Tony Popovic has struggled this season to get the Western Sydney Wanderers playing proactively. But last night, by playing Japanese playmaker Yujiro Takahagi deeper in midfield as one of his two holding midfielders, the Wanderers arguably looked the best they have this season.
While it wasn’t the only positive feature of the Wanderers’ win over Kashima Antlers in the first game of this year’s Asian Champions League, the use of Takahagi and Kearyn Baccus as his twin pivots gave the Wanderers much more play and mobility than they’ve been used to.
While there was some talk before the game about the Wanderers resting their apparent stars, I saw the change to the midfield as Popovic’s way of searching for a solution.
So far this season his problem solving has been more miss than hit.
Last night, while there was no change to his 4-2-3-1 template, there was a change to the make-up his formula, with Takahagi, Baccus and Nick Kalmar playing together for the first time.
The surprise was the deployment of Takahagi, ostensibly an attacking number 10 central midfielder, as a deeper number six.
But he wasn’t a sitting or defensive-minded six, as the Wanderers have been used to with Mateo Poljak, Iacopo La Rocca, Matthew Spiranovic, Jason Trifiro, and others.
With Baccus the one to stay deeper, Takahagi essentially played the role of a running number eight, charged with the responsibility of breaking forward and adding an attacking influence.
This was a Wanderers template designed not merely to contain the Antlers, but to come out and play.
For much of the A-League season Popovic’s team have struggled to do anything but sit back and wait for the inevitable. The retreating of the defensive line, basically onto the keeper, has been one of its biggest problems, coupled with an inability to come out of that shell by playing through midfield and moving the last line up the pitch.
Last night they used a higher defensive line, and the sterling defensive work of Yusuke Tanaka on the right side of defence against the tricky Caio helped the Wanderers control Kashima.
Basically, if you’re playing Baccus and Takahagi as your pivots, there’s no point sitting back and hoping for the best.
Apart from giving up the ball for the Antlers goal, Baccus was generally very good as a mobile defensive screener, running about, breaking up the play and moving it quickly to the creative Takahagi.
Playing in his home country, Takahagi was everywhere, not only relishing his defensive duties, but proving a vital link to the attacking transition.
Whether it was by moving the ball swiftly to one of the flanks or by galloping forward on the ball, with pace, Takahagi added much to the Wanderers attack, even if they perhaps benefited late from Kashima still being in pre-season.
Whether the use the Takagahi as a deeper-lying attacking thrust will work in the more physically demanding A-League remains to be seen. But it’s certainly worth trying.
The Wanderers success of the past two seasons has largely been on the back of the power out of midfield from Poljak and La Rocca.
It hasn’t been working this time around. Teams have moved past the Wanderers by playing quicker, more technical football.
The Wanderers haven’t had the ability to sustain the ball and transition it through midfield.
But last night was the first sign of light, a performance where the Wanderers didn’t just put up the shutters, but tried to be proactive, and they got their reward.
The question now is whether it was a one-off or whether Popovic can build a more proactive formula through the rest of the A-League, starting with Saturday night’s Sydney Derby.