In a typically feisty, atmospheric derby, the Western Sydney Wanderers were able to cause Sydney FC problems with their energetic pressing.
In recent years, tactical discussion of the Wanderers has focused on their evolution towards a fluid, possession-based style. However, in their foundation years they were renowned for their ability to win the ball back high up the pitch.
In the inaugural season, under Tony Popovic, they averaged the least possession of any A-League side, as they focused on pressing opponents in their back third, then breaking quickly towards goal.
While there has been an evolution in playing style, that old, hard-running, hard-to-beat mentality has still been present, and despite his departure, these are qualities Popovic valued in his squad-building for the current season.
It was clear from the outset of the derby that interim coach Hayden Foxe felt pressing was critical to cause the defending champions problems.
The key tactical task for Western Sydney was to block their opponents from progressing forward into the middle third, by forcing backwards passes from this zone.
In a 4-4-2 block, they were happy to allow the opposition centre-backs, Alex Wilkinson and Jordy Buijs, space to bring the ball out from the back. The Wanderers’ front two, Roly Bonevacia and Oriol Riera, took up narrow starting positions to prevent the Sky Blues’ double 6, Josh Brillante and Brandon O’Neill, receiving passes in central areas.
The Wanderers general defensive strategy: don't let Sydney face forward in middle third, force backwards passes from 6s, full-backs pic.twitter.com/BrhXJmvkA3
— Tim Palmer (@timpalmerftbl) October 24, 2017
However, if Sydney can’t progress the ball forward through their starting positions, the double 6 will rotate to get free in positions between and outside the opposition block.
In the past, this has meant one of the 6s rotating into a wide area, level and outside with the oppostion’s front two, with the full-back on the same side moving higher and creating the option for the centre-back to break the first pressing line with a diagonal forward pass.
However, when one of Brillante or O’Neill performed this rotation, either Bonevacia or Riera – whoever was closest – moved forward with an angle of approach to block the diagonal forward pass from the centre-back into the 6.
While still blocking this pass, the Wanderers defender would move forward to apply pressure on the ball, forcing the central defender into a decision: in this case, often a longer pass towards the strikers, where the Western Sydney back four could compete aerially.
When Sydney's midfielders rotated wide, Riera & Bonevacia pressed on an angle to prevent forward pass from centre-back pic.twitter.com/6m992fHm5X
— Tim Palmer (@timpalmerftbl) October 24, 2017
This is one example of many of Sydney FC’s rotations, but what was impressive about the Wanderers’ pressing was their ability to flexibly cover different passing options, while still sticking to their key tactical task – prevent their rivals from progressing forward in the middle third by forcing backwards passes.
For example, Michael Zullo and Luke Wilkshire pushed high up the pitch, but Alvaro Cejudo and Mark Bridge always tracked them into positions where if the full-back received the ball, his only option was to play a negative pass back towards his own half. Sometimes, the Sky Blue full-back could pin the Wanderers winger into a deep position, opening up a pocket of space inside the defensive block, but again the flexibility was crucial, with one of the central midfielders (Chris Herd or Kearyn Baccus) energetically pushing up to prevent their direct opponent from facing forward.
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Throughout the first half-hour, with the Wanderers’ front four worked together to block forward passes into the opposition’s rotations of central midfielders, and the back six supported the collective defensive effort.
As a result, Sydney FC found it difficult to build up from the back.
However, as pressing requires multiple high-speed running efforts over a short period of time, Western Sydney grew tired, and Graham Arnold’s men gradually gained more control over the game.
Where they found particular success was when one of the wingers, Milos Ninkovic or David Carney, dropped into a pocket of space behind the Wanderers’ midfield in a central area. While in the past, Western Sydney have asked their full-backs to stick tightly to wingers moving inside, here, Josh Risdon and Raul Llorente waited for their direct opponent to receive before stepping forward to press.
Therefore, if Ninkovic or Carney could receive a forward pass in this zone, they knew they would be closed down quickly – and so looked to play quick, passing combinations to break through the pressure.
This was most obvious in the buildup to the controversial penalty. In response, Risdon and Llorente became very aggressive in closing down Ninkovic and Carney.
Evidently, this was a game of small details, where either side tried to find solutions in response to the tactical challenge posed by the other.
More generally, it was shaped by the Wanderers’ well-organised, disciplined pressing. They took the game to Sydney FC, and although the home side found some solutions, Western Sydney were able to assert themselves with a bruising, enthusiastic performance that should set the tone for a successful season.