Andrew Nabbout’s arrival at Melbourne City comes as a huge surprise.
Melbourne City was the last team to return to A-League action, kicking off their short end-of-season campaign against the newly crowned premiers Sydney FC.
Sydney had already played two games since the restart – winning one against Wellington Phoenix and losing the other to the Newcastle Jets – while Melbourne City had 132 days since their last game, which brought into question how match fit or sharp they might be against the league leaders.
Erick Mombaerts has had a bit of squad turnover since the suspension, with Markel Susaeta opting not to return to finish the season, Rostyn Griffiths still in quarantine for this game, and two rotation options leaving the club for pastures new: Dean Bouzanis (England) and Denis Genreau (Macarthur FC).
While there were indications that Curtis Good might be out with injury, he was fit to start, partnering Richard Windbichler, returning from his own injury sustained in January in the centre of defence. This saw Harrison Delbridge (usually a centre back) shift over to right back, rather than the first choice right back Nathaniel Atkinson, who started on the bench. The rest of the selection was as expected – Scott Jamieson played on the left with Craig Noone in front of him, Jamie Maclaren and Lachlan Wales taking the other two forward positions, and the three first-choice central midfielders – Joshua Brillante anchoring behind Florin Berenguer and Adrian Luna.
Sydney FC played their standard 4-4-2, with Steve Corica having to make a choice with his fullbacks with Rhyan Grant out with a groin injury. The utility man Paulo Retre started ahead of Harry van der Saag at right back, while Joel King took his place back from Michael Zullo at left back. Anthony Caceres partnered Luke Brattan in midfield, with the expected front four of Adam Le Fondre, Kosta Barbarouses, Milos Ninkovic and Alex Baumjohann.
Key selection decisions were made surrounding both teams’ fullbacks and the four fullback choices would have a significant impact on the way the game played out.
Harrison Delbridge: A defensive option for City
Delbridge was an interesting choice at fullback. He’s certainly a much more defensive option, sitting in defence rather than continually bombing up and down the flank like the first choice Atkinson. This meant that in possession, City essentially formed a back three with Delbridge staying back as an auxiliary centre back, giving them a numerical advantage against Sydney’s front two and helped them keep possession quite easily. The front two of Sydney didn’t press, preferring to stand off and block passes into the centre, meaning that they had easy possession. The three defenders played a total of 91 passes between each other – 18 per cent of City’s total passes – while 49 per cent of all City’s lateral passes were completed in their own defensive third. The time on the ball meant that they had the opportunity to measure their passes – both short into the midfield, and long into the flanks or Maclaren.
The first half saw plenty of long balls from the centre backs into Lachlan Wales targeting the space behind Joel King at left back. City frequently built up their play focusing on the left side of the pitch, which meant that Sydney, playing their standard narrow defensive structure, would naturally shift over towards the ball. Wales would stay out wide on the right, and it meant that there was plenty of space that could be exploited when they played long balls for him to chase. He often found himself as a free player on the right, and was positioned very dangerously as a spare man. Unfortunately on both instances below, they weren’t able to work the ball through into the wide-open Wales. In these instances, it was a bit surprising to see Wales stay so wide rather than make a diagonal run towards goal as the ball made its way over.
Wales benefited from having Delbridge behind him – Delbridge’s defensive focus meant that Wales could position himself more aggressively without having to worry about the space behind him being exploited on the counter, and his average positioning was furthest forward for Melbourne City, even further forward than the striker Maclaren.
Scott Jamieson: Providing flexibility to City’s midfield
Scott Jamieson presented a different challenge to Sydney. With three of his teammates covering at the back, Jamieson had the freedom to push further up the field, and he made the most of it by pushing up wide on the overlap or coming into the centre of midfield.
When stepping into the midfield, City would build up in a 3-2 shape, sitting alongside Brillante in midfield. When he positioned himself narrowly, he drew Baumjohann to his position, opening up the passing lane into the left flank for Berenguer or Noone to pop up into. On other occasions Jamieson would stay wide, with Berenguer finding space in the centre. They combined well with Noone further forward, with the three making moves to complement each others’ runs by making opposite runs and rotating between each other. Their continued rotations made it difficult for the Sydney players to organise their defensive coverage. As a player runs between zones, which player should cover which?
Melbourne City’s rotations meant that their players would pop up in between the lines in space. This was something that Yokohama F. Marinos managed to exploit well in their Asian Champions League tie a while back.
Berenguer pulls wide with the ball, dragging Caceres with him. Jamieson’s overlapping run from left back pins Retre, allowing Noone to come into space unmarked to receive the ball from Maclaren.
Sydney’s fullbacks: Difficulty in attack
Retre and King didn’t have as much of an impact on the game as their City counterparts. One of the reasons was that Sydney couldn’t keep possession well and dictate the tempo of the game. City pressed high and quite aggressively, meaning that Sydney couldn’t settle, and a lot of the early Sydney possession resulted in balls played long – for the first 15 minutes, 16 per cent of their passes were long passes (compared with their season average of 8.59 per cent).
When they did manage to get through the press, there was space to drive into midfield, with only Brillante holding the midfield. Baumjohann and Ninkovic managed to carry the ball forwards through the centre on occasion, and drew fouls that helped Sydney up the pitch. Set pieces were their main source of attack in the first half, but unfortunately, they weren’t able to make the most of these opportunities.
Retre ended up being the solution to playing through the press – the press would come hard and collapse onto the centre backs, which meant that a ball could be played out to the fullbacks Retre and King, and the City fullbacks would have to cover plenty of ground in order to reach them.
Retre also popped up on decent positions out wide, but he lacks the directness and penetrative running of Grant, who would look to bring the ball further forward and continually drive towards the goal line. Instead Retre was much more conservative with his play, not positioning himself particularly aggressively and often seeking to retain possession. He and King would be in space out wide to cross the ball, but either they wouldn’t (Retre ended the game with no crosses) and looked to lay the ball off instead, or played crosses, which were fairly easily dealt with by City.
Le Fondre and Barbarouses also struggled to get an impact on the first half, as their contributions mainly came down to pressing and chasing down long balls. They struggled to find much space in behind the defence, and also found it difficult to get onto crosses and passes from their attacking midfielders.
The Sydney game plan in the first half appeared to revolve around getting the ball into Ninkovic and Baumjohann, and hoping that they could conjure up a bit of magic. This also proved difficult for them too – City’s midfield would energetically rush back once they had the ball, and they were able to make good fouls to prevent them from breaking away, or get back in time to win the ball cleanly.
Second half – Sydney’s structure change
Sydney came out in the second half with a change how they built up their play, which had a huge impact on their success in retaining possession.
1. The midfielders Brattan and Caceres dropped into the defensive line to help retain possession by providing a passing option.
2. The fullbacks pushed up higher, providing an easy out ball to evade the press. The City fullbacks would have to come out of defence to close them down.
3. The attacking midfielders positioned themselves narrower to open space up for the fullbacks. Their positioning meant that they could be found by their teammates easily once they bypassed the press, and by being in closer proximity to each other, they could combine with each other easier.
4. These movements opened up space for the strikers to use, with the fullbacks being drawn forward.
The increased numbers of Sydney players going forward also meant that City had to defend by bringing their wingers back, reducing their threat from direct counterattacks.
This culminated in the best period for Sydney, with King getting forward to make a couple of good crosses, a series of chances falling their way with Le Fondre missing a header (but fouling the defender in the process), Barbarouses’ scuffed shot and an excellent cross from Le Fondre that wasn’t attacked.
However, right after their best chances, then went behind to a goal from a long ball that Retre misjudged and made it all the way through for Noone to go around the goalkeeper to score.
Sydney made their substitutions first, with Trent Buhagiar and Luke Ivanovic coming on for Barbarouses and Baumjohann respectively, and they were immediately welcomed to the game by Maclaren’s goal to make it 2-0, and unfortunately killed off any momentum that Sydney were building.
City responded by injecting with energy – Conor Metcalfe for Luna, and Nathaniel Atkinson coming on for Wales at right wing, followed soon after by Moudi Najjar on for Maclaren.
Sydney’s play after this point was quite uninspiring – Ivanovic provided some willing running, but didn’t have Baumjohann’s direct dribbling or creativity (not that Baumjohann’s output was particularly effective in this regard on the day), while Ninkovic struggled to get on the ball much as the game went on.
There was a bizarre passage of play where despite Sydney losing by two goals, they didn’t press the City defence, and City’s players obliged by just keeping the ball, passing it between themselves. With so much time on the ball, they were able to exploit Sydney’s midfield with the extra energy provided from substitutions.While City’s midfield runners start centrally, they both like to find space out wide – in the first half this was Berenguer pulling left, and Luna pulling right. This drew out the Sydney midfielders who had to track these movements, and opened up a huge space in midfield for Brillante (or Jamieson at times) to step forward into.
A stylish Erick Mombaerts led Melbourne City to a stylish performance. While City weren’t able to score through their build-up play, they definitely showed their multi-faceted attack in the game, and were unlucky not to score more against an in-form Redmayne. Their combination play was excellent, especially considering they’ve been out of action for such a long time, and if they can build on their play, they will be very difficult to stop.
Sydney’s play seemed to be quite plain, which has certainly been a sort of theme over their recent matches and isn’t good as they enter the final games of the season. Based on their last two games, their play seems to be a lot more blunt when they aren’t able to rely on Grant to provide directness down the right. Sydney’s substitution options are decent squad players, but they don’t provide a different enough kind of option to help change Sydney’s style of play when the plan A isn’t working. Buhagiar remains a counterattacking threat only, and with Brattan off the pitch, they struggled to find creativity from deep, which will provide challenges for when they find themselves in losing positions.