Running Mitch Nichols the key that unlocks Wanderers’ potency

Tim Palmer Columnist

By Tim Palmer, Tim Palmer is a Roar Expert

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    The Wanderers celebrate Brendan Santalab's goal during the round 9 A-League match between the Central Coast Mariners and the Western Sydney Wanderers at Central Coast Stadium in Gosford, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

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    The Western Sydney Wanderers seem to experience a squad overhaul every off-season, despite having only been in existence for four years.

    In spite of their success as A-League Premiership and Asian Champions League winners, Tony Popovic has had to continually refresh and reformat his side, particularly in attack. The most dramatic transformation occurred last season, when he switched from the direct, high-tempo pressing style that characterised their initial years, to a Spanish-flavoured possession approach based upon fluent build-up play from the back and fluid attacking movement in the final third.

    The key figurehead of this stylistic revolution going forward was Mitch Nichols. This season, while there have been inevitable changes in personnel around him, Nichols has been the familiar face. That consistency has paid dividends for both him and his club, as he has gradually become one of the league’s complete playmakers. He is the players that knits the Wanderers attack together.

    In spite of the style changes, Popovic has always been devoted to his 4-2-3-1 formation. In the current system, Nichols plays as the #10. However, his role is more complex than that.

    The wide players, Nico Martinez and Jumpei Kusukami, are encouraged to drift inside into the pockets, with Nichols instructed to make forward runs into the channels. This serves two purposes: it pushes opposition defences back, creating space between the lines, and it pushes opposition defences wide, creating space between defenders.


    Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Central Coast Mariners was a commanding example of Nichols’ outstanding movement. With Paul Okon setting his side out in a 4-3-3 formation, the Mariners matched up man-for-man against the Wanderers midfield triangle. Okon instructed Blake Powell and George Berry to push forward and press the Wanderers deep midfielders, Dimas and Bruno Pinatores.

    However, with Dimas and Bruno dropping into deep positions, drawing their direct opponents up the pitch, this created space to either side of holding midfielder Liam Rose.

    This was especially problematic because both Jumpei and Martinez drifted into those zones, with Nichols vacating his position to fill the space created in wider areas by this inverted movement. The Wanderers were able to play through the press, find either of the wingers between the lines, who could then drive forward on the ball or play Nichols in space out wide.

    This pattern was most evident and most successful in the build up to their second goal.

    Nichols’ movement to get in behind is critical to creating the space for the other attackers to receive passes between the lines. Jumpei and Martinez are the Wanderers equivalent of Milos Ninkovic, Brett Holman and Guilherme Finkler, playmakers who tend to drop deeper, towards the play. Nichols is more similar stylistically to Alex Brosque or James Troisi, in the way he darts forward from a #10 position.

    Unlike Brosque or Troisi, however, Nichols is yet to score a goal this season, as his role has been as provider. Racking up four assists already, he has also made more crosses than any other Wanderers player this season, able to deliver early, low balls in behind the opposition backline, or clever, driven cutbacks from the byline in front of the opposition backline.

    Nichols does score goals, though, boasting great quality from long distances. He was second by a solitary strike behind Brendan Santalab last season in the club’s goalscoring charts, and has recorded more shots than any other his teammates this season.

    Goals would be welcome this season, but his teammates appreciate the work he does off the ball to make the side tick. Argentine Martinez was effervescent in his praise, describing Nichols as ‘like a horse in the Melbourne Cup.”

    “He runs the 90 minutes, amazing, this guy… He knows what he’s going to do before he receives the ball… he’s a very clever guy with a very good technique, actually, I think he’s a very complete player – and he runs.”

    Nichols certainly runs – not only in attack, but also defensively. Popovic places a great emphasis on organised, collective defensive pressure, which Martinez also alludes to. “He allows us freedom to play,” says the Argentine, “but when we don’t have the ball, we have to be in our position, defend, press… that’s what we work on during the week.”

    Nichols again is key. Moving up alongside the striker to create a 4-4-2 block, Nichols works with his partner to block passes into central midfield positions and force play wide. Importantly, he leads the pressure, watching for triggers such as a slow pass or a sloppy backwards ball, upon which he moves forward to apply pressure. This is the cue for the entire defensive block to step forward and maintain pressure on the ball – if the Wanderers don’t win it back, they’ll drop back into their block. Nichols is not just the attacking fulcrum; he is also the defensive leader.

    That is the benefit of staying and working under Popovic, despite interest from overseas after his good start to last season. Now, Nichols has clearly become the centrepiece of this Wanderers side, and one of the league’s more underappreciated but most talented attackers.

    Tim Palmer
    Tim Palmer

    Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He has worked with the Socceroos in an analysis role, has completed the FFA B Licence, is currently a player in the Australian Deaf Football Team and coaches in the NSW NPL. You can follow him on Twitter @timpalmerftbl.

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    The Crowd Says (27)

    • December 7th 2016 @ 9:58am
      Midfielder said | December 7th 2016 @ 9:58am | ! Report


      Good nay excellent article…

      Mitch IMO has been not himself in the early rounds but when he is going he is difficult to deal with…

      He has amazing strength for a man of his size very hard to either knock off the ball or knock off balance and he also has speed.

      With Jumpie and Martinez starting to hit some form they are going to be there or there abouts come end of season.

      All they need is a decent striker …

      He does not have the same technical skills as Troisi but he makes up for it in other ways..

      I do caution however the Mariner side he played against had five teenagers in it and aside from O’Dovan up from and Powell as the 10 the entire side could have played youth league. Meaning it was not a mega test for him… Glory will be a good test as will SFC ..

      Very much enjoyed the read and analysis

    • December 7th 2016 @ 10:02am
      Midfielder said | December 7th 2016 @ 10:02am | ! Report

      This weekend match between MV who IMO have the best squad in Hal and the Drive Bys will I think be a cracker…

      I favour MV as the Drive Bys still lack a decent striker …

      The individual match ups will be engrossing…

    • December 7th 2016 @ 10:04am
      Midfielder said | December 7th 2016 @ 10:04am | ! Report

      Just back on this weekends match…

      and adding to my match comment above…

      Very much looking forward to the Troisis V Mitch … Individually, I think Troisi has a better technical skills, and is more capable of individual brilliance. Whereas Mitch has a bigger engine and sets his fellow team mates up better..

    • December 7th 2016 @ 10:18am
      marron said | December 7th 2016 @ 10:18am | ! Report

      Ugh, another lost comment.

      Great article Tim.
      I think the attacking combinations have been getting better all the time as the players get familiar with each other. Martinez has been getting a lot of credit but as you point out Nichols has been important.

      The floating wingers are not necessarily new – Popovic has employed this kind of thing in the past – but this season they are working better with the fullbacks I think. Of course, having the fullbacks provide the width has left us open to counters, particularly with relatively slow centrebacks.

      • December 7th 2016 @ 10:23am
        Midfielder said | December 7th 2016 @ 10:23am | ! Report


        All the Drive Bys lack is a striker … FFS mate that midfield you have is scary and so well balanced with Jumpei and Martinez …

        Goal keeper also is a weakness I guess ….

        Mitch playing between the two technical mids is nice to watch…

    • December 7th 2016 @ 10:25am
      Realfootball said | December 7th 2016 @ 10:25am | ! Report

      Nichols was always plagued by inconsistency at Brisbane. When he was on, he was great, but he too often was off the pace and off the ball. And yes, Nichols does score goals, but not nearly as many as he should in the floating 10 role.

      His partnership with Martinez is, I believe, the key to the Wanderer’s season.

      • December 7th 2016 @ 11:54am
        j binnie said | December 7th 2016 @ 11:54am | ! Report

        Real – I agree with everything you saId about Nicholl’s Roar sojourn and his “turn offs” used to bug me no end but after a few moves around he settled at WSW and last year his form was a revelation, he was contributing all around the park and I think, at the time, I commented on this factor, giving Popovic some credit.
        This season he has started somewhat slower,not in speed but in influence,and I put that down to comparisons that can be made with his “new” partners,Martinez and Jumpeii.
        It is evident these 2 have played the game at a higher level and it is to be hoped Mitch will “latch on to their tails” and get back to the form he showed last season. Cheers jb.

    • December 7th 2016 @ 10:47am
      josh said | December 7th 2016 @ 10:47am | ! Report

      If we beat Victory this weekend i’ll start to believe.

      The match against the Mariners isn’t really something to gauge the progress of the side.

      • December 7th 2016 @ 12:43pm
        Midfielder said | December 7th 2016 @ 12:43pm | ! Report

        Josh all you need is a decent striker …

        • December 7th 2016 @ 2:45pm
          josh said | December 7th 2016 @ 2:45pm | ! Report

          I can’t see that happening anytime soon, cost us a trophy last season but no one has learned from it.

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