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In an intense, tight and at times scrappy FA Cup final, it was fitting that Adrian Mierzejewski provided the assist to Bobo’s match-winning goal deep into extra time.
Mierzejewski was the game’s standout player, providing sublime moments of creativity to punctuate a final otherwise characterised by pressing, direct play and set pieces.
The game actually started with a period of Adelaide United dominance, who closed down high up the pitch in the early stages and put Sydney under significant pressure.
Under new coach Marco Kurz, Adelaide has moved away from the more patient, controlled style of play of Josep Gombau and Guillermo Amor, towards a more energetic and vertical approach.
In a 4-3-3 formation, with Isaias playing as the sole holding midfielder, the two 10s, Daniel Adlung and Karim Matmour, push high up the pitch, moving into positions close to striker Baba Diawarra. The wide players, Ryan Kitto and Nikola Mileusnic, also take up narrow positions supporting the 9, further overloading the central area.
The Reds’ build-up, therefore, is focused on finding longer passes to the feet, either through ground passes – Isaias is excellent in this regard – or longer, lofted passes towards the physical presence of Diawarra, who can lay balls off for runners in front or in behind. He was able to do this effectively as Adelaide made a strong start to the game, pinning Sydney inside their own half.
However, the Sky Blues gained control over the contest for two primary reasons.
Firstly, as aforementioned, the narrow positioning of Adelaide’s wingers when attacking meant the wide areas were often vacated in the moment where possession was turned over. Sydney were able to transfer the ball quickly into these free zones, with Michael Zullo on the left-hand side noticeably receiving a number of quick switches of play. With Mileusnic having to recover large distances to stop Zullo advancing, Sydney could establish controlled possession quite easily in transition moments.
Secondly, following these efficient transitions, they were able to build up effectively by getting Mierzejewski on the ball with time and space facing forward.
Sydney’s two 6s, Josh Brillante and Brandon O’Neill, execute positional rotations in the build-up to get free away from opposition pressing. One example here was when Brillante would move wide and outside of Adelaide’s front two (their first line), with O’Neill staying free between the lines, so that when Brillante received a pass from a centre-back that broke the first line, and one of the players in Adelaide’s second line (a central midfielder) stepped forward to press him in response, O’Neill would be free in a central position to receive a horizontal pass in front of Adelaide’s second line.
What was crucial was Mierzejewski moving from his advanced starting position as a right-winger, into very deep, central midfield areas when Sydney were building up. When O’Neill or Brillante got the ball in these positions between Adelaide’s first and second lines, as an opposition central midfielder stepped forward to close the ball down, Mierzejewski would move into a deep position on the outside of this player, where the Sydney 6 could play a simple forwards pass to the free playmaker.
From these positions, Mierzejewski was devastating.
Picking the ball up from right-sided zones and driving diagonally towards the left, he constantly probed the space in behind Adelaide’s defence with ambitious through balls – most notably when Bobo had the one-on-one with Paul Izzo that the goalkeeper had to come well outside of his penalty box to stop.
Mierzejwski also linked up with Zullo, finding him with cross-field passes twice in quick succession.
This movement of a wide player into playmaking positions is nothing new – in fact, within the same game, Milos Ninkovic was doing something similar from the left-hand side. However, Ninkovic is more crafty in tight areas, often combining with teammates via quick, short passes, then breaking the last line with a forward pass, whereas Mierzejewski is able to pick out runners over a 30 to 40-metre range.
He also drives forward diagonally, which is dangerous because he is simultaneously moving the ball towards the goal, while dribbling in a direction that takes him away from defenders, with a body position that allows him to see and play passes to players ahead and beside of him on the opposite side of the pitch (while the defender must face the attacker, preventing them from being aware of movement behind them).
Both Mierzejewski and Ninkovic are brilliant in their own way, and their ability to unlock defences is what turns Sydney from an outstandingly good defensive team into an outstandingly well-rounded unit. It was noticeable following Ninkovic’s injury that Sydney’s fluency, and thus, influence, waned, with Adelaide scoring an equaliser via Mileusnic’s fine strike.
Yet Mierzejewski’s passing accuracy proved decisive during extra time, as he delivered the fine free-kick from which Bobo scored the winner.
This was a bruising “battle royale” as described by Simon Hill at full-time, with both sides enjoying alternating periods of pressure and dominance on the opponent’s goal.
There were several standout performances – Bobo scored the winner, Mark Ochieng provided inspiration off the bench, and Jordan Elsey held Adelaide’s defence together – but Mierzejewski was the player who gave this final class and creativity.