A-League rivals paying Sydney FC the ultimate compliment: Imitation

Tim Palmer Columnist

By Tim Palmer, Tim Palmer is a Roar Expert

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    It is one of the A-League’s great traditions that each new season starts with teams copycatting elements of the previous season’s winners.

    When Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar swept the league by dominating possession, several teams attempted to be bold with the ball the following year.

    When Tony Popovic’s Western Sydney Wanderers were successful with high pressing, their opponents then tried to put the squeeze on each other.

    The Sydney FC team of 2016-17 will go down as one the competition’s all-time best. They managed the all-time records for points scored, goals conceded, clean sheets, goal difference, and the second-longest undefeated streak.

    There are, inevitably, many ideas to like, and many ideas to steal. Here are four we saw in the opening round.

    Defensive organisation
    Sydney FC’s astounding defensive record was a testament to their overall organisation without the ball, the result of a clear understanding of their roles within the 4-4-2 defensive block.

    The front four’s job is to block passing lanes into players positioned high up the pitch, making it difficult for opponents to play through the block. Sydney force opponents to play backwards passes, creating moments where they can press high and try to win the ball back close to goal.

    Unsurprisingly, a key feature of the first round was teams defending in a medium block, not dissimilar to Sydney’s approach. Teams used a 4-4-2 block – or a similar variation such as 4-4-1-1, or 4-2-3-1 – with the key emphasis being the ubiquity of a back four protected by two screening midfielders.

    Adelaide and Melbourne Victory were the only exception, but even in Adelaide’s 4-5-1 the two #10s, Karim Matmour and Daniel Adlung, dropped back next to holding midfielder Isaias without the ball, while Victory typically play with a 4-2-3-1, which suggests the change against Sydney may have been an isolated tactical tweak.

    While the specific triggers and moments to press were different between teams, the ideas were similar: block forward passing lanes, force opponents towards specific areas or passing options, and press aggressively in those moments.

    However, Sydney and Melbourne City were the only teams to keep a clean sheet, suggesting opposition teams have more work to do to find the defending champions’ chemistry and cohesion.

    Fluid attacking
    Sydney’s attack was equally as impressive as their defence, thanks in large part to the quality of their visa players.

    Milos Ninkovic, the Johnny Warren Medalist, was exceptional from the left-wing, where he drifted inside to find pockets of space between the lines, looking to play penetrating passes in the final third.

    On the opposite side was Filip Holosko, a strong, direct winger who pushed high and narrow into goalscoring positions.

    While there was a difference in attributes, there was a subtle similarity in the way the wide players would move from their nominal roles into more effective positions close to goal.

    Accordingly, several teams have followed the model.

    Their local rivals, the Wanderers, have basically mirrored it – Alvaro Cejudo is the Ninkovic, a wonderfully crafty playmaker who comes inside, and against Perth Glory, Jumpei Kusukami was the Holosko, making darting diagonal runs from the right-hand side.

    Wellington were also stylistically similar, with Dario Vidosic the creator and Roy Krishna the penetrator. The Central Coast Mariners had Connor Pain and Kwabena Appiah, while Brisbane Roar used Fahid Ben Khafallah as the spark and Peter Skapetis as the sizzle.

    Again, the variations are different, but the ideas are Sydney’s.

    Full-backs for width
    If you are bringing your wide players inside, then width has to come from elsewhere, and for Sydney FC this was the role of the full-backs.

    In fact, the absence of Michael Zullo and Rhyan Grant against Melbourne Victory highlighted this, with the sporadic forward forays of Luke Wilkshire and Paolo Retre much needed in the moments where the Sky Blues’ narrowness was accentuated. Wilkshire’s assist for Thomas Deng’s own goal further highlighted their importance.

    Likewise, we saw several teams getting their own full-backs up the pitch. The aggressive positioning of Ali Abbas and Scott Galloway was obvious in the opening moments for Wellington, with the latter a threat with his forward dribbling. Meanwhile, Raul Llorente made an impressive debut for the Wanderers, while Manny Muscat was constantly involved for Melbourne City.

    Jake McGing was bold with his own movement for the Mariners, but was undone when caught high up the pitch for Newcastle counter-attacks. Sydney were always able to find a balance between attack and defence, something the Mariners will need to discover if they are to do well this season.

    Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold.

    Squad balance
    Sydney’s other form of balance came off the field. Graham Arnold and his players always credit the club’s “family atmosphere” as critical to their success. This in large part is due to the lack of ‘star’, or ‘true marquee’ players. The likes of Alessandro Del Piero or Dwight Yorke, upon whom Sydney built a reputation as ‘Bling FC’, but struggled to build a cohesive team around.

    Rather than celebrities, Arnold has recruited reliable visa players who add to the overall style of play.

    This is also a trend we’ve seen across the league this season – less Tim Cahills and Emile Heskeys, more Wout Bramas and Oriel Rieras. They may not bring the crowds, but they can bring cohesion, and should improve the overall collective – just as Sydney’s foreign players did in last year’s record-breaking season.

    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 (18)

    • October 12th 2017 @ 7:51am
      Waz said | October 12th 2017 @ 7:51am | ! Report

      Yet another article that draws conclusions from just one round of football.

      While SFCs style of play has not been well received in some quarters due to its ability to send some fans to sleep and deter fans from even attending Allianz games, it is a necessary evolution and one to be respected – structural discipline, few mistakes, the ability to punish opponents mistakes are things all sides need to develop. It’s a necessary step in our evolution with the next one being speed of thought/play – all sides are still too ponderous

    • October 12th 2017 @ 8:42am
      Nemesis said | October 12th 2017 @ 8:42am | ! Report

      Danny Vukovic was rated the Best GK in the ALeague last season. I think it was one of the few “who is the best” decisions that would’ve been unanimous if you’d surveyed every single person who follows ALeague.

      So, the question for the Tactical Expert:

      If a GK, over 27 matches, is deemed to be Best In the League, is it because:

      a) the GK has nothing to do, because his Back 4 is strong & well-organized; or

      b) the GK is working tirelessly to thwart real goal scoring chances, because the opposition has broken past the Back 4?

      I know the Common Sense answer. Keen to know the Tactical Expert answer.

      • October 12th 2017 @ 11:32am
        Redondo said | October 12th 2017 @ 11:32am | ! Report

        The answer is both A and B.

        Often it was A because Sydney’s defence was so well-organised Vukovic didn’t have much to do. But even so he did make some excellent saves from longer range shots Sydney’s defence forced opponents into making.

        But a lot of times it was B because Vukovic had to mop up when the fullbacks were caught high upfield and Brillante/O’Neill couldn’t provide adequate cover. Arnold could afford this to happen because Vukovic was in such excellent form.

        In last weekend’s game Sydney’s fullbacks were much more conservative and Brillante in particular dropped deeper to cover if they did go forward. That’s probably recognition that Victory exploited Sydney’s high fullbacks in the GF last year but also that Redmond is never going to match last year’s Vukovic.

        • October 12th 2017 @ 11:44am
          Nemesis said | October 12th 2017 @ 11:44am | ! Report

          “But even so he did make some excellent saves from longer range shots ”

          You seriously believe that? The ALeague rarely has people shooting from long range. And, if they do, it’s even rarer for it to be on target for the GK to make a save. Yes, there are exceptions, but I’d guess Vukovic’s brilliant work last year, less than 5% would’ve been long range shots that were heading into the goal.

          PS: If the GK has nothing to do, why would he be voted Best in the League? The Defence should get the credit. GKs get credit when they execute their craft; not when they stand around doing nothing but goal kicks.

          • October 12th 2017 @ 11:47am
            Redondo said | October 12th 2017 @ 11:47am | ! Report

            I’ll go through the replays one by one and check.

          • Roar Pro

            October 12th 2017 @ 11:55am
            Josh Barton said | October 12th 2017 @ 11:55am | ! Report

            GK is a part of a defensive structure. They play a large role in organization not just at set pieces but also during open play. If a team is no conceding chances, then the credit goes to the entire defense, goalie included.

            I thought Vuka was fine last season. His defense minimized chances against him (which he played a large role in, with Wilkinson and the entire defending unit), but when the chances did come he was able to pull of many good saves. He was also strong in the air at set pieces and made very few, if any, blunders.

            It’s hard to quantify a goalies quality, but its a combination of all of these things. Vuka stood out last season, and with good reason.

            • October 12th 2017 @ 12:16pm
              Nemesis said | October 12th 2017 @ 12:16pm | ! Report

              So, let’s be clear.

              In the extreme case, if a defence is 100% solid and there was not one shot on target all season…

              you think a GK can still be voted best in the competition?

              • October 12th 2017 @ 12:30pm
                Redondo said | October 12th 2017 @ 12:30pm | ! Report

                Nemesis – I am in awe of your relentless quest to separate black from white in a grey world.

                Somewhere between a 0% effective defence and a 100% effective defence lurks a great goalkeeper.

              • October 12th 2017 @ 12:51pm
                Nemesis said | October 12th 2017 @ 12:51pm | ! Report

                Vukovic was the Best GK in the competition last season. That is beyond dispute. There would be no one who watched ALeague last season who would say otherwise.

                We are discussing Sydney FC’s mythical watertight defence.

                If a defence is rock solid & well-organised, does the GK have to a lot of work to do to showcase his talent, or does he have not much work other than goal kicks?

                If, on Tuesday, Maty Ryan was voted MOTM, would that mean the AUS defence was rock-solid & protected him well; or that the defence was leaky & Maty had to use his skill to stop the goals?

              • Roar Pro

                October 12th 2017 @ 1:10pm
                Josh Barton said | October 12th 2017 @ 1:10pm | ! Report

                I think its possible for a goalkeeper to be good in both situations. You could make a case that a goalie that doesn’t even have to make a save is doing everything right, and communicating well with his defence. In the same manner, a goalie that does incredible save after incredible save could also be amazing, even if they are conceding chances, because it could possibly the defenders don’t have enough skill to stop the attack. Its one of those existential questions where a debate could be had for either.

                I think a better measure of a goalie could be the number of blunders they make. That could be cheap turnovers from kicks, moments where they failed to make a conventional save, positional errors (something which Lawrence Thomas is often guilty of) and instances where they should have caught the ball in the air (Janjetovic is very clumsy in this regard). Vuka hardly missed a beat on any of these metrics, so maybe that is the reason?

              • October 12th 2017 @ 2:46pm
                Nemesis said | October 12th 2017 @ 2:46pm | ! Report

                Fair enough. We have different ways of assessing a player’s contribution to the team.

                When I was playing as a defender, my GK would consider his defence is failing if he’s having to make lots of saves. He considered the defence was perfect when he had nothing to do.

                But, maybe, other GKs are different. They prefer to have their defence so tight that the GK is relied on to save the goal.

              • Roar Pro

                October 12th 2017 @ 3:36pm
                Josh Barton said | October 12th 2017 @ 3:36pm | ! Report

                I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to assess a performance.

                My opinion should always be taken with a pinch of salt because I was an awful left back.

          • October 12th 2017 @ 12:08pm
            Redondo said | October 12th 2017 @ 12:08pm | ! Report

            Last season Vukovic saved 92% of shots from outside the penalty area. See…


            I think 92% means there must have been 11 or more shots from outside the penalty area that needed saving.

            As for shots from distance see…https://www.a-league.com.au/news/why-troisi-a-shooting-star

        • October 12th 2017 @ 11:45am
          Redondo said | October 12th 2017 @ 11:45am | ! Report

          I meant Redmayne of course.

    • October 12th 2017 @ 12:03pm
      Onside said | October 12th 2017 @ 12:03pm | ! Report

      Should the 10 A-league teams adopt and become familiar with current Socceroo formation.

    • October 12th 2017 @ 3:56pm
      Post_hoc said | October 12th 2017 @ 3:56pm | ! Report

      Overlapping wide backs is hardly a mimic of Sydney, considering Wanderers were doing it in their first season through Polenz (not much happening on the left.

      You ever saw a fair bit last year with Neville and Clisby Wanderers ‘wide forward’ players have always come in. Martinez last year played as a second AM, and Popa has a love of left sided midfielders actually being right footed (see Bridge and Sotirio) who continually cut back inside onto their right foot.

      Now I obviously watch Wanderers games most closely so I can’t comment on other teams really, but I would be surprised if the similar doesn’t go for other teams throughout the years.

      I honestly think you are reaching with this mimicry analysis.

    • October 12th 2017 @ 5:38pm
      LuckyEddie said | October 12th 2017 @ 5:38pm | ! Report

      It’s a pity Sydney does not imitate MVFC fans and actually go to a game.

    • October 12th 2017 @ 10:06pm
      Squizz said | October 12th 2017 @ 10:06pm | ! Report

      As others have said this is not an Sydney FC structure – it is a typical Arnie structure. His two main structures are 4-4-2 narrow diamond and 4-2-3-1. Of course they have been employed at other clubs as well

      He has employed both at both Sydney FC and before that at CCMFC. Last years Sydney FC had its prototype in the Mariners championship year

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