Newcastle’s fine 2-1 win over Sydney FC was all the more remarkable for how much of it was spent a man down, following Roy O’Donovan’s early red card.
It is a footballing cliche that is harder to play against ten men, but it proved accurate here. Sydney struggled to break the Jets down in open play. Ernie Merrick’s side pressed well, defended deep when they needed to, and maintained a constant attacking threat.
Pressing is not associated with playing with ten men, because it requires more energy, makes a team more vulnerable if the opposition play through the press, and it is more difficult to cover more of the pitch with one fewer player. Yet there are counter-arguments to each of these.
Effective pressing, even with ten men, can tire an opponent forced to attack against constant closing down – and if a team can win the ball higher up the pitch, the closer they are to their opposition goal. After the red card, the Jets played in a 4-2-3 formation, with energetic playmakers Riley McGree and Dimitri Petratos tucked in behind powerful forward Andrew Nabbout.
McGree and Petratos defended narrow, blocking passes into Milos Ninkovic and Adrian Mierzejewski, who made their typical movements inside into the half-spaces. The narrowness of McGree and Petratos was similar to the way Suwon Bluewings defended in a narrow 5-2-3, which was successful at nullifying Sydney’s usual build-up play.
Crucially, when Sydney moved the ball to one side, the Jets closed down collectively, and narrow. The opposite winger would move infield, locking up the Sky Blues’ central midfielders and preventing them from being able to switch the play, while the back four moved high up the pitch, reducing the space between the lines.
As previously discussed, Nigel Boogaard and Nikolai Topor-Stanley have impressed this season with their willingness to defend high. Their ability to do so here meant the Jets were able to press at certain moments, and stop Sydney from establishing rhythm or control of the game.
At other moments though, the Jets did have to defend deeper. When this occurred, they showed their adaptability. The central midfielders protected the space in front of the back four, while McGree tracked the forward runs of his direct opponent, right-back Luke Wilkshire (so that the Jets formation sometimes looked like a 4-3-2).
Petratos didn’t do the same against David Carney on the opposite side – possibly because Carney did not get forward quite as regularly as Wilkshire, but also perhaps because Merrick wanted to maintain an attacking threat. By keeping Petratos high, the Jets were able to use him and Nabbout as out-balls on the counter-attack.
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This was perhaps the most impressive part of Newcastle’s performance. Their ability to progress forward and push Sydney back meant they never defended or suffered for long periods. It also meant Sydney couldn’t establish the tempo of the game.
Nabbout, in particular, was highly effective on the counter-attack. He constantly made peeling runs off the shoulder of the opposition back four, attacking space in behind. The Jets could play longer balls from the back in anticipation of these runs, with Nabbout physically able to control passes in the air or when one-on-one with a defender.
Even in the moments where Nabbout did not necessarily receive the ball, these forward runs were crucial, as they forced Sydney’s back four deeper, which opened up more space between the lines. Most importantly, he was able to dribble forward purposefully and drive at opposition defenders, even when outnumbered – most memorably for the winning goal.
Newcastle have succeeded this season not because they have excelled at one particular tactical approach, but because of their general, all-round, positive football. They are most effective on the counter-attack through the pace and trickery of their front four. They can press high and defend deep, and possess great mobility – particularly in midfield, where Stefan Ugarkovic has been excellent and reliable in a defensive midfield role.
This famous win over Sydney was a case study of their tactical strengths and flexibility this season, and the manner of victory – against the odds, backed by a vocal local crowd and with the feeling of energy, purpose and hunger – is what has made them the highlight of this A-League season.