This is the season of giving, and as we approach the halfway mark of the A-League season, every club could do with a little Christmas present to help their team’s fortunes.
The season so far has been a disaster for Adelaide United. Even though history suggests they can – and have – come back from such a perilous position on the table, even at this stage last season Adelaide had reached double digits in terms of points.
The bigger problem, of course, is that Adelaide simply don’t look like turning their form around, with the last-minute concession in Newcastle to give the Jets all three points the latest blow to Guillermo Amor’s side.
The most remarkable thing about Morten Nordstrand’s winner was that the third big chance Newcastle had in stoppage time alone, as the Reds were repeatedly opened up on the counter-attack. Injuries and changes in personnel are obviously problems, but Adelaide’s lack of intensity upon the turnover of possession has been a noticeable issue all season.
Their counter-pressing – pressing the opposition to prevent counter-attacks – is non-existent, allowing teams to break forward quickly against the unorganised defence. Amor will be hoping they can regain some of that old intensity in the new year.
In spite of their off-field turmoil, John Aloisi has actually shaped one of the league’s most solid and comfortable teams. Brisbane are particularly strong defensively, as they work hard to create a compact 4-2-3-1 block that opponents find difficult to break down, especially because of the way the side presses collectively to prevent teams from having time and space in the middle third.
If you can get past the press, you then face the resolute back-four spearheaded by the tenacious Jade North and Luke Devere, who have formed one of the league’s meanest, and tellingly, most settled defences.
Where Brisbane could do with a little help is in attack, where the young attacker such as Thomas Oar, Brandon Borrello and Dimitri Petratos are yet to reach their full potential this season. It was revealing that last weekend it took the introduction of the experienced Thomas Broich to break open what was, in truth, a Mariners side that defended quite poorly for long stretches.
Brisbane have actually only lost once this season, but have only scored more than one goal in four of the 11 games played, pointing to a need to improve upfront that Aloisi hopes might come during the Christmas period.
Central Coast Mariners
Nobody truly expects Paul Okon’s Mariners side to achieve great success this campaign, after the manager was appointed just a month out from the season opener. Given the youthful makeup of the current squad, Okon’s appointment was about building for the future. As a coach who is faithful to the core principles of proactive possession that govern the National Curriculum, over time Okon will eventually be able to teach a presumably tweaked squad his favoured approach – but that might be one or two seasons away.
In the meantime, Okon will be hoping his inexperienced side can learn from the trials and tribulations of this current season. He will be particularly hoping they can assimilate some understanding of the need for solidity in midfield, after recent displays have seen his team be remarkably open through the centre of the pitch.
This can be attributed to the absence of Mickael Tavares and until last weekend, Nick Montgomery. The defenders have made some bizarre individual errors, but they aren’t helped when given little protection by the midfielders in front of them.
This has been touted as the season Melbourne City finally have no excuses not to win the championship – they have, on paper, the best starting XI, the best squad depth and the best facilities. The problem is, they might not have the best coach.
John van ‘t Schip is capable of coaxing good performances from his team, but the overriding feeling is that his teams succeed because of their star quality, and not because of the tactical setup van ‘t Schip implements.
Part of the issue has been his preference for a formation that seems to muddle rather than maximise his players’ abilities. The 3-2-4-1 that becomes a 4-4-2 hybrid system is tactically fascinating, but not necessarily effective. It has seen Bruno Fornaroli constantly receive passes with his back to goal, unable to get at defenders as effectively as he did last season.
Furthermore, Tim Cahill is not getting the kind of service – early crosses to the back post – that he thrives on, despite the team’s emphasis on wing-play in attack.
The packed fixture schedule might force the coach to find clarity in his approach, or else Melbourne City might have to make some New Year’s resolutions.
Kevin Muscat is blessed with riches in attack, with a bench stacked of forwards that would probably start at any other A-League club outside the current top three. So far, he’s managed to give playing time to Jai Ingham, Mitch Austin and Maximilian Beister despite already having Fahid Ben Khalfallah, James Troisi, Marco Rojas and Besart Berisha at his disposal.
That depth will prove beneficial as the games stack up over the summer of football.
Muscat must be wishing he had the same selection problems at the back, though. The shoulder injury to Daniel Georgievski has forced Leigh Broxham to play most games at left-back. Daniel Georgievski made his return off the bench in the Melbourne Derby, which should help things at the back.
Having strong one-on-one defenders in the full-back positions is important for Muscat, because when the opposition have possession deep inside the Victory half their wingers stay high up the pitch, in the hope of creating counter-attacking opportunities.
It is a bold strategy, but it can leave the full-backs isolated. The central midfielders move laterally across the pitch to support defensively, but between the pair of Oliver Bozanic and Carl Valeri, it is a lot of ground to cover. The return of Georgievski, therefore, an aggressive ball-winner, is a boon for Muscat at Christmas time.
The Jets are riding a high at the moment, winning two on the trot against Perth Glory and Adelaide United. This is because Mark Jones has found a good combination in the front third.
The use of two #10s, Devante Clut and Wayne Brown, with two pacey wingers, Andrew Hoole and Andrew Nabbout, has caused opposition defences real problems.
Clut and Brown drift away from their high, central starting positions to find space between the lines, while also drawing defenders up the pitch and creating space for Hoole and Nabbout to drive into. Importantly too, Clut and Brown are capable of making penetrating runs in behind, which allows the wingers to collect passes from deeper positions and try to dribble past defenders. There is a nice balance to the side.
This will not last forever. The reality is, like the Mariners, compared to other squads the Jets are relatively weak, lacking the outright quality that teams such as Sydney FC, the Wanderers and the Victory have. This makes it difficult for Newcastle to compete over the season.
With seemingly little opportunity to maneuver in the transfer window, Jones has to make do with what he has. The best Christmas present would be for the current starting XI to maintain their form, but that might be wishful thinking.
Perth started the season with seven points from the opening three games but have struggled since, recording just one win in the past eight games. In a bid to rescue his side’s dismal form, Kenny Lowe switched to a 3-5-2 formation for last weekend’s match against Sydney FC.
“We looked at what they do and decided to have a go,” said Lowe. “It might be the way forward for us. We created opportunities. The two wide boys got up high, ‘Rizzo’ and ‘Waz’ did really well. ‘Millsy’ came on, especially ‘Rizzo’, he was devastating up there.”
He is referring to the two wing-backs, who in the absence of natural wingers are tasked with providing the width in an otherwise narrow system. Lowe encouraged both wing-backs to get forward in attack simultaneously, with Marc Warren popping up in the penalty box on a number of occasions. Playing with wing-backs enabled Lowe to play his two strikers, Andy Keogh and Adam Taggart together, with Diego Castro’s substitution in the second half when both Keogh and Taggart stayed on the pitch suggesting this may be a way to fit all three star-players together.
In Perth’s usual system, a straightforward 4-4-2, Castro is usually forced into a wide position, where he is less effective. Furthermore, Perth often find themselves overrun in midfield with this formation. Lowe will be hoping over Christmas he can fine tune the 3-5-2 as a way to fit his attackers together.
What could possibly make Sydney FC better right now? They have the most points, the best attack, the best defence, minimal injury concerns (thanks to the underrated strength and conditioning coach Andrew Clark), great depth, a happy squad, Graham Arnold’s signed a new contract.
The only thing that could improve Sydney’s mood right now would be an FFA Cup, and maybe a loyal back-up goalkeeper.
So much of this season’s success can be attributed to their consistency in selection and approach. The team is intimately familiar with Arnold’s staple 4-2-3-1, helped by the fact there has been few changes to the starting 11. Even when there has been, the fresh faces fit into their roles – Sebastian Ryall is a capable understudy at the back, Milos Dimitrijevic is a clever passer in the same mould as Brandon O’Neill and Josh Brillante, while Bernie Ibini and David Carney contribute in attack.
The only question mark is possibly in the full-back positions. While on the left Riley Woodcock is, in all honesty, a step down from Michael Zullo, he shares similar attacking attributes to the current starter. On the right, however, where Rhyan Grant is enjoying a spectacular season, Sydney lack substitutes that share the same energy and drive to replicate his role in the team.
Full-back in an Arnold team is so important, as they provide the width that allows the wingers to drift inside and create overloads between the lines. Ryall and Aaron Calver can play there, but they lack the physical and technical qualities to contribute as effectively as Grant. An injury to the right-back could upset Sydney’s harmony, so Arnold will be praying Santa does not bring any unwanted injuries.
The resignation of Ernie Merrick was typical Ernie, as the softly spoken Scotsman felt he had taken the team as far as he could and that they required a fresh face to make progress.
While results this season have been below par, Merrick’s overall contribution in modernising the Phoenix both on and off the pitch should not go unnoticed.
Along with making important long-term changes to the club and academy structure, Merrick evolved the team to a more positive brand of football. Particularly in the early stages of the 2014-15 season, the Phoenix played some of the best football in the competition, thanks to the technical guile of players like Albert Riera and Michael McGlinchey, combined with the pace and power of the likes of Roly Bonevacia and Nathan Burns.
Merrick actually tried to replicate a similar system this season with his 4-4-2 diamond. Roy Krishna and Kosta Barbarouses were wide strikers who provided the penetration, with the midfield packed full of playmakers including Guilherme Finkler, McGlinchey and Barbarouses. On the whole, however, it was too much to ask of Barbarouses and Krishna to effectively occupy an entire back four by themselves, particularly from wide positions.
Therefore, Wellington’s interim coaches have introduced striker Hamish Watson into the side. Switching to a more orthodox 4-2-3-1, Watson gives the team a more natural spearhead.
In this context, the signing of Shane Smeltz is the perfect present if this is the path Wellington will take in the wake of Merrick’s departure. Question marks remain about his ability at the age of 35, but tactically Smeltz is a good fit, and a good gift.
Western Sydney Wanderers
Christmas shopping for the Western Sydney Wanderers appears to be easy. Everyone agrees Tony Popovic could do with a new striker, after the second Kerem Bulut experiment appears to have failed and Brendan Santalab, while occasionally capable of providing the goals, is not consistent enough for a team with ambitions of glory.
So who might Popovic find wrapped up under his Christmas tree? While the thought of Didier Drogba or Robbie Keane emerging from wrapping paper at Spotless Stadium is an entertaining thought, both strikers appear to be unrealistic targets. The better question to ask might be what kind of striker does Popovic want? The answer lies in how the side currently plays.
With Nico Martinez, Mitch Nichols and Jumpei Kusukami finding good chemistry as the attacker in the Wanderers 4-2-3-1 formation, Popovic might be after a mobile forward who can contribute to and enrich the clever combination play of the aforementioned trio. Alternatively, someone who can play on the last line of defence with his back to goal, able to hold up the ball and create space between the lines for the technicians might be a better tactical fit.
What Popovic wants is the obvious part, but, as ever, the tough part might be in finding the perfect Christmas present.