Bruce Djite is the director of football at Adelaide United.
Western Sydney sported their rather elegant black strip in this game, probably not the best choice for a 35-degree Adelaide evening, but just as their manager Markus Babbel reaches new fashion heights every time he steps out onto the A-League sidelines, these high sartorial standards must be maintained.
Defensive standards, on the other hand, are being left to wilt somewhat by the Wanderers this season; third-worst in the league as far as goals-conceded go, with only Brisbane and Central Coast worse. Furthermore, only those two teams concede more goals in the 15 minutes before half and full time than Western Sydney, indicating not just a shoddy defensive structure, but the presence of frailties in concentration too.
Naturally, Adelaide would break their scoring drought against Western Sydney.
The Adelaide front line of Ben Halloran, Nikola Mileusnic, and Craig Goodwin was a refreshed unit, with Mileusnic returning from injury and bringing a bag of pace with him. The fluidity of the system Marco Kurz is playing was instantly recognisable, with Halloran stepping out toward the wings, and dropping into the No.10 role regularly in the opening stanzas.
Scott Galloway was providing plenty of width from the left full back role, allowing Goodwin to step into the interior too; naturally Goodwin’s shooting is a more present threat from the central areas than it is the wings.
Roly Bonevacia was brought back into the starting XI for the Wanderers, replacing Jashua Sotirio, who has been his usual busy, promising self, a player who builds a house out of promising attacking play, before demolishing the house in one blow with some atrocious decision made at the critical moment.
Alex Baumjohann was placed in his usual No.10 spot, and Bruce Kamau was out on the right, all behind Oriel Riera. Another change, at the opposite end of the pitch, saw the Wanderers’ third-string goalkeeper, Nick Suman, start the game.
Baumjohann feeds on forward runners, and Josh Risdon was offering him a number of them down the right. Like a basking lizard flicking out his tongue to catch flies, Baumjohann flicked forward passes to teammates; he is such a comfortable, natural 10.
The Wanderers were assuming control of the game, rolling through some beautiful passing sequences.
Jordan O’Doherty, playing in front of a number of family members, was combining nicely with Baumjohann, who was himself dancing around Vinnie Lia.
And yet, Western Sydney seem to put all the ingredients for a goal together, but can’t quite successfully realise the sum of them, like a cake that inexplicably collapses in the oven.
And then a very unwise flick of an Adelaide toe allowed them to finally make good on all this foreplay.
Nathan Konstandopoulos, robbed of the ball by Tarek Elrich in his own box, kicked out a foot, almost instinctively. Elrich, though, was already away, and the tackle caught only the Wanderer’s ankles. Riera stepped up, had his penalty saved, but smashed in the rebound. The play that led up to the penalty shout had been a fluent slalom across the pitch, with Kamau and Baumjohann centrally involved. 1-0 to the Wanderers, and half time arrived.
Ken Ilso was brought at half time, with Konstandopoulos removed. Ilso is another of these combo-attackers, charged with being a striker, and 10, and winger all at once. Kurz’s system creates a constantly undulating deficit of central attackers, as the front unit switch and drift and combine in other areas of the pitch.
Often you’ll see Halloran or Goodwin activate the full backs, sending them streaking forward with promise, only for Galloway or Michael Marrone to look up and see a single teammate in the middle swamped by markers. This is a systemic issue that the manager is yet to show he can solve.
Their goal drought nevertheless ended two minutes into the second half, under fortunate circumstances. A charge down the left, led by Goodwin, saw a cross clip the heels of a Wanderers defender, delivering what would have been a comfortably cleared cross right to the feet of Mileusnic at the far post.
He was practically on the goal line, and could not miss. This goal did not provide an emphatic answer to the actual systemic reasons for Adelaide’s goal-shyness, but that mattered little in the midst of such a dry spell.
Where Adelaide’s system really shines is in the counter-attack, and they took the lead from such a moment. Isaias gambled on a 50-50, and took out a Wanderer midfielder, tilting the pitch in his favour.
Ilso, Halloran and Mileusnic were all streaking ahead of him, tracing complimentary runs. Isaias – as good a quarterback in this situation as any midfielder in the league – picked out Mileusnic, who finished through Suman’s legs. In transition, when structure dissolves in favour of haste and risk, Adelaide’s issues aren’t a hindrance; they’re a strength.
The game then went a little haywire; Jordan Elsey was sent off for a second bookable offence, leading with an elbow while challenging in an aerial contest with Riera. It was probably a little harsh.
Then Kamau instantly equalised, rocketing a shot into the roof of Izzo’s net after a wonderful raking sequence that saw the ball traverse the pitch, before being worked sumptuously into the box from the right. 2-2 now, and a game illuminated.
The contest was hacked wide open, with Adelaide working pointedly on the counter – funnily enough, the dismissal had forced them to play to their strengths – and the Wanderers looking to dispatch a wounded opponent, the scent of blood in their nostrils.
Bonevacia stung Izzo’s palms with a tight shot from the left. Adelaide then sprung away and won a corner. The parity here was being threatened, but would one of these teams make good on these threats? The match rollicked towards added time.
Shorthanded, Adelaide fought admirably, but couldn’t snatch a winner. Having lost their bloodlust in the minutes following Kamau’s equaliser, the Wanderers were perhaps too patient in probing for a winner of their own. It ended 2-2.