Adelaide United's selection of Josep Gombau as head coach has made the Reds one of the most intriguing teams heading into the 2013-14 A-League season. Gombau, who has spent the past four seasons as boss of Kitchee in the Hong Kong First Division, has arrived in Australia preaching from the gospel of Barcelona, where he was involved in their youth coaching programs from 2003 to 2009. Most Adelaide fans hope the 37-year-old Spaniard is Pep Guardiola's second-coming, while cynics are predicting Gombau will be the footballing equivalent of a used-car salesman.
The key unknown surrounding the Reds will be whether or not they can make tall tales of tiki-taka a reality. Gombau has brought in compatriots Isaias Sanchez and Sergio Cirio, who look to have settled in quickly, while Michael Zullo and Steve Lustica have also joined and will add more passing ability around the pitch.
Up against reigning A-League premiers Western Sydney Wanderers last week, Adelaide showed plenty of good signs. In particular, Gombau's men showed a fine aptitude at playing out from the back through the Wanderers' famed high-press.
Defensive passing options
One of the keys to Western Sydney's premiership triumph in their maiden A-League season was the high-pressing game set up by Wanderers head coach Tony Popovic. The Wanderers regularly won the ball in their opponents' defensive half last season and burst forward to score.
In Sunday's friendly at Centrebet Stadium in Penrith, Adelaide successfully passed their way through the Wanderers thanks to Isaias' positioning as the deep-lying midfielder. When Adelaide's central defenders had the ball, Isaias sat in between and forward of the home team's front two players, Aaron Mooy and Tomi Juric. With the Reds' fullbacks up around half-way, Juric and Mooy had three options; push onto the central defenders, spread wide or focus on Isaias [left].
If they went wide or pushed on, Jon McKain or Nigel Boogaard would pass to Isaias, who would turn and be able to attack with the Reds outnumbering the Wanderers. If Juric and Mooy focused on Adelaide's holding midfielder, Michael Zullo and Daniel Bowles provided easy options out wide [above, right].
While Adelaide's passing out from the back was poorer in the second half with Osama Malik at the base of midfield and Western Sydney bringing on regular starters Mark Bridge, Youssouf Hersi and Shinji Ono, Gombau would generally have been pleased with how his team handled the Wanderers' pressure.Reds susceptible to counter-attacks
The main issue Gombau has in selecting Isaias as the Reds' holding midfielder is whether the 26-year-old Spaniard can provide enough defensive cover. In the first half against Western Sydney, Adelaide dominated possession, which meant Isaias had to do very little defending. But another issue did emerge; namely, what to do if the former Barcelona youth player joins in with one of Adelaide's attacking moves.
The Reds will have to work out a system so that one of their midfield trio of Isaias, Lustica and Marcelo Carrusca always remains deep to cover McKain and Boogaard. With Zullo and Bowles both attack-minded fullbacks, if Adelaide miss a pass in the middle of the park and their midfield trio is too flat, the Reds could be caught out on the break, as they were for the Wanderers' goal on Sunday.
With Bowles pushed up high on the right, Isaias sat in front of Zullo, McKain and Boogard but the Spaniard got sucked forward as he tried to provide another link in a passing chain. The pass towards Isaias missed its target and the Wanderers central trio of Mooy, Mateo Poljak and Jason Trifiro won the ball and launched a counter-attack, which eventually saw Tahj Minniecon's cross knocked into Adelaide's net by Boogaard [above].
False nine for Adelaide?
Intriguingly, Adelaide started regular midfielder Jake Barker-Daish as their central striker. While Gombau's options were limited due to injuries to Bruce Djite and Jeronimo Neumann, Barker-Daish could provide an interesting option up front throughout the season.
With both Cirio and Fabio Ferreira very goal-focused wingers, Adelaide will not necessarily need a specialist goal-poacher through the middle in every game. Barker-Daish kept his game very simple in Penrith but his one-touch passes ensured Adelaide's passing tempo remained high, while the 20-year-old is solid enough to hold off most A-League defenders.
Ferreira and Cirio's strength is running at defenders and with Barker-Daish providing a link between midfield and attack, the two wingers had enough options to dribble and shoot throughout the match. Cirio cut inside Jacob Polenz in the first half and curled his shot just wide of the far post, while in the second stanza, Ferreira's run down the right created Adelaide's equaliser, which was finished off by his fellow winger.
But Gombau may not be entirely happy with his forward options, as he has brought in young Australian striker Brent McGrath on trial, who has already trialled with both Melbourne clubs in this pre-season.
Gombau may need to keep working on a midfield set-up with Malik at the base, as it remains unclear whether Isaias will provide enough defensive steel if Adelaide are under the pump. This will also require the Reds' defenders to trust Malik more and pass to him, otherwise Adelaide could resort to long passes, as they did with more regularity in the second half versus Western Sydney.
Despite that concern, Adelaide supporters should be excited about the upcoming season. Adelaide have two exciting attacking full-backs, who will link well with Cirio and Ferreira, while a midfield of Carrusca, Lustica and Isaias should create plenty of goal-scoring opportunities.
Lustica seems a real gem. The 22-year-old's work-rate is top notch, while the former Brisbane Roar-loanee, who has joined Adelaide permanently from Hajduk Split, is versatile enough to play as both an attacking and defensive midfielder. Cirio is another impressive recruit and based on his demolition of Jason Hoffman in Adelaide's trial match versus Melbourne Heart on Friday, the 28-year-old diminutive winger should be a handful for most right fullbacks this season.