When James Troisi arrived at Adelaide United, there were mixed reactions about how much of a coup this was for the team.
He is the maligned man that is always having to prove himself, even after 12 years of top-tier football and 37 Socceroos appearances.
Before he joined Adelaide, the club had lost in consecutive matches in the league. Since then, they have picked up four wins from four and look to be genuine premiership contenders.
The return of Australia’s misunderstood playmaker to his home city has completely changed the way not only Adelaide play, but how Troisi operates.
Before this season, Troisi would have been regarded as a traditional number ten who looks to find space in between the defensive line and midfield to produce delicate through balls for his forwards to latch on to.
Under Gertjan Verbeek though, Troisi has moved deeper into the midfield, operating as a free eight. He is now the link between all three segments of the team: defence, midfield and the forwards.
The move mimics famous midfielders such as Italian legend Andrea Pirlo, who move further back to conduct the game from a retreated area as they grow older and lose the mobility in their legs.
The above picture compares the average positioning of Troisi last weekend against the Victory with last season’s clash between the Victory and Sydney FC. It shows how much deeper Troisi has moved compared to last year.
At Melbourne Victory, he was partnering with his forwards and was high up the pitch, with his touches almost exclusively in the opponent’s half. Now he is a balanced midfielder who is required to come deep to support the defence, then move play forward into midfield and move further forward still to create chances in the final third.
Adelaide’s new coach has placed a lot of trust in Troisi, basing his team around the clear quality he possesses, which some football fans may be guilty of overlooking. Verbeek has basically given Troisi the keys to United, giving him complete freedom to go wherever he thinks he needs to be.
In doing so, he’s now more active in the game than he has ever been in the A-League. So far at Adelaide, Troisi is averaging 43 passes every 90 minutes, compared with his time at Victory where he made 36.5 passes a game last season, and 29 the one before that.
Troisi’s heat map against Melbourne Victory last weekend is now a common example of how he roams the field looking to get himself involved. He is ostensibly positioned on the left of the midfield, but will come to the centre if he is required to conduct play through the middle, or on the right channel if he sees an opening.
So, Troisi’s role has changed, but what did Verbeek see to alter the 31-year-old’s game?
The Socceroo undoubtedly has a penchant for a spectacular pass that can open up the game. Instead of leaving him under pressure in the opposition’s third, he now has the time and space to decide his next move from his own half.
Against the Brisbane Roar a few weeks ago, Troisi attempted 17 long passes, with ten finding their target. Clearly, the Roar’s forward line was giving the former Atalanta midfielder way too much space, and he was ready to take advantage of it.
With his range, Troisi does not necessarily need to be positioned behind his strikers to put them through on goal. The chance of a long through ball working out is less since an over-hit pass will spin out or head straight to the keeper, but Verbeek perhaps thinks that giving Troisi time on the ball is worth that trade off.
The ability to open up a defence from deep also comes in handy when Adelaide attack in transition. Since he is already nearer to his goal, he can rapidly turn defence into attack once his team wins back possession.
Although the video above has more to do with Ben Halloran’s speed taking Jack Clisby out of the game than to do with an inch-perfect pass, it is a real life example of Troisi initiating a counter attack that leads to a United goal within seconds of winning the ball.
Troisi positions himself a lot further back than before, but he still enters the attacking third regularly if the opponents are defending deep. Coming from a deep-lying midfielder to attack means that it’s a lot harder for defences to track his run, which can create space for his teammates or himself.
Under Verbeek, Riley McGree has been playing behind the striker but not as a playmaker, instead as someone looking to get beyond the forward and become another threat in the box. A lot of McGree’s success is down to Troisi’s arrival into attack creating overloads in areas that mean defenders must leave someone unmarked.
United’s breakthrough goal against Brisbane late on shows the partnership of the two Adelaide midfielders. Watch not only the unmarked and spectacular run of Troisi in midfield but also, once he arrives into the box, how McGree holds his run and loses the Roar defenders.
Defensively, Troisi still has his legs and can follow the runs of his opponent, so he’s not a huge liability. Still, there is the talented teenager Louis D’Arrigo to clean up anything that his veteran teammate might miss.
On both ends of the pitch, Verbeek has found balance to make the most out of his star midfielder. With his change, Troisi is once again reminding us that he is a special player, although it will take an A-League title for critics to really believe it.