proficiency in distribution, why hasn’t Van’t Schip regularly fielded the Novocastrian in the most logical compromise between the two positions?

Defensive midfield, in the ‘Busquets’ (or as ZM refers to it, the ‘modern centre half’) role, controlling possession and then dropping deep into defence to allow the fullbacks to advance, is the most obvious way to give full scope to Thompson’s versatile abilities. He would be able to use his passing skill to distribute out of the backline, his defensive awareness to help cover the central defenders, and he would be given more license to advance with players behind him.

Colosimo red carded:

This was the turning point of the contest. Hamill had given the vistors the advantage at the start of the second period, but Dilevski was able to equalise after Cassio’s free kick was parried by Bolton into his path.

Van’t Schip modified his shape into a 3-3-3. Thomson marshalled Behich and Marrone in the three-man backline, Fred, Shroj and Germano formed a midfield trio, while Maycon led the line with Dugandzic and Hoffman on the wings.

Credit to Van’t Schip who made a courageous tactical decision to continue to attack, where most other managers would have retreated. But this was no truculent or defiant gesture; it was a considered calculation. Sitting deep and defending did not suit the players on the pitch (Heart did not have a single nominal defender in the line-up, with the departures of Hamill and Colosimo); in this case, attack really was the best form of defence. Pushing Adelaide back into their half was the option that best suited the players on the pitch, instead of inviting pressure without nominal central defenders.

Additionally, Van’t Schip had the measure of Coolen’s tactics. Coolen has a tendency to favour the broken team approach, but the important part is the numerical balance; very rarely does he deploy more than four ‘attacking’ players, preferring to retain six ‘defensive’ players to keep the situation secure at the back. During this match, all of his substitutions can be broadly considered like-for-like, so the numerical balance never changed. Van’t Schip used this against the Reds.

Levchenko and Caravella are hardly midfield destroyers, but neither look to overload the attacking half, preferring to patiently pass. Cassio is a fairly aggressive presence at leftback, but he was ably marshalled by Dugandzic, who he was never going to be able to burn for pace. Van’t Schip therefore knew his team only really needed to have four strictly defensive players after the red card; the back-three of Behich, Thompson and Marrone, and Germano the holder. The rest of the players were given license to press, with Van’t Schip discarding his spare man in midfield.

The biggest gamble Van’t Schip took, was to bank on his players’ fitness, and even this was a fairly safe bet. Energy levels can become a concern with a side reduced to ten. But the Heart manager again made a calculated decision, recognising his substitutes pressing in the forward line would alleviate most of the pressure, and that the majority of his players are young and exceptionally fit; Heart are among the few sides that seem physically able to sustain a high press for the full duration of a match. Furthermore, with the clock running down, there was only ever going to be 10 minutes of the match remaining.

Conclusion:

Van’t Schip is a fascinating manager. He continues to exploit the qualities of his players in unconventional and unexpected ways, inverting and converting positions, utilising new shapes and formations but always in the pursuit of his purist philosophy of football. If he has faults, man-management might be one, the Heart captaincy situation being illustrative, but also that he has a tendency to be overly aggressive. Nevertheless, Heart are lucky to have a manager of his intelligence and calibre.

There are rumours he might leave at the conclusion of his contract, and that is truly unfortunate; the former Ajax winger has made an indelible contribution to Australian football, defining the identity of a club that could have easily been dismissed as Victory’s little brother. There are only a few other men who have had this privilege; Merrick, McKinna and Postecoglou the others. Get to work on the “Sign Him Up” banners Yarraside.

The Red and Whites are in a false position on the league table. As PM has noted before, Heart did not deserve to lose to Newcastle or Perth, and should have won against Victory and Sydney.

Coolen was very optimistic after this match, but is this justified? The Adelaide of 12 months ago, the squad he inherited, looked exponentially more accomplished and lethal, compared to the renovated version he has assembled at great expense. Levchenko and Usucar; are they that much better than Hughes and Reid? Slory and Djite; are they really better options than Pantelis and Dodd? Adelaide have looked distinctly off the pace in their opening five games. PM tipped them for a title change, and that is increasingly looking like a generous bet.

Player rankings:

Heart | Adelaide

10) Behich | Watson
9) Colosimo | McKain
8) Thompson | Susak
7) Marrone | Cassio
6) Williams | Levchenko, Usucar
5) Shroj, Maycon | Vidosic
4) Germano, Fred | Carvella
3) Hamill | Ramsay, Slory
2) Terra | Van Dijk
1) Dugandzic | Djite

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