The final whistle on Saturday night at Allianz Stadium in Sydney sparked huge celebrations from the home side as the Sky Blues rallied around under-fire head coach Frank Farina. After three straight defeats, the 3-2 win over Melbourne Victory sparked talk that Sydney FC are back.
But on closer inspection, this win was more in spite of Farina's tactics and Sydney's ability than because of them. The match simply served to underline, yet again, the Sky Blues' defensive frailties and heavy reliance on Alessandro Del Piero. Terrible decision-making in defence cost the visitors, while Melbourne head coach Kevin Muscat will also be frustrated by his side's struggles to create chances in optimum goal-scoring areas in over an hour against 10 men.
Location, location, location
The first half of the Big Blue was a master class in what not to do as a defender. Losing forwards on their blind side, getting sucked towards the ball - it was all there from both Sydney and Victory's defenders.
Since Ange Postecoglou took over at Victory before last season, the Big V have become more and more focused on high-pressing and breaking apart opposition attacks before they can get started. This focus has put pressure on Victory's defenders to intercept passes. In his three games with Melbourne so far, Pablo Contreras has already shown a willingness to step out of the back four to intercept a pass and has generally done it well. Unfortunately for Victory, the 35-year-old Chilean's judgement was off against Sydney.
Defending, just like real estate, is all about 'location, location, location' - or, in more football friendly parlance, 'positioning, positioning, positioning'. The three goals conceded by Victory last week were all influenced by positioning mistakes. The best example was Sydney's opener (see left), where both Contreras and Adrian Leijer tracked Del Piero, opening up a gap for Richard Garcia to score. But the other two also came down to Victory players failing to position themselves correctly.
While Sebastian Ryall's ricochet header to make it 2-0 owed a lot to luck, it did not help that Melbourne's three best players in the air, Contreras, Leijer and Mark Milligan, all chased the ball at the near post, leaving the visitors outnumbered directly in front of goal. Contreras' brain-fade to concede the penalty for Del Piero's spot-kick winner also could have been avoided due to better positioning as the Chilean simply had to shield Sydney's attacking star from turning towards goal rather than challenger for a header.
The one positive for Muscat will be that Victory's defence probably cannot make as many mistakes again as they did against Sydney and simply have to smarten up and not be so gung-ho in terms of interceptions. For the Sky Blues, Victory's two goals highlighted Farina's issues at full-back as the simple movement of Connor Pain and Archie Thompson caused Ryall and Marc Warren regular problems.
Warren's sending off could be a blessing in disguise for Farina, however, as the 21-year-old's start with Sydney has been characterised by a lack of positional sense, which has seen him regularly left stranded the wrong side of opposition forwards.
Farina fails to lock down Nichols
Up by a goal at half-time but down a man, Sydney needed to get a handle on Victory attacking midfielder Mitch Nichols, who had looked in fine touch in the first half and created a chance to put the visitors 3-2 ahead just before Del Piero's penalty. Nichols chipped the ball to Milligan but Melbourne's skipper pulled his shot wide.
Surprisingly, Farina set up his team in a 4-4-1 formation in the second half (see right) and declined to overload the central midfield area, where Nichols was finding pockets of space to create. Sydney defended desperately after the break, especially in front of goal around the edge of the box. But the Sky Blues failed to hinder Nichols, who was even busier than he had been in the first half.
|Nichols' attacking work||Passes received||Attacking third passes (successful/attempted)||Forward passes (successful/attempted)|
Farina did not need to use a substitution to overload midfield either. Instead he could have sacrificed wingers to play Brett Emerton as an extra central midfielder alongside Nick Carle and Matt Thompson, while Del Piero could have slotted in behind lone-striker Garcia. Luckily for Sydney, it did not cost them the much-needed three points, with Carle (six tackles, four interceptions) and Tiago Calvano (three tackles, five interceptions) putting in a mountain of work to ensure the home side held on.
The other reason Farina's men were able to hold on was Del Piero, who again showed off his impressive ability to maintain possession and provide his teammates with an outlet. In the games where Del Piero was unavailable earlier in the season, Sydney regularly struggled to transition from defence into attack as they were unable to maintain possession under pressure. With the former Juventus forward back in the side, Sydney passed to him more than any other man in Sky Blue (35 passes received), while Del Piero won 12 free-kicks, eight more than any other player on the pitch. The post-match discussion centred around whether Del Piero is a diver but in reality the veteran was generally just too wily for his opponents.
Victory fail to penetrate centrally
Melbourne dominated possession and territory in the second half at Allianz Stadium but failed to create enough chances in the most dangerous area - in the box, directly in front of the goal - to notch an equalising goal and, potentially, a winner. Victory took 12 of their 17 shots for the match after half-time. But of those 12 attempts, only three were on target, while the only shot from close range directly in front was missed by Archie Thompson under pressure from Calvano.
Victory's persistence in playing without a central striker means they struggle to break through packed defences straight down the middle. With their two most advanced players out wide, they are also regularly shooting from tight angles or long range.
One tactic that has become more prevalent from the Big V this season has been a greater willingness to send long direct passes to the likes of Thompson or Pain in an attempt to break through the middle of opposition defences. James Troisi's second goal versus Wellington in round four was one good example, while Thompson's tap in to make it 2-1 against Sydney came after a long pass from Adama Traore to Pain (see left). Melbourne attempted 32 long passes against the Sky Blues and 18 of them were 'vertical' (i.e. directly up the pitch).
Sydney may have bounced back against Victory but the performance did not banish questions about their issues at full-back or Farina's ability to tactically influence a match. With Pedj Bojic returning to fitness, Sydney's right-back position will be strengthened, while Ali Abbas did a solid job standing in for Warren against Victory and may be the best option to play on the left side of defence. But if Warren returns to the starting XI after his suspension, opposition coaches will continue to target Sydney's left side knowing they are likely to find space. A trip to Melbourne to take on Heart is the Sky Blues' next challenge.
After opening his full-time stint as Melbourne's head coach with a win, Muscat was brought back down with a bump last week. Victory return to Sydney in round six to play the Wanderers and must tighten up defensively if they are to avoid consecutive defeats. Melbourne have conceded five goals in their past two matches and are starting to look very similar to last season. In the 2012-13 campaign, Victory scored 48 times to be the equal leading scorers in the A-League but conceded 45 to hold the equal second-worst defensive record.
Victory are also set to face another packed defence - arguably the best in the competition - on Saturday night and if they fail to break down Western Sydney, pressure will surely mount on Muscat to discard Postecoglou's striker-less plan in favour of a more traditional formation.
Click here to catch all the action from Friday night's A-League game LIVE