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.
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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.
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.
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.