Forget the manager, Brisbane have the clearest identity in the A-League

Tim Palmer Columnist

By Tim Palmer, Tim Palmer is a Roar Expert


34 Have your say

    There is no right or wrong way to play football, but it is near-unanimous that Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar had an attractive style of play.

    His successful Brisbane Roar team, which won two A-League Championships and holds the record for the longest unbeaten streak, had a clear, distinct philosophy.

    Five years on from that groundbreaking era, John Aloisi has forged a new identity for Brisbane. There is no right or wrong way to play football, but it is intriguing to see how Brisbane have become more pragmatic over the years, while still retaining core elements of the Postecoglou style.

    Postecoglou himself described the vision he brought to the Roar as extremely possession-based in his biography, Changing the Game: “The start of the process was just drumming into the Brisbane players that this was not about winning and losing,” he writes.

    “There was only one measure for us: the ball. That was all that counted. We were going to keep the ball until it bored the opposition to death, and then we were going to keep it some more.

    “Scoring goals wasn’t even our main objective; it was keeping the ball. The mantra was unflinching and eventually it permeated all the players. It became a shared obsession.”

    Postecoglou’s own words sum up Brisbane’s playing style between 2010-12.

    The Roar’s possession dominance began with build up play from the goalkeeper, with the centre-backs splitting and the full-backs moving high and wide. Goalkeeper Michael Theo was constantly involved as Brisbane moved the ball from side to side, looking for gaps to penetrate the opposition or else simply continuing to circulate possession until the defensive block opened up.

    To create time and space further forward, Brisbane often utilised midfield rotations. These involved the lone holding midfielder (or #6) Erik Paartalu and the two advanced midfielders (or #8s), typically Matt McKay and Massimo Murdocca. Rotations involve players moving from their starting positional slots into new areas of the pitch, either to drag an opposition player away from a certain zone or to allow a teammate to move into the previously occupied position.

    Roar midfielder Matt McKay (centre) in the rain

    One example of this is the rotation of the No. 8s into wide positions when the centre-backs have possession. This rotation allowed the fullbacks to move further up the pitch (as the midfielder had moved into their zone), which in turn freed up the winger to drift slightly inside. In theory, if the opposition central midfielder followed his direct opponent into the wide area, this opened up a passing lane between the centre-back on the ball and the winger who has moved inside.

    Another rotation Brisbane utilised was a vertical ‘dropping’ movement from the No.6, Paartalu, in between the two centre-backs, creating a temporary back three. By vacating the space in the holding midfield zone, Paartalu would either draw an opposition player away from the central area of the pitch – which could then theoretically be occupied a teammate for them to be able to receive in time and space – or alternatively, allow Paartalu himself to receive the ball in time and space at the back, where he could then pick out teammates higher up the pitch with long diagonal passes, or drive into space on the ball.

    Positional rotations require cohesion and chemistry between teammates, but with Postecoglou’s team all firmly on board with the new mantra, they were always able to manipulate opposition defensive structures to create crucial pockets of space to play penetrating forward passes into. That was the cutting edge of their possession obsession.

    Fast-forward five years (admittedly skipping over the messy Rado Vidosic, Mike Mulvey and Frans Thijssen spells) and Brisbane now have a different but still discernible identity.

    The formation is the most obvious change, with Aloisi firmly committed to a 4-2-3-1 system. What is most interesting, however, is that Brisbane now alternate between approaches.

    Throughout his tenure, there have been games where he instructs the side to sit quite deep. The wide players drop back alongside the midfield, creating a 4-4-2 block. When winning the ball, they play forward quickly, trying to take advantage of the pace of Jamie Maclaren in behind. This counter-attacking style was particularly useful, for example, in a crucial 1-0 win over Melbourne City earlier this season.

    However, they still retain many elements of the possession style. The build up is methodical, with many of the previous rotations still utilised. For example in their last game – against Newcastle Jets, a 3-2 defeat – one of the two deep central midfielders would often drop goal-side of Newcastle’s first-pressing line (a front two). This created a three vs two overload at the back that then enabled a Brisbane centre-back to have space to play a forward diagonal pass to the feet of a full-back positioned wide. When this occurred, the other Roar central midfielder would move forward into a line of pass with the full-back.

    This was important, because the Jets pressed in a 4-4-2. Their near-side striker would move up the pitch to prevent a backpass from the full-back to centre-back, while the near-side winger would move out to press the full-back on the ball. If the Roar midfielder positioned himself well – which Thomas McKay and McKay and Thomas Kristensen often did – he could receive a simple pass inside from the full-back, cutting the Jets’ pressing striker and winger out of the play.

    Brisbane also performed rotations further up the pitch. A core tenet of an effective possession playing style is having players positioned between the opposition lines of midfield and defence. Aloisi encourages the three attackers behind striker Maclaren to interchange in order to find this space. Against the Jets, they had a clear asymmetrical pattern to achieve this.

    Thomsa Broich, on the right, stayed very wide. Dimitri Petratos, playing centrally, positioned slightly right of centre, and made little forward movements towards the right to drag away one of the Jets’ holding midfielder. This allowed Tommy Oar, from the left, to drift very far infield to practically become a second No.10. He received a number of passes in space in that dangerous pocket of space between the lines, where he often took shots from outside the penalty box. It was from this position he scored the opening goal.

    There is no right or wrong way to play football, and while some may debate the effectiveness of Aloisi’s approach, it is intriguing to see how the coach has built on the platform of Postecoglou’s philosophy, combined with the more pragmatic bent of his predecessors, to create this well-organised unit, both with and without the ball.

    There has been an evolution in the exact nature of the philosophy, but Brisbane still have one of the league’s clearest identities in how they play.

    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 (34)

    • January 11th 2017 @ 8:14am
      j binnie said | January 11th 2017 @ 8:14am | ! Report

      Tim -When reading this offering one cannot help but think you may be studying for .or already be in possession of, a senior coaching qualification for it is full, from start to finish, of what I term “coach speak” using terminology that the average reader,(who is simply a football fan) will find extremely hard to follow ,if in fact they can follow it at all.
      Tactical innovation in football began over 90 years ago when a manager at Arsenal “dared” to move his centre half back into the backline.
      An explanation.
      Up to that time the formation used by teams all around the football world was actually standardised into what could be best described with the numbers 1 Keeper 2 Full backs,3 Half backs, and 5 Forwards. So 1-2-3-5.
      With that one simple change that Arsenal manager started a move that was to have ramification all across the world that saw his 1-3-2-5 formation morph into what became the well know W-M formation of team structure simply by withdrawing the 2 inside forwards back into midfield. Hence numerically we had a 1-3-2-2-3 formation that was better known as W-M.
      We then jump forward some some 10 or so years to Austria where a progressive manager dared to go a step forward and used a clever, deep lyng centre forward ,thus altering the “latest”formation to 1-3-3-4 and there is little doubt the second world war prevented this from being copied until the great Hungarian team of the early 50’s played a similar formation with great success using Puskas and Kocsis as twin spearheads with fast attacking wingers as ball carriers.
      Rather surprisingly at this time there was some tactical innovation going on in of all places, Russia,where some forward looking managers were experimenting with a theory that players should be allowed to play in “other” positions around the field as long as the team retained it’s basic shape.In 1945 Moscow Dynamos made a tour of the “home” of the W-M formation that was still retained in England and never lost a game in their tour of the country. The Hungarians drove the message home in that same country in 1953.
      With that defeat the whole spectrum of tactical innovation was thrown open to the “thinkers” in the game and we had all sorts of numerical formations come to the fore with 1-4-2-4,and 1-4-3-3 credited to Brazil’s great teams of the 1950’s.
      It is widely recognised that it was a combination of both these theories,the Russian and Brazilian, that led the Dutch into playing their brand of football in the early 1970’s. Meanwhile in another part of Europe, the cynical approach to tactical football had “trespassed” into another,completely different “zone”, that of ultra defence ,
      “Catenaccio’, was a clever,disciplined approach to the game that caused “mayhem” among fans wherever it was played,and thankfully did not last too long as fans started to “vote” with their feet, and stay away.
      By this time in the game much of the focus was changing away from the players to the managers who thought up these changes and that brings us to where we are today.
      A coach is only as good as the players at his disposal and I suppose that is why the reakl innovations in the game have always started with “national ” teams where the coaches had a much wider source of players with which to experiment.
      It is no accident that I have mentioned Austria,Hungary,Russia,Brazil and Holland as the main countries where real change has taken place. Sure there have been great club sides in that time but again there is limitatiions in having a small number of players to work with
      ThIs has seen coaches tend to “copy” rather than “innovate” and it is this trait that sees many teams struggle to play a style of game played by another team with vastly better resources in money or talent.
      Roar have a simple problem. They do not score the goals their outfield possession sometime warrants.
      T,his is because a more important factor,penetration,is not beiing achieved.Cure that and you cure the problem, not by toying with numerical formations but charging your players with the basic aim of the game —-scoring goals. Cheers jb.

    • January 11th 2017 @ 8:22am
      Waz said | January 11th 2017 @ 8:22am | ! Report

      I must admit (as a Roar fan) to being slightly confused by this article, both as to what it is saying and even why it was saying it?

      • January 11th 2017 @ 8:28am
        j binnie said | January 11th 2017 @ 8:28am | ! Report

        Waz -Off subject. Google Millwall Supporters Club where you will find a situation very close to what you are trying to achieve.
        Sorry to contact you this way but over the holidays have misplaced your e-mail address. Cheers jb

        • January 11th 2017 @ 9:01am
          Waz said | January 11th 2017 @ 9:01am | ! Report

          jb. Perfect thanks for taking the time ?

      • Roar Guru

        January 11th 2017 @ 8:58am
        TheMagnificent11 said | January 11th 2017 @ 8:58am | ! Report

        I think he’s saying that the way Brisbane build up play and create chances has stayed quite similar despite becoming more pragmatic by choosing whether to press or sit deep and counter in defense (according to the strengths of the opposition).

        The main midfield movement under all coaches from Postecoglou to now is that midfielders pull deep and wide to either receive the ball or drag an opposition midfielder out of position.

        Similarly, the main movement of the wingers in from high and wide or inside and in-between the lines to receive the ball and either continue inside or utilize an overlapping fullback.

        These rotation have persisted. They have been tweak but the underlying principle is the same; force defenders into areas that are somewhat unnatural to create space for your teammates.

    • January 11th 2017 @ 10:38am
      Square Nostrils said | January 11th 2017 @ 10:38am | ! Report

      Watching Roar under Aloisi is not the same as under Postecoglou, or indeed Rado & Mike Mulvey, Thijssen hard to tell.
      Systems come and go as j binnie points out, but a few key players remain from the Ange era and sometimes I wonder if they retain in the back of their head Ange’s voice.
      Rado and Mulvey followed Ange IMO because they had many of the same players, if it aint broke dont fix it.
      Initially the system Ange used without “coach speak” was possession without adventure, and it worked well for a couple of seasons. play out from the back, if you cant play forward play across field. Initially for the first few seasons it worked, then after a couple more seasons we started to see Roar get to the final third and it became a round the houses scenario as the opposition defence had by now tightened up. pass back from the wing ,pass to the other wing, rinse & repeat, unadventurous at best.
      At least under Aloisi they are shaking up a bit to achieve penetration, even then I wonder still about the quality of some of the players at Alois’s disposal.
      Despite a salary cap some teams are taking advantage of the “Salary cap exemptions” allowed, this trend will escalate IMO. Even within the salary cap , some clubs have recruited well, looks from the following table that NInkovic is inside the cap. Roar have currently as marquees McKay and Broich, one was never a marquee and Broich(although still classier than the rest of the team) has slowed down. Next season Oar And Holman I believe, your kidding.

      • January 11th 2017 @ 11:04am
        j binnie said | January 11th 2017 @ 11:04am | ! Report

        Square Nostrils.- A shrewd observation as to what has happened in the recent past at Roar. As you suggest Roar,and Ange,got away with the introduction of ” Barca type” football, albeit they were not as clinical in their finishing as was that super team but, as you say, it served a purpose for the time.
        Unfortunately ,and I think even Ange is finding this out, football tactics and tacticians have moved on in those 5 years and what we have today is exactly what you describe,teams playing away from home are saying,”play around at the back as long as you want, but as we work at our “re-setting” strategy you will still have to penetrate through 9 if not 10 players”
        Already counter measures even to that retreating defence are progressing and some teams are encouraging their dedicated front three, or two, to engage in “high pressing” , which simply means they have to “defend” at their positions high up the field. Sydney FC are using this to create fast breaking as their opponents are forced into making numerous “turnovers” caused by poor passing under pressure.
        Where you and I differ in our thinking is in your statement re. Roar’s penetration under Aloisi, I will say no more other than IMO 18 goals in 14 starts is not indicative of “high” penetration. Keep up the good work Cheers jb.

    • January 11th 2017 @ 10:44am
      j binnie said | January 11th 2017 @ 10:44am | ! Report

      The Magnificent 11- I know what Tim is saying ,I was just telling him he should not use “coach speak’ when writing for the general football public and expect them to comprehend.
      After all If you want to “play chess” with players as the chessmen, there is a much simpler “move” that covers all the prospective things that can happen on the field.
      If you are in possession of the ball and thus deemed to be on the attack,there should always be 2 players in reasonably close proximity of the ball carrier, this ,and their movement, supplies options for the ball carrier.
      Conversely,when defending (trying to win possession back) there should always be another 2 defenders in close proximity to the third defender actually challenging the ball carrier.
      Hence 2 triangles.One with options to change the point of attack, the other to supply challenge AND cover when attempting re- possession.
      This is the basis for all good football tactics and anything else is either “innovation” on that theme, or just bad football tactics.
      It is actually a simple game made difficult by the people involved. Let’s not confuse it any further by introducing a “new” lingo.
      Cheers jb.

      • Roar Guru

        January 11th 2017 @ 2:23pm
        TheMagnificent11 said | January 11th 2017 @ 2:23pm | ! Report

        j binnie, I was replying the Waz’s statement “I must admit (as a Roar fan) to being slightly confused by this article”.

        Agree with your statement about coach-speak.

        However, this is a blog site and some blogs are targeted at different audiences. Some football fans enjoy such analysis and some don’t. I think the ones that do have a reasonable grasp of “coach speak”.

        • January 11th 2017 @ 4:49pm
          Waz said | January 11th 2017 @ 4:49pm | ! Report

          And I’m still confused, it’s probably the title and the text don’t really follow?

          If we’re looking for consistency in identity in Roars play under different managers it’s sort of not really there at the moment, mainly because JA hasn’t quite got things figured out in his own mind yet. The formation is largely irrelevant as 433 or 4231 is merely a means to an end, but JA isn’t to me playing with a consistent “identity” week to week let alone comparable to the last 6 seasons.

          If you do want to see Roars playing identity look no further than the NYL and W League team who provide a more readily identifiable playing style than JAs boys. And it will be interesting to see if the U20s carry that identity under the new TD

          • Roar Guru

            January 11th 2017 @ 9:58pm
            TheMagnificent11 said | January 11th 2017 @ 9:58pm | ! Report

            I tend to agree. There’s elements of the identity (the ones Tim outlined) but some significant differences e.g. pressing isn’t very aggressive (when they do press) and fullbacks don’t start high when playing out.

    • January 11th 2017 @ 11:44am
      Mahler said | January 11th 2017 @ 11:44am | ! Report

      Whatever it is the Roar is doing currently it ain’t working.

    • January 11th 2017 @ 1:08pm
      pacman said | January 11th 2017 @ 1:08pm | ! Report

      Part of your article Tim:

      “…Postecoglou himself described the vision he brought to the Roar as extremely possession-based in his biography, Changing the Game: “The start of the process was just drumming into the Brisbane players that this was not about winning and losing,” he writes.

      “There was only one measure for us: the ball. That was all that counted. We were going to keep the ball until it bored the opposition to death, and then we were going to keep it some more.

      “Scoring goals wasn’t even our main objective; it was keeping the ball. The mantra was unflinching and eventually it permeated all the players. It became a shared obsession.”…”

      ‘Twas not only the opposition that was “bored to death”, but many spectators to boot. As a coach, it drove me crazy, and I found it disappointing that opposition coaches appeared clueless. I had encountered a similar scenario in a BPL setting some years previously. I had my 2 strikers press the opposition centre backs. It worked.

      Roar seem, this season, to achieve more favourable results when concentrating on attack rather that ball possession. There has been little attacking intent during the last few games.

      On a side note, I hope Ange has become more flexible in his approach with NT tactics. Very surprising if it would be successful against the better teams in the WC.

      • Roar Guru

        January 11th 2017 @ 2:30pm
        TheMagnificent11 said | January 11th 2017 @ 2:30pm | ! Report

        I don’t think all the opposition coaches were clueless. Graham Arnold and the Mariners did try to press the Roar and did so with a bit of success (more so in the Roar’s second championship season than the first).

        And yes, some might find it boring but some of us would rather watch patient build up. It might not be pragmatic to want to pick your way through an opposition defence when you could just let them have the ball, win it and score with 3 or less direct passes, but there is a certain elegance of watching a team opened up by a move of 10-plus patient passes and then one defence-splitting pass when they have been manoeuvred out of position.