Riera is the striker the Wanderers have been craving

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By , Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    Last season, the Wanderers were a frustrating team to watch. They were third in the league for key passes made and chances created – behind Sydney and Brisbane – and yet were fourth-bottom for goals scored.

    To watch them play was to wilfully torment yourself; Jumpei Kuskami, Mitch Nichols and Nico Martinez – all players who appeared 28 or more times for Western Sydney in 2016-17 – would weave intricate passing sequences, darting in and out, building to what would be a wondrous crescendo, to the glorious fanfare of scoring. But, more often than not, there would be no grand final cadence, no finale, and the woven passes and darting runs would end up tangled and knotted and wholly unsatisfying. 

    To make things worse, the Wanderers took the second-most shots from outside the penalty area in the league last season, but scored just one solitary goal from distance all year. Near, far, wherever they were, scoring was a titanic struggle for Western Sydney. The question of a new striker was asked repeatedly, and in an increasingly strained tone as the season went on.

    Tony Popovic – a manager with a poor track record when it comes to patient team-building – did not delve into the transfer market in search of a solution, and the indecision he was wracked by as far as selecting a first-choice striker from the squad – Brendon Santalab and Lachlan Scott just about split a season’s worth of appearances last term, with a bit of Kerem Bulut sprinkled in – didn’t help things either. A ho-hum season eventually ground to a halt, and another trying off-season of overhaul loomed. 

    On the eve of 2017-18, the Wanderers fans were scratching at those familiar tendrils of uncertainty that tend to creep over the supportership as the new season approaches; a huge chunk of last season’s attack had gone, with Martinez and Terry Antonis returning to their parent clubs, and Nichols sashaying over to Perth.

    Roly Bonevacia and Mark Bridge were brought in, and so had a new Spanish striker, Oriel Riera; would this latest punt on a foreign marquee attacker pay off, finally, for Popovic? Well, no, because then Popovic himself left for Turkey, and took a large portion of his backroom staff with him. He would not see the fruits of his pre-season labour, assuming there would be fruit and not bare, arid branches and twigs. 

    As it’s turned out, Western Sydney are indeed blooming in a way they couldn’t last season, and it’s thanks in large part to their old manager’s parting gift, Riera, a striker whose instincts and poise have dazzled over the first three games. Riera has scored in each of the three matches so far, including the opener in last weekend’s Sydney Derby.

    The fact that they’ve ended up drawing two of these games having been in winning positions – including a 2-0 lead over Sydney in the derby – will have to be addressed, to be sure, but the manner in which they’ve attacked can only bolster hope of a positive season.

    Brendan Hamill

    (AAP Image/David Moir)

    Last season, Western Sydney’s attack was busy, active, and impotent. This season it’s the exact opposite, with ultra-efficient goal-scoring and chance-creation the hallmarks. According to Fox Sports’ data, the Wanderers have completed the second-most passes in the league, but are bottom of the league in terms of passes completed in the opponent’s attacking third.

    They have attempted the fewest crosses this season, are bottom of the league for forward-pass percentage – which measures what percentage of their total passes are forward passes –  but lead it in sideways-pass percentage. They have attempted eight through-balls (third in the league) of which seven have been successful (second in the league) giving them a completion percentage of 87 per cent, by far the most efficient – along with Sydney FC – in the competition.

    The Wanderers’ average possession figures for the season sit at a touch over 47 per cent, down on their average last season, and third lowest in the A-League – although this might be disproportionately affected by having played the Mariners in their second game, a team who covetously hog the ball. 

    These metrics support the assertion that Western Sydney’s attack has been refined into an ultra-prudent, ultra-efficient system, where quality is valued over quantity, and chances must be taken when they are fashioned. Naturally, such an approach is locked together by a keystone striker, and Riera already appears to be a player upon whom such heavy reliance can safely be placed. Already – and crucially – he seems in tune with his teammates.

    His goal in the match against Perth saw his perfectly-timed run rewarded sumptuously by Alvaro Cejudo’s no-look through-ball. He positioned himself inside his marker, effectively taking him out of the equation when Cejudo’s pass was slipped through, and his finish was clean. It was a move of some coherence, a stunning sight to see in the first game of the season.

    A good start, and he has built on it in the games since; his opener in the derby was a lesson in subtle, potent movement. In the opening minutes, just before his goal, he’s seen executing some classic target-man play; Riera cushions a knock-down from a long ball, then peels off to the back post, signalling his teammate and quickly engaging physically with Alex Wilkinson in preparation for a potential headed chance.

    The cross is over-hit, but the tone was set in the mind of the Sydney defence. Then for the actual goal, once Josh Risdon is sent scampering clear, he shapes up to engage in the same way with Jordy Buijs. The Sydney centre-back stands off Riera, perhaps anticipating some concussive run-and-leap from the striker, giving himself room to run and jump as well.

    Riera, though, darts back toward the now completely clear penalty spot, leaving Buijs marking no one. You can see how Risdon’s clipped cross comes a half-second after Riera makes his move; Risdon saw the vacant area, saw the inflection of Riera’s run, and delivered beautifully. The finish required was now more finesse than force, and Riera dispatched it with aplomb. 

    Riera made a similar manoeuvre against Central Coast in Round Two, in the build up to the penalty, won by Bonevacia and eventually scored by Riera. Again, earlier in the match, Riera is seen threatening at the back post, peeling away and signalling for a cross, just like he would do against Sydney.

    But then – again, as in the derby – during the sequence that ended in the penalty, we see him shaping up to repeat the move, only to feign that hard, far-post run, and hold his position nearer to the penalty spot. He eventually collects the ball after Bonevacia has already won the spot kick, but his movement is still excellent. It’s a simple change-up, but often that’s all you need to shrug off the attention of a centre-back. 

    Riera’s skill set is reminiscent of last season’s premier striking import, Bobo; both are comfortable enough with the ball at their feet to play in a teammate, or jink around a would-be tackler.

    Both are also big and strong enough to play direct long-balls to, and have the appetite to battle with the A-League’s vast collection of burly centre-backs. This sequence, where Riera bounces off two Sydney players like a pinball trying to win a header, then a few seconds later attempts a neat backheeled flick, gives an adequate glimpse of the Spaniard’s versatility.

    Or what about this headed knock-down to Bonevacia, a rare mix of brawn and vision? Riera was barking at the referee after every tussle with Wilkinson or Buijs, keen to fully submerge himself into the fire and fury of the derby.

    His hold up play provides a platform for the pace and dribbling of Bonevacia to launch from, a pivot-point to hinge around. His movement allows Cejudo and Kearyn Baccus to unfold their full passing arsenal. He is responsible for 50 per cent of Western Sydney’s goals so far this season.

    He appears, over the three games, to be exactly what the Wanderers need, what they have needed for the last few seasons. Melancholy thoughts drift to Popovic, in Turkey, and whether he’s watching the team he left fall, finally, into place behind a striker of substance. 

    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.