Ahead of their second A-League season, the expectations surrounding Western Sydney could not be more different than they were before the 2012-13 campaign. This time last year, most believed the competition's new boys would struggle as head coach Tony Popovic assembled a group of cast-offs from other clubs and, for the most part, unknown imports.
The incredible performance of Popovic and his men in their maiden A-League appearance will undoubtedly remain the benchmark for expansion clubs for many years to come. But what is also certain is that the Wanderers will be targeted in the 2013-14 season. It is widely accepted in professional sport that if you're not improving, you're going backwards and Western Sydney's signings heading into the new campaign were solid if unspectacular until Socceroos defender Matthew Spiranovic joined the club on October 1.
Spiranovic's signing provided plenty of buzz for the Wanderers with less than a fortnight until the A-League begins. Speaking at the central defender's unveiling, Popovic claimed he had no plans to change his tactics just to accommodate the 25-year-old into his starting line-up but admitted 'it's great to have flexibility'. Based on Western Sydney's pre-season form, Popovic may be forced to change sooner than he would like.
Has Plan A been found out?
Western Sydney started pre-season with three straight victories [two against lower-league teams and one over Wellington Phoenix] but have then won only two of their last six trial matches. Particularly worrying for Popovic will be how the Wanderers have been outplayed for long periods by Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory over the past fortnight.
Against Adelaide, the Wanderers improved in the second half when key players Shinji Ono, Mark Bridge and Youssouf Hersi came off the bench but against Victory, Popovic's preferred starting line-up conceded twice before half-time. After watching Western Sydney stifle every A-League side last season with a strong back five [including goalkeeper Ante Covic] and intense pressure all over the pitch, it is clear Popovic's rival coaches have spent most of the break between seasons working out how to beat the Wanderers.
The key to breaking open Popovic's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation is quick ball movement. Victory's two first-half goals in Tasmania on Sunday were created through Melbourne's precise passing and rapid forwards. Melbourne's second goal [see left] was particularly telling as they tore through the middle of the Wanderers' formation.
Victory's patient ball movement across their back four forced Western Sydney's front four to move back and forth and when Leigh Broxham received possession, Bridge's effort to close him down and Ono's move to cover Western Sydney's left-winger opened up a gap for a pass to Mark Milligan.
Melbourne's skipper was past the initial line of defence and he took Mateo Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca out of play with a perfect pass between the pair. Archie Thompson's back-heel maintained the speed of the attack and as Jerome Polenz slid across to challenge Milligan, the Victory midfielder released Connor Pain, who set up Kosta Barbarouses for the goal.
Turn them around, tear them apart
Popovic likes his back four of Polenz, Adam D'Apuzzo, Michael Beauchamp and Nikolai Topor-Stanley to squeeze up the pitch and limit the space the opposition have to work in but Victory exploited this perfectly, regularly getting in behind the Wanderers' backline. In particular, Barbarouses was too quick for D'Apuzzo and should have scored earlier in the first half after a Victory attack down the left [see below].
The concern for Popovic will be that, with clubs like Victory, Adelaide, Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners having compiled squads with the skill to keep possession and move the ball quickly, the immobility of his big central defensive pair, Beauchamp and Topor-Stanley, may be found out. Topor-Stanley's pace is regularly praised but, while the 28-year-old may be quick in a straight line, he does not turn quickly.
Popovic almost sets his team up in a 4-2-4 formation when in defence and Victory showed how to exploit the space down the wings a number of times in the first half. With Poljak and La Rocca staying central, Pain flicked Nathan Coe's goal-kick on at the half-way line and with Polenz following him, Thompson picked up the ball in behind the Wanderers' right-back. With Thompson threatening, Beauchamp and La Rocca were dragged out of position to cover and the veteran striker fed Nichols on the edge of the box, who crossed to Barbarouses, but the Kiwi attacker failed to hit the target.
With Postecoglou having seemingly identified a way through the Wanderers' defensive structure, a change in formation may be required for Western Sydney at some point this season.
A back three is an option, at home and abroad
The selection of Spiranovic in a back three with wing-backs could be an ideal Plan B for Popovic this season as they aim for success both in the A-League and the AFC Champions League. Spiranovic's greater pace would help cover Beauchamp and Topor-Stanley if the ball is played in behind them, while the some-time Socceroos defender would also ensure the Wanderers' defence can cover more ground and protect Western Sydney's full-backs if they are dragged up the pitch by their wingers.
While D'Apuzzo may not be the ideal left wing-back, Popovic has signed a player who would slot in perfectly; Dean Heffernan. Polenz, as a some-time midfielder, would adapt to the right wing-back role, while Heffernan, who scored eight goals in 28 matches in the inaugural A-League season, would provide plenty of attacking intent on the left side. D'Apuzzo and Shannon Cole would provide decent cover out wide as well.
Playing a back three could either be a fairly attacking or defensive move for Western Sydney as well, depending on how Popovic sets up his front third. Popovic could set up the Wanderers as a 3-4-3 with Bridge, Ono and Hersi buzzing around up front [see left]. The advantage of this formation would be it would allow Hersi and Ono to play their natural game with the former staying wide and the latter slotting in behind Bridge. Heffernan would then provide width on the left as Ono tucked in.
When playing away from home, particularly in the ACL, the Wanderers could select a more defensive 3-5-2 with Hersi starting on the bench to be introduced in the second half [see right]. Bridge would tuck in behind another striker in Juric with the pair of them strong enough to hold the ball up and wait for support from midfield or the wing-backs.
Western Sydney's final trial match of pre-season ended in a 2-0 win over Bankstown City Lions on Thursday night with goals from Aaron Mooy and Juric. While the Wanderers have hailed the 'dominant win' on their website, it should remain a concern for the club's fans how they have performed against Victory and Adelaide in the past two weeks.
By no stretch of the imagination does that mean the Wanderers will be poor in the 2013-14 season, and any claims they may miss the A-League finals would be misjudged. Popovic has already shown himself to be too shrewd a tactician to be caught out on too many occasions, while he has kept together one of the strongest squads in the league.
Despite that, Western Sydney will have to deal with sky-high expectations this campaign, with the club having sold out their 15,500 memberships well before round one. If Popovic and his men are to meet those expectations, they cannot rely solely on the tactics from last season. With the Wanderers set to play the Mariners, Sydney FC and Adelaide in the opening four rounds, a poor start may see Popovic looking for new ideas earlier than he may have expected.