The Newcastle Jets had an impressive season last year, finishing as runners-up. Ernie Merrick will look to build upon that surprising finish and go one better.
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Ten rounds into this A-League season, the Newcastle Jets have stunned in their surge to second place, with Dimitri Petratos the playmaker at the heart of their success.
It has not always been plain sailing for the highly rated prospect.
Starting his career at Sydney FC before a reported training-ground fight with the goalkeeper coach marked a sharp downturn in form and favour, Petratos ended up in the Malaysian league due to a lack of interest domestically.
Ironically, a hat-trick against Sydney, months after signing for Brisbane Roar, was the beginning of Petratos’ transformation into a genuinely effective attacker.
At Brisbane, Mike Mulvey used Petratos as a right-winger during their 2013-14 double-winning season. However the following year, both Mulvey and his replacement, Frans Thijssen, used Petratos in a central position. This was not always effective, as Petratos found it difficult to find space in congested central areas in a team that traditionally dominated possession.
Under John Aloisi, the Roar became more structured in their patterns of play, a tactical shift that suited Petratos. A key pattern was his movement from a #10 position towards the wing, getting free away from opposition holding midfielders and creating space for the right-winger, often Brandon Borrello, to make forward runs.
Throughout Petratos’ positional evolution at Brisbane, his technical and physical level also improved. He became noticeably more mobile and aggressive, while also improving his ability to make quick decisions in playmaking positions, an oft-repeated criticism of his at Sydney and in the early stages of his Roar career.
As Jonathan Howcroft wrote for The Guardian, Petratos’s blossoming demonstrates the ability of the A-League to provide an environment for talented Australian footballers to grow and develop.
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What happened next was bizarre. Petratos agreed to a move to Newcastle at the end of his Brisbane contract, with financial reasons cited for the switch, before being offered an even more lucrative deal at Ulsan Hyundai in South Korea.
However, the three-year deal came to an anticlimactic end after Petratos struggled to adapt to the change in lifestyle. Unsurprisingly, the Jets offered him a lifeline.
With exciting marquee Ronald Vargas also to fit into his team, Ernie Merrick initially used Petratos on the right of a 4-2-3-1. However, the Venezuelan’s horrific injury meant Petratos has moved into the #10 position, where he has shone. This is because the Jets have primarily been a counter-attacking team, scoring goals from quick transitions after winning the ball back from pressing high up the pitch.
The opening round demolition of the Central Coast Mariners was an excellent demonstration of this, where they were able to release Petratos making runs into the channels with forward passes into the gaps in the opposition back four. They had a similar approach against Wellington Phoenix, who also tried to play out from the back, but found it difficult against the speed and intensity of the Jets’ pressure, who then attacked goal quickly upon turnovers.
Petratos is excellent in these counterattacking moments. From his defensive positioning – central, making the side compact from back to front – he makes quick, lateral movements towards the sides, getting free off the shoulder of the opposition defensive midfielders. In these positions, he is on the blindside of his direct opponent, so teammates can play forward passes into him, where he can turn and attack open spaces.
What’s also important is that Petratos keeps an open body position when making these runs, where he can see the ball, see the defender, see forward and face forward on his first touch. It is a simple, yet critical adjustment. It means he doesn’t move as quickly as he possibly could – you run faster going forward than going backwards – but it means when he receives the ball he has full vision of the pitch. That, in turn, allows him to make more effective decisions, because he is aware of both opposition defenders that might pressure him, and the runs his teammates are making.
In longer periods of possession, where the Jets are building up play, Petratos makes similar movements. While his notational starting position is central, he drifts towards the sides to get free behind defensive midfielders. In the team’s 4-2-3-1 formation, the two holding midfielders stay central, so that when the centre-backs get the ball and Petratos makes these movements, the passing lane opens up from centre-back to attacker where Petratos can then turn and attack goal. Again, keeping the open body is important, as it means Petratos is facing the goal, rather than the touchline, when he receives.
These are small, technical actions that have ingrained into Petratos over years of training at Brisbane, and demonstrate that even into the early 20s (he is now 24) players still develop and learn new behaviours. Indeed, there are still weaknesses in Petratos’ game.
For example, on the weekend, because they scored early on, Perth defended quite deep, restricting the space for Merrick’s team to counter-attack into. The Jets therefore had possession for longer periods.
Petratos had to receive the ball in tighter areas. In these moments, even though he was receiving forward passes between the lines, his natural tendency was to take his first touch back – away from goal and from defenders.
While he was able to retain possession in these moments, his inability to face forward on his first touch made it difficult for him to be able to play penetrating forward passes, because Glory defenders quickly closed up gaps between their defenders when Petratos took his first touch backwards. That is why Newcastle actually struggled to create chances for long periods, why they resorted to longer passes from the back towards the front three, and why Merrick described their late goals as “a theft”.
Nevertheless, Petratos is still one of the league’s most exciting players, particularly when driving at goal in open spaces. He has made small yet crucial adjustments to his game that have allowed him to be more effective in these moments, and given the way he has steadily improved as an individual over the last four years, there is little doubt he will continue to enhance his overall game.
That is good news for a Jets team flying high at the top end of the table.