The question flying about after Adelaide United’s 2-0 win over Gamba Osaka on Tuesday night is why do the Reds look so good in the Asian Champions League, yet have struggled in the A-League?
While there are a myriad of reasons for their disappointing domestic season, the ACL has provided John Kosmina and his men an opportunity to start again and put all the issues of the A-League campaign behind them.
With this in mind, Kosmina has set about changing the way Adelaide play, from the diamond 4-4-2 he used for most of the season to a 4-3-3, ironically a system favoured by his predecessor, Rini Coolen.
While it has been a change in formation, more telling has been the shift in emphasis from trying to play an offensive game to sitting back and absorbing, and relying on the counter attack for much of their forward thrust.
In many ways it’s the prefect strategy for the continental tournament. Not enough to win games in the A-League these days, the safety first approach appears to be working a treat against strong continental sides from the J-League, K-League and Uzbekistan.
Realising that Pohang, Gamba and Bunyodkor are all likely to try and get on the front foot and dictate, Kosmina has set his unit up to defend deep, screened by a three man central midfield made up of workers.
On Tuesday, at Hindmarsh, it featured ball winner Francisco Usucar, deep lying playmaker Osama Malik and the slightly more advanced, but far from attacking, Zenon Caravella.
Not far from them, on either side, were Dario Vidosic and Iain Ramsey, charged with the task of tucking in, then breaking forward with pace in support of the lone target-man, Bruce Djite.
By congesting the midfield and remaining compact, Adelaide have looked very hard to break down in their opening two games. Kosmina’s decision to choose a destroyer in Usucar over Evgeniy Levchenko for his ACL squad told much about his plans.
When they have won the ball, there’s been a real purpose about the way they’ve moved the ball forward swiftly.
In many ways, the formula being adopted by Kosmina is exactly the same one used by Aurelio Vidmar at the start of the 2008 ACL campaign, the one that saw the Reds march all the way to the final.
Then, coming off a season in which Adelaide finished near the bottom, and having leaked goals at the back end of the season, Vidmar was adamant about building his unit from the back.
He spent the two months between the end of the domestic season and the start of the ACL working on his back four, getting that right, ensuring the likes of Richie Alagich, Angelo Costanzo, Robbie Cornthwaite, Sash Ognenovski and Cassio were versed in the concept of staying organised and compact.
Ognenovski, you might remember, was immense.
From that platform came the countering strategy, with the likes of Fabian Barbiero, Diego, Lucas Pantelis and Travis Dodd taking turns to burst forward and support Djite and Nathan Burns, and later Cristiano.
As I wrote at the time:
“Tactically, Vidmar built a disciplined template that took United all the way through six group games and four play-offs; defend deep, stay compact, congest the midfield and spring forward through the power of the wide men and central striker.”
Kosmina didn’t have the luxury of time to work on things between the end of the A-League and the start of the ACL.
In some ways though, that’s been a god-send, with the players able to shift their focus immediately to Asia. As well, having domestic games on the weekend has given Kosmina the option to experiment.
He did exactly that a few weeks ago in Sydney, starting Djite on the bench and Sergio van Dijk alone up font.
More recently it’s been van Dijk warming the bench while Djite makes the most of his latest opportunity.
Against Gamba Djite was a menace, all physicality and desire, playing the hold-up role to a tee. Try as he did, Sota Nakazawa couldn’t handle him.
Adelaide weren’t alone in congesting of the midfield, with Graham Arnold adopting a similar process.
After the 1-1 draw at Bluetongue on Wednesday, Nagoya Grampus’ manager Dragan Stojkovic expressed some surprise at how deep the Mariners sat.
Arnold shifted from his standard 4-4-2 diamond, essentially for two reasons. First, he wanted to incorporate his two gun youngsters, Mustafa Amini and Tomas Rogic in the same formation, something I’d suggested he should do a few weeks back.
As well, he wanted to make it difficult for Nagoya’s midfield to feed Josh Kennedy, and there’s no doubt the Mariners, set-out in a Christmas tree 4-3-2-1, did a very good job at stopping the Japanese midfield.
It provided the platform for the prodigious individual talent that is Rogic to go to work at the other end.
While these pragmatic strategies might need to be loosened at a later point in the tournament, when the offensive cream tends to rise to the top, there’s no doubt, for now, the United and Mariners players should be commended for adapting to the changes smoothly and getting the job done.