The Asian Champions League (ACL) has kicked off this week, Melbourne Victory starting their group stage campaign last night while Sydney FC have a tasty fixture against Ange Postecoglou’s Yokohama F Marinos.
Perth Glory, meanwhile, will be watching this match from home as their match against Chinese opponents Shanghai Shenhua was postponed due to coronavirus scares.
All teams will be claiming that they’re in this tournament to win it all, but can any of them realistically do so?
Although Western Sydney Wanderers were champions of Asia in 2014, Australian teams have traditionally struggled on the continental stage, especially in recent years. So, what should our local teams be doing to make the most of their grandest stage?
Having a tight and compact defence
As Sir Alex Ferguson famously said: “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.”
The Wanderers under Tony Popovic were undoubtedly a solid defensive team, only conceding five goals in the group stages, and keeping clean sheets in the two-legged semi-final and final against FC Seoul and Al-Hilal respectively.
It bodes well for Perth that they have Popovic, who has been transforming his side into one that prioritises clean sheets since he joined last season, with only 23 goals conceded in their premiership season.
When it comes to playing with a compact defence, it doesn’t mean to simply sit in your own box and hope for the best. Defending is a team effort, and the whole structure needs to move as one and ensure that there are no openings.
The forwards have to run for 90 minutes and not allow easy balls to go beyond them, while the backline must be switched on and aware.
Victory produced an outstanding display with exactly that type of mindset, as they stuck to their disciplined 5-4-1 formation against Kashima.
With a lot of the Asian sides having fearsome attacks filled with foreign strikers, teams need to make sure that there isn’t space available in behind for pacey forwards to make runs into.
Quick and efficient counter-attacks
It is expected that the technically superior Asian opponents will largely control possession and be playing in Australian teams’ halves for most of the matches.
Therefore, the best opportunities to attack will come from offensive transitions, where our representatives will have space to play forward and catch teams on the back foot.
The goal for these situations should be to get the ball into the opponent’s final third as quickly as possible to set up a shooting opportunity, so every player must know what their role is on the counter-attack.
To minimise hesitation, which gives defenders time to retreat into their preferred formation, there needs to be a clear plan of attack.
Which forward is attacking the channel? Who is the one occupying defenders and looking to hold up play for runs beyond them? Of course, this will depend on the situation when they initially win the ball, but Australian teams should have multiple options in their playbook to cover almost every type of game state.
Sydney have shown their clear quality when it comes to building play out from the back and using their wide number 10s to create chances, but will they adapt their play to a counter-attacking style in the ACL?
Melbourne and Perth like to attack on transition, so this tournament might suit their style better than the current league leaders.
Planning set pieces
Another opportunity to score will come from set pieces. A-League defenders are strong aerially, and it could become an important source of goals in the ACL.
Set pieces are one of the few times that a team is almost completely in control of what happens. While in open play there are too many moving parts for any training session to be exactly the same, it is far easier to replicate a set piece from practice on to the big stage.
Researching how the opposition usually marks their opponents and how to create numerical or physical advantages will give Aussie teams the edge. It shouldn’t be a case of just having one routine that they consistently turn towards since that will make them far too predictable. There should be several different options that the set-piece takers can look towards.
They shouldn’t limit themselves to free kicks and corners either. Western United have shown how you can turn a goal kick into a threatening attacking move, while Victory themselves earned their goal against Kashima by pinning the opposing defenders in their own third following a throw-in.
It’s never easy to take on the giants in Asia, who like to flex their financial muscle while boasting plenty of skilled, technical, local players. Still, there is an opportunity for an Australian team to, if not replicate the success of Western Sydney, at least prove themselves competitive.
What is required though is disciplined defending and a clear plan of attack from the whole team – whether that be on the counter or from a corner kick.
Destiny is in their own hands, now it’s time for the A-League teams to prove they can make the most of it.