After four rounds this season, both Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets' head coaches were seemingly on the chopping block. But three straight victories from both sides meant Frank Farina and Gary van Egmond looked comfortable heading into Round 8 - with their teams sitting third and fourth respectively.
Saturday night's clash at Allianz Stadium was their second at that venue in the opening eight rounds after Sydney had won 2-0 in the first weekend. But despite plenty of expectation of a top match between two in-form sides, the game raised more conundrums than it delivered answers. The home side played better after Alessandro Del Piero was off the pitch, while Newcastle failed to score with two strikers, after doing so well for four weeks with just one.
For Van Egmond, a second consecutive 2-0 loss away to Sydney may have reminded him of the age-old adage: 'Do not change a winning team'. For Farina, after weeks of trial and error, he may be honing in on his best available XI.
The midfield battle
The big news following Sydney's win was Del Piero's hamstring injury, which saw the Italian veteran limp off just before half-time and has ruled him out of the Sky Blues' upcoming game against Central Coast Mariners. On Saturday night, the 39-year-old was uncharacteristically lacklustre and error-prone during his 43 minutes on the pitch.
|Del Piero's passing statistics||Accurate passes/Attempts||Accuracy percentage|
With the hosts in the rare situation of carrying Del Piero - rather than the other way around - Sydney struggled in midfield before the break. Del Piero is critical to Sydney's play as he is both the main playmaker and also the ideal outlet from defence due to his ability to control the ball in tight spaces, spin away from trouble or win a free-kick. The former Juventus attacker is generally one of the Sky Blues' most effective passers. But against the Jets his accuracy dropped to 44 percent, meaning Newcastle were often able to win the ball back in their forward half and dominate territory.
Despite having the better of the first half, Newcastle went into half-time 1-0 down after Joel Chianese burst past Jacob Pepper to fire in the opening goal in stoppage time. After the break, with Richard Garcia dropping into the hole and providing a lot more energy, Sydney started to boss the midfield with him, Nick Carle and Matt Thompson outnumbering Ruben Zadkovich and Ben Kantarovski.
With regular striker Adam Taggart playing in behind Emile Heskey and Josh Brillante on the bench, Newcastle's 4-2-3-1 looked more like a 4-2-4 (see left). At half-time, Van Egmond should have brought Brillante on immediately for Heskey and returned to the set-up that had given the Jets so much success over the previous month. Instead he waited until the 58th minute by which time the home side had built up so much momentum it was only a matter of time before they scored a second goal.
Sydney's control of midfield by the end of the game was emphasised by the fact Carle (64 completed from 73 attempted) and Thompson (50/56) finished top for passing across both teams.
Sydney's improving defence
In the opening four-and-a-half games of the season, Sydney conceded nine goals. Since half-time against Melbourne Victory in Round 5, Farina's team have conceded just one goal in seven halves of football. Farina is seemingly closing in on his best back four whether by luck or design. The respective suspensions to Tiago Calvano and Marc Warren from the 3-2 win over Victory have seen Sydney's defence become more mobile and less open. Ali Abbas has deputised nobly at left-back in place of Warren, who was constantly caught out of position in the opening rounds, while both Seb Ryall and Matt Jurman have seemed much more reliable than Calvano when paired with Nikola Petkovic in central defence.
Sydney's formation has been important to their improved defensive performance, with Farina setting up his side in more of a 4-4-1-1 than a 4-2-3-1. In the past three games, Farina has started Chianese and Chris Naumoff as his wide players. The two youngsters' impressive engines mean they can both start from deep, ensuring Sydney defend with two banks of four, before springing forward to support the likes of Del Piero and Garcia up front.
|Sydney full-backs' passing||Attempted passes/completed||Into attacking third||Into middle third||Into defensive third|
What was noticeable against Newcastle was how Carle covered Abbas and Thompson covered Ryall when the full-backs stormed forward. Abbas and Ryall constantly looked to pass forward and provided plenty of drive for the hosts, supplementing Sydney's attacking forays. Abbas' cross created Chianese's opening goal, while Ryall, who set up the winner for Ranko Despotovic versus Wellington in Round 7, again teed up the Serb against the Jets, before striker took off to smash home the Sky Blues' second (see right).With two striking options, Jets fail to support either
The decision by Van Egmond to pick both Adam Taggart and Emile Heskey against Sydney backfired on Newcastle's head coach. While it was understandable Van Egmond was keen to get his marquee player and in-form goal-scorer into the same line-up, the duo's significant differences meant the Jets were forced into trying to cater for both strikers in the final third. In the end, they failed to provide enough chances for either.
The majority of Taggart's six goals this season have come on a counter-attack with the 20-year-old finding space amongst scrambling opposition defences to finish clinically. Newcastle's midfield trio of Brillante, Zadkovich and Kantarovski have been crucial to Taggart's success as their pressure often provided the turnovers for the Jets to attack. Without Brillante in the first half at Allianz Stadium, and with Taggart often running forward rather than coming short to receive the ball, there was a disconnect between Newcastle's midfield and attack.
At the start of the season when Heskey was injured, Newcastle's early struggles were exacerbated by the way they utilised Taggart. The Western Australian was regularly forced into receiving the ball under pressure with his back to goal but at 183 centimetres and 69 kilograms, Taggart is no Heskey. Against Sydney, Newcastle had seemingly forgotten what Heskey prefers with the former England international receiving just 11 passes in his 58 minutes with only four of them in the forward quarter of the pitch. The Jets also did not maximise Heskey's ability in the air with the 35-year-old forward winning two of three aerial duels but only one of them occurred in the penalty area.
Sydney are officially in unchartered territory with four wins in a row. Farina's next challenge will be to lead his team to success away to the reigning champions on Saturday night. Three of the Sky Blues' four consecutive victories have come at home and their away record remains poor with just one win (versus Heart in Round 6) in their past 12 matches on the road.
Farina's line-up is starting to look more settled with Calvano and Warren out of defence, while Chianese and Naumoff are providing equal parts defensive discipline and attacking drive out wide in Sydney's midfield quartet. Sydney's impressive second half versus Newcastle with Despotovic leading the line could point to the Sky Blues' future line-up. Del Piero - when fit - would remain in behind the Serbian striker, while Garcia could start out wide to utilise his impressive ability to score with late runs into the box. The Sky Blues' defence is improving, although it is not perfect as Vedran Janjetovic remains one of the busier goalkeepers in the A-League.
For Newcastle the best option may be to return to what worked and use Heskey off the bench until the team gets used to playing with him again. The energetic front six of Taggart, Nathan Burns, Andrew Hoole, Brillante, Zadkovich and Kantarovski will trouble most opponents and was perfectly suited to creating chances for the A-League's leading goal-scorer.
If Van Egmond is keen to keep both Heskey and Taggart in his starting XI, the latter may be better suited to playing out wide, where he can potentially find more space and lose his marker by drifting inside. Hoole has not been in the best form the past fortnight and may be the obvious player to drop, allowing Taggart to play on the right and Brillante to return to the Jets' line-up.