For a Sydney FC fan, the image of Graham Arnold riding off into the sunset on mounted steed with the A-League toilet seat draped around his neck isn’t offensive at all.
I’m sure supporters of other clubs might find it a little less tasteful, yet the reality is that Sydney look like ‘good things’ with a couple of months of A-League action remaining.
Opposition managers will be reminding their squads that nothing is a sure bet and there are ways to bring the rampant ladder leaders to their knees. It’s taken me a considerable amount of time to identify them, but they are there.
Start fast and score first
Much has been made of Sydney’s ability to build pressure. They are prepared to sit, sit and sit a little more. When in front on the scoreboard, the pressure becomes relentless. Against the Sky Blues a fast start is paramount.
They are somewhat untried chasing games, rarely have they been behind. The Western Sydney Wanderers led in the most recent Sydney Derby and held their advantage.
There were times during the second half that Sydney struggled and their attacking options were blunted.
Forced to take possession and build from the back more often. They looked less effective.
While this is all easier said than done, the clash with Melbourne City adds weight to the argument. Before the contest was ruined by the red issued to Manny Muscat, City started better, looked more dangerous and had Sydney under the pump in the early stages.
Arnold’s men were a little lucky to be in front before Nick Fitzgerald’s stunning equaliser.
It wasn’t until Sydney took the numerical advantage in personnel, that they were able to put them away. It was a case of what could have been for Melbourne City.
Width, width and more width
Any game plan designed to play through the Sydney centre-backs is destined to fail. Not only has the form of Alex Wilkinson and his defensive team been unprecedentedly good, the co-ordination of them as a unit makes them extremely difficult to break down.
One of the most clear cut examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Sneaking in at near or back posts with quality ball played in from the by-line is far more likely to succeed. A way to achieve this would be to create a little more angle in the passes from the number ten position, sending wingers to space and then finding avenues to goal through cut-backs.
Besart Berisha, Marco Rojas and James Troisi do this very well for Melbourne Victory and considering where they sit on the ladder, should fill Sydney with trepidation.
Teams that have attacked Sydney with medium length balls played over the top have struggled. The speed of Michael Zullo and Rhyan Grant allows them to turn, chase and apply defensive pressure. Both of them work the line tirelessly and catching them out for speed is a forlorn hope.
Making Zullo and Grant turn sharply with more acutely angled balls will open up more chances than long sweeping deliveries that play to their strength.
Make Zullo and Grant work
On much the same theme, opposition teams need to approach the two back-men aggressively. If Arnold uses them to sweep forward in attack, looping around the attacking mid-fielders when possession is turned over, they must be forced to track back just as hard.
Allowing them to assume their defensive roles without a challenge to their attacking position on the field plays into Sydney’s hands.
Rebounding quickly and adopting Sydney’s mantra of speed outweighing the benefits of time in possession, could result in the two defenders potentially being a little more cautious with the positions they take up in attack.
At times possession may be sacrificed in an attempt to apply quick pressure, yet this is the by-product of a tactic that could stunt the sky blues attacking options on the counter.
Hit your KPIs and maintain discipline
No team will beat Sydney FC without total commitment from each and every player. Every single moment will require execution of the highest standard.
Players tracking back cannot drop off and sloppy challenges around the edge of the area will prove disastrous, as Milos Ninkovic and Brandon O’Neill wait to pounce.
Communication at the back needs to be almost perfect when the Sydney press is engaged and maintaining discipline amidst the pressure is vital.
All easy to say I know, however Brisbane Roar have done something akin to the above on two occasions this season. Their discipline and structures remained constant throughout both clashes. The 1-1 draw was sprightly football and the rather dour affair on a less than perfect pitch, remained scoreless after ninety.
On both occasions Brisbane remained on task, something that Perth Glory, Adelaide United and Wellington Phoenix did not do and subsequently, had their pants pull down rather embarrassingly.
The Central Coast Mariners also lost focus in January, playing sloppily on their home strip before finding their rhythm and pushing the record breaking club to the brink. The 2-3 loss saw Sydney shaking in their boots in the last twenty.
The Mariners performance showed that pressure can be applied to Sydney, yet mistakes will cost you in spades.
Try to limit the passing channels of Ninkovic
Sounds simple doesn’t it? Eliminating Ninkovic’s impact on the game is a ridiculous proposition, yet controlling it is possible. Fundamentally it is all about space. Limiting his is key. Deft balls on the edge of the box are his speciality and made possible by that metre of space created by his skill and dexterity.
Guarding space against Ninkovic doesn’t appear to work for his direct opponent when under attack. Stepping up and committing to the challenge to force a pass, time after time, makes the little man play without the luxury of that extra second that precedes the killer ball he so often produces.
In saying all of this, men far more gifted in football analysis than me have attempted to penetrate the ruthless defence of the sky blues this season, with incredibility limited success.
No one has really opened them up and their losses are both closely fought, one goal defeats.
Perhaps the wizardry of Ninkovic, the class of Bobo and the running and workload of Filip Holosko are just a bridge too far for A-League defences. Maybe the hermetically sealed defence can’t be disarmed.
The cattle that Arnold has at his disposal might just be one of the best teams ever put together in this country.
While Sydney FC fans will hope all this is true and the relentless march to the title continues, there are some learned men scheming in the shadows trying to find a way to counter their methods.
On a given day, with a committed team, a little bit of luck and some football smarts, someone just might do it.