Wanderers look as likely as anyone to lift the golden toilet seat
Tony Popovic is under pressure to replace departing star players. AAP Image/Theron Kirkman
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Tony Popovic might prefer to keep a lid on the hype, but right now, with their organisation and tactical awareness, the Western Sydney Wanderers look likely as anyone to lift the golden toilet seat at the end of April.
While there remains a third of regular season to go, the Wanderers, firmly ensconced in the top four, can start entertaining the prospect of not only being there at the business end of the season, but winning the whole thing.
While the Central Coast Mariners and Melbourne Victory remain ahead of them both on the table and in the eyes of the bookies, it is becoming clear that Popovic’s men aren’t afraid of anyone.
That’s because he has created an environment where his team is well conditioned and confident in the art of controlling a match, irrespective of the circumstances thrown at them.
We saw that again on Saturday in another pulsating night out at Wanderland, the home ground that is fast becoming the hottest place to be in Australian sport.
Confronted by the early send-off of right back Jerome Polenz and facing a penalty, the Wanderers refused to buckle.
Indeed, emboldened by a thrilling penalty save by Ante Covic, which generated what must have been one of the loudest roars Parramatta Stadium has ever seen, the Wanderers seemed to grow even more after the send-off.
Much of that was down to Popovic’s tactical decision after Polenz’s red card.
While the tactical convention in a situation like that, in a 4-2-3-1, is to take off one of your front four and play with what is ostensibly a 4-2-3 or 4-4-1, Popovic went for the jugular.
While he was warming Iaccopa La Rocca up, Popovic and his assistant Ante Milicic switched their tactical lynch-pin Mateo Poljak from central midfield to right back, leaving Aaron Mooy on his own in central midfield.
It seemed this would only be a temporary gesture and that one of his front four, Shinji Ono, Mark Bridge, Youssouf Hersi or Dino Kresinger would be sacrificed once La Rocca came on.
But in the few minutes it took to get La Rocca ready, the Wanderers looked a threat in the final third, controlling possession well.
Each of the quartet not only looked influential on the ball, but had a purpose defensively.
Popovic instead took off Mooy, one of his two anchors, returning Poljak to the centre of midfield on his own.
He essentially went to a 4-1-3-1.
Surely the Melbourne Heart midfield trio of Matt Thompson, Nick Kalmar and Jonathan Germano would be able to gang-up on Poljak and control the midfield and game.
Alas, it was the 10-man Wanderers who were able to control the rest of the match, eventually getting a deserved winner when Hersi went to work in the box late and Ono converted the resulting penalty.
Poljak was everywhere, a one-man midfield wrecking ball.
Catching up with Popovic after the game, he suggested the move was an instinctive one, and there was certainly a hint of intuition about it.
After all, the excellent recent run had no doubt given the Wanderers a bit of buffer and comfort in the top four, and playing at home certainly helped.
In many ways, Popovic had nothing to lose, and it showed with him taking such a gamble.
But beyond the intuition, the move was as much about the belief flowing through the Wanderers’ technical staff and players.
The belief is not only in their understanding of the Wanderers’ system and what’s required in various scenarios, but in the physical conditioning of the players.
Patently they believe they have the legs to run over any opponent, even when a man short.
With a well organised and in-touch defensive structure, this physicality has helped them boss games this season.
Particularly when the highly under-rated Poljak is available, few are able to compete with the Wanderers’ physicality.
Indeed, they are the masters of picking up the second ball and applying the team press.
While the Victory and Mariners have already posed the Wanderers a headache or two this season, there appears to be growing belief within the camp they can compete equally.
Certainly, beating the Victory 2-1 at Wanderland on New Year’s Day, after suffering a 2-0 loss to them only a few weeks earlier, even after Sam Gallagher was sent off, appeared to instil much belief.
This was particularly so after romping through Adelaide 6-1 a few days before Christmas.
What Popovic and Milicic proved on New Year’s Day is they had learnt from the earlier loss to the Victory, devised a plan to combat Archie Thompson and Marco Rojas, and managed to execute it.
It has been very rare in recent years to find Ange Postecoglou tactically out-thought, but he was certainly second-best on his second trip to Parramatta this season.
While the Wanderers weren’t able to repeat this feat a few days later against the competition front-runners, the Mariners, the fact they went into that blockbuster without the likes of Kresinger, Michael Beauchamp, Poljak and Hersi will embolden them the next time they meet.
That match, scheduled for round 23 on March 2, is likely to prove very telling in the title race, particularly if both sides are at full strength.
Another match that’s likely to be a title barometer comes two weeks earlier, in round 21, when the Wanderers travel to AAMI Park to take on Postecoglou for a third time.
Indeed, with Adelaide United scheduled for this week, the Wanderers will be away to all the other current members of the top four in the final third of the season.
It’s another big test and if the Wanderers can pass it, they’ll take their momentum all the way to the finals.
With much momentum continuing to build off the pitch (the support of the fans appeared to have a major impact on the result against the Heart), there’s no doubt few will relish meeting the Wanderers.
While there’s still a fair part of the season remaining, right now, if you were framing a market for the championship, you’d be crazy not to have the Wanderers right in the mix.
With their tactical flexibility and physicality, the big key for Popovic, like it will be for Graham Arnold and Postecoglou, will be to have his big guns available when it counts.
If he does, the Wanderers will take much stopping.
Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyTannousTRBA