Sydney FC might be even better this season

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By , Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    On a perfectly palatable Leichhardt Oval pitch, on a night sinking into a premature summer balm, the FFA Cup quarter finals staged a rematch of last season’s FFA Cup final.

    Sydney FC and Melbourne City, the latter victorious in this competition last year, met as two teams both entering the final stages of their preparations, although with one team significantly more at ease than the other.

    Sydney have had to replace three significant players this off-season; Rhyan Grant, Danny Vukovic and Filip Holosko, all automatic starters last season, are all no longer in the team, due to departure or, in Grant’s case, long-term injury.

    For a club for which continuity is so evidently valued – Sydney re-signed almost all of their key players over the break – this was a problem. But, as we’ve seen, a problem that was solved quickly and effectively.

    Luke Wilshere, Andrew Redmayne and Adrian Mierzejewski have been brought in, and all started this FFA Cup quarter final. Wilshere and Redmayne, two experienced Australian journeymen, have slotted in as unobtrusively as might have been expected.

    But Mierzejewski, an unknown asset, quickly took this game as an opportunity to show that he won’t just replace Holosko on the right-hand side of the Sydney attack; he’ll damn well show Holosko up.

    The opening half, one that Sydney controlled, saw Mierzejewski spray at least three 30 metre passes to teammates on the run, landing the ball with the appropriate backspin, on the exact patch of turf he needed to.

    He was dropping deep into midfield to collect the ball, interchanging short passes with Milos Ninkovic and Brandon O’Neill, even roaming to the opposite flank, causing havoc as he went.

    Holosko’s role last season was one that involved a whole lot of running, often hugged up against the sideline, more the receiver of passes than the distributor of them. He was a diligent, disciplined winger, who made off-the-ball runs that were vital, not just for scoring goals, but also for the creation of space for his teammates.

    It was assumed that Sydney would find a like-for-like replacement when he left; why change a formula that secured them a dominant double last season? These assumptions, much like the Melbourne City defence last night, were shredded by Mierzejewski’s performance.

    He was described during the build-up to this match as “another Ninkovic”. While starkly less hirsute than the original, Mierzejewski certainly looked as much.

    Milos Ninkovic celebrates for Sydney FC

    (AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

    City have just one hole to fill, but it’s a big’un; Bruno Fornaroli went down in the last FFA Cup round with a serious ankle injury, and will be out at least until the new year.

    Needless to say, losing a goalscorer and creative fulcrum as talented as Fornaroli has hurt City, who are actively looking for a marquee replacement.

    As far as the goal-void goes, Tim Cahill is an obvious short-term alternative, but City manager Warren Joyce opted against taking that avenue in this match. He sent out a highly unusual 3-5-2 formation, with no recognised striker on the pitch.

    Bruce Kamau and Nick Fitzgerald – both more at home on the wings – were the most advanced players, and were squeezed inward by the presence of wing-backs Manny Muscat and Scott Jamieson.

    The most attack-minded central midfielder, Stephen Mauk, was being marshalled expertly by his Sydney counterparts O’Neill and Josh Brillante; there was no coherent route forward for City, apart from the occasional fortunate punt up-field.

    Meanwhile, Sydney had already taken the lead via Jordy Buijs’ venomous free kick, whipped in over the wall from just outside the box. Ninkovic and Mierzejewski were tracing paths over the full width of the pitch, dropping deep and pushing forward in syncopation, dragging the City team into awkward shapes. Michael Zullo was enjoying a spell of significant possession on the left flank, and Redmayne had hardly been tested.

    The fact one team was playing in a highly familiar formation – with additional weapons attached – and the other was forced uncomfortably into a foreign one – with their main weapon removed – was patently obvious.

    One of Melbourne City’s three centre backs was rendered redundant by Sydney’s fielding of a single striker; the Melbourne team was outnumbered as a result in midfield, where Ninkovic and Mierzejewski were running riot.

    Osama Malik and Neil Kilkenny were frazzled, having to cover an amorphous blur of blue shirts, with Alex Brosque drifting threateningly as well. Nothing about the first half should have indicated to Joyce that his system was coping.

    Joyce duly changed it at half time, to a back four defence, and brought on Tim Cahill for Nick Fitzgerald. Something resembling a 4-3-3 was assembled, with Iacopo La Rocca stepping into midfield, and Mauk pushing forward into the attack. Immediately City looked an improved team, fashioning by far their best chance of the match early in the second half, wasted regrettably by Jamieson.

    But then Sydney scored a sumptuous second goal, with Mierzejewski at the heart. A poor pass from Malik was controlled by Mierzejewski, who then looped a perfect chipped through-ball to Brosque.

    Still with considerable work to do, Brosque headed back across his marker, an unlikely change of direction, and lofted the ball over Eugene Galekovic with his left foot, a perfect lob that snuck in under the bar.

    It was a sequence draped in finery, and it was a brutal reminder to City that the beginning of the second half is a little late to be finally feeling their way into the contest.

    The small gust of wind City had caught in their sails was quashed, and Sydney again took complete control. Zullo was crucifying Muscat on the left wing, with the City defender twice fouling Zullo egregiously, leaving the Sydney fullback writhing in pain. Marcelo Carrusca, City’s new signing, was brought on to spur the attack into action.

    Every Sydney pass stuck; they were maintaining possession with ease, and City were beleaguered and quickly getting frustrated. Brosque, nursing a worrying knock, was removed in favour of David Carney. City, perhaps egged on by the sight of the Sydney captain and second goalscorer departing the contest, lifted a little. The Sky Blue defence, imperious as always, simply eased back on their heels, rolling with the pressure.

    The game slipped away, with City’s late salvaging efforts falling well short. The opening half, and the confidence and one-goal margin Sydney took from it, set an authoritative tone.

    One wonders exactly how Warren Joyce imagined things working for his team with that starting system in place; Joyce has only had three head coaching jobs before this, one as a player-coach at Hull City – in the lowest professional tier of English football at the time – in the late nineties, then for two years at Royal Antwerp in 2006, then finally last year at Wigan, a tenure that ended after four months when he was sacked.

    It isn’t exactly the senior managerial pedigree befitting of a team under City Group ownership, but judgement should be reserved until a sizeable sample of matches have been played.

    What was clear here is that, even if Sydney have downgraded slightly at right-back and goalkeeper, it seems as though they’ve made a significant upgrade in Mierzejewski.

    They’ve knocked out the team that beat them in the FFA Cup final last year, and have secured a place in this year’s semi-final.

    “We want to win everything again,” Mierzejewski said post-match. Consider the A-League forewarned.

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.

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