The ACL took Sydney FC out of their tactical comfort zone

Tim Palmer Columnist

By Tim Palmer, Tim Palmer is a Roar Expert

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    The Asian Champions League remains something of a conundrum for A-League clubs.

    We know Australian teams are capable of having a significant impact on the tournament, best evidenced by Western Sydney’s winning campaign, but there is also a library of failures – most recently Brisbane Roar’s farcical defeat to Filipino side Ceres-Negros.

    Competing in Asia brings with it a host of new challenges, including extensive travel, a large increase in matches played, changes to squad rules and unique conditioning requirements. It is a traditional theme that teams who do well in Asia, do poorly in Australia (and vice versa) simply because it’s difficult for Aussie clubs to avoid putting all their eggs in one basket, or spreading them too thinly between two.

    However, there was great optimism about Sydney FC’s chances in this year’s campaign.

    Graham Arnold’s team are one of, if not the best, team in A-League history, shattering records through near-unprecedented undefeated runs. The players are phenomenally talented, they are tactically excellent, prepared brilliantly physically, and have a superb team culture. It appeared like guaranteed success in Asia.

    Yet the defeat to Suwon Bluewings has been a nasty reality check for fans who may have felt their success would transfer easily to continental competition.

    While you have to avoid the temptation of getting carried away with the result of one game, given the quality of teams in Sydney’s group, defeat at home to a team still in pre-season is a big blow.

    How did Suwon crack the Sydney enigma? The major caveat is that the quality of individual players in the South Korean side was simply better compared to the average local player, which can be attributed to better financial health, but also the result of superior youth development structures and player recruitment.

    The key factor, though, was their superb organisation. It was immediately obvious from the kick-off that they had a clear gameplan, and that each player understood their role.

    Sadly, this is not consistent in the A-League, where teams such as Perth Glory rely on quality individual skills to mask a lack of tactical purpose. By contrast, Suwon had a plan to defend against Sydney’s strengths, and attack against their weaknesses.

    Without the ball, Suwon defended in a 5-4-1 formation, which sometimes changed into a 5-2-3. The wide players in the first line defended narrow, blocking passes into the ‘half spaces’ – the area of the pitch between the centre and the wing, where Sydney’s playmakers Milos Ninkovic and Adrian Mierzejewski primarily operate.

    If the winger decided to step forward and press Sydney’s centre-backs or fullback, the nearest central midfielder would slide across to cover the pass into a Ninkovic or Mierzejewski – and, if by any chance this was bypassed, and the playmakers got the ball, the wing-backs closed them down aggressively, preventing them from facing forward.

    As a result, the foreigners were starved of the ball in their usual dangerous attacking zones and were forced to drop in front of Suwon’s defensive lines to get possession facing forward. Suwon adjusted even to this, bringing their lines up the pitch while pressing the ball to ensure they stayed compact, and didn’t allow the playmakers time and space to play penetrating forward passes.

    Luke Wilkshire

    As usual, to create a free man in the attacking third, Sydney’s double 6s made rotations into wide areas and in between the centre-backs. Suwon allowed Josh Brillante and Brandon O’Neill to move in front, focused on knocking out passing lanes into the playmakers behind them – but importantly, the front three put pressure on the central midfielders from behind. Brillante and O’Neill simply weren’t allowed to find a rhythm, so they couldn’t set the attacking tempo as usual.

    Suwon’s use of wing-backs was also important. As Sydney’s wide players move infield, with the fullbacks Michael Zullo and Luke Wilkshire solely responsible for providing width, the K-League side was able to leave their wing-backs one-on-one against their direct opponent. Suwon’s wing-backs got high up the pitch, nullifying the Sky Blues’ usual overlapping threat.

    Going forward, this was also crucial. As the Sydney fullbacks were both occupied with a wing-back, it meant Suwon had a striker and two wingers up against the two centre-backs, creating offensive overloads. There was also an overload at the back, where the Suwon back three could spread out across the width of the pitch and outnumber Sydney’s first pressing line three-on-two – so they could circulate the ball comfortably, waiting for the opportunity to play forward into the aforementioned attacking overload.

    Alex Wilkinson of Sydney FC

    This point of explaining this tactical nuance is to demonstrate how Sydney was challenged against a well-organised team, which is not a weekly occurrence in the domestic competition. The teams that have done well against Sydney (Central Coast Mariners, Newcastle Jets) have developed a clear strategy based on detailed opposition analysis.

    Top-level football is increasingly about finding tactical solutions to the problems posed by the opposition’s strategy. While this culture is prevalent in the A-League, it’s not to the level of sophistication that Suwon demonstrated at Allianz Stadium.

    It was obvious that Sydney was suddenly out of their comfort zone, having to find different solutions beyond those which have proven trustworthy over the past two seasons. Ultimately, that could become a positive.

    Arnold’s team will have to adapt quickly, and a great test of the claims of being the best A-League team ever. Meanwhile, other Aussie clubs may challenge themselves to raise the bar, so that local football as a whole can reach a point where we consistently compete in Asia, not sporadically.

    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 (33)

    • February 21st 2018 @ 8:13am
      James Jackson said | February 21st 2018 @ 8:13am | ! Report

      Great piece Tim

    • February 21st 2018 @ 8:23am
      Buddy said | February 21st 2018 @ 8:23am | ! Report

      When you analyse in that fashion, you cannot help but wonder whether Sydney FC is really all that good or whether it is the rest of the competition that is dragging the chain.
      I get extremely frustrated at the failure of our local teams to defend against the triangular attack so regularly employed by SFC. There is usually a player, often Brilliante that sits at the back of the triangle and if he is denied the space and opportunity then the attacks begin to break down. For me, Suwon did their homework and as was pointed out in the body of the article, they played according to a plan. Although I see the game overall as a rectangular game of chess, with many set moves by all teams, I do get concerned that there are players that do not appear to be able to follow a plan and carry out the instructions and quite often that means the plan disintegrates and a rout is likely to take place. The best example I can offer was the second Sydney derby where Gombau picked his side according to his plan but failed to realise that the selected players were not capable of effecting the plan. Phoenix often look that way too and as Tim pointed out, Perth often appear to lack a cohesive plan and rely on some individual skill and inspiration from Castro and Keogh.
      What really struck home against the Koreans last week was that the home side were unable to adjust their game midstream to be more effective. The NSW police are always telling motorists they need a plan B, well the same goes on the football field. What works against 9 local teams but doesn’t work in the ACL needs reviewing and adjusting and that is the hallmark of a top coach and team.

    • February 21st 2018 @ 8:28am
      Post_hoc said | February 21st 2018 @ 8:28am | ! Report

      As always great analysis

    • February 21st 2018 @ 8:39am
      Fadida said | February 21st 2018 @ 8:39am | ! Report

      Another excellent article from Tim

    • February 21st 2018 @ 8:40am
      Nemesis said | February 21st 2018 @ 8:40am | ! Report

      I’ve always maintained SydFC are not as good as people make out.

      For sure, they’re extremely good at finishing chances & this means they win lots of matches when they don’t play well. And, in Australia, many people simply look at the score & assume the team that won was dominant, or played well.

      I didn’t think Suwon individually were anything special. But, they were wonderful as a unit. Extremely well organised & worked very hard for each other.

      By contrast, SydFC looked lazy, slow & had absolutely no creative vision.

      I’ve not seen the other 2 teams in ACL, but I’d be surprised if the CSL team is not better than Suwon.

      • February 21st 2018 @ 9:15am
        Worried said | February 21st 2018 @ 9:15am | ! Report

        I agree they are Not as good as some make out!
        Here in the A-League they seem to get a large percentage of the so-called 50-50 calls, and far too many niggling fouls that do not get called at all.
        Whereas in Asian competition, with stronger referees they don’t get away with as much.
        Although the same could be said for most Aussie teams in Asia!,
        The A-League is a good quality competition. just not yet a great one. We definitely need a large improvement in the standard of refereeing, it is currently dismal with bad mistakes being made almost every game and referees rely too heavily on help from the sidelines.

        • Roar Guru

          February 21st 2018 @ 3:45pm
          apaway said | February 21st 2018 @ 3:45pm | ! Report

          With respect, I don’t think Sydney FC’s domestic success has anything to do with 50-50 calls and niggling fouls. It has been built on a consistency and understanding that stems very much from the link play of O’Neill and Brillante, and is underscored by the ability of Zullo and Wilkshire to attack and defend with equal consistency. Against the best in the A-League, they are a cut above, especially with Bobo’s goals and Adrian’s magic.

          Quite simply, the ACL is another step-up in class. Central Coast Mariners – of all teams – showed that strict adherence to a game plan can unsettle the reigning champions. I agree with other posts that Arnold now needs to devise a strategy to overcome a tactical opposition who stifle Sydney’s first-choice game-plan. Given the leaving out of Buijs, it may be difficult, but a switch to a 3-4-3 with more emphasisi on pushing Zullo and Wilkshire higher might have been an effective Plan B against Suwon.

    • February 21st 2018 @ 9:05am
      AGO74 said | February 21st 2018 @ 9:05am | ! Report

      Interesting read. This is a big test. Last week we were insipid but it was one game and you do get the opportunity via the group stage to redeem yourself. How we respond tonight via players on the pitch and Arnies tactics is a significant test for the team.

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