'Libero' Malik the vanguard of Gombau's velvet revolution

Deploying the previously unheralded utility player in a highly unorthodox role is just the first stage in the Catalan's proposed transformation of Adelaide United

What a fascinating tactic new Adelaide coach Josep Gombau chose to employ against Melbourne Victory last week. With the friendly played behind closed doors, it's a shame no-one was there to see it.

For some of the local journalists who were allowed in, Thursday's game was a first look at the Reds under their Spanish coach, and the opening exchanges were spent identifying what formation the visitors were playing.

For those seeking hard evidence of the newcomer's Catalan [and, by extension, Dutch] football education, a 4-3-3 switching seamlessly into a 3-4-3 did not disappoint.

The key figure enabling that smooth transition was the unlikely figure of Osama Malik, whose career to date has taken him from Adelaide United to North Queensland Fury and back, with little more than two Young Socceroos caps and a club Rising Star award to show for his efforts.

Being able to play as a centre-back and a central midfielder can be a curse in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the game, consigning a footballer to eternal limbo as a 'utility player'.

But step into the world [to be found just over the English Channel] populated by the Ajax academy or Barcelona's 'La Masia', and such versatility is not met with distrust, but prized.

If anyone doubts the capacity for innovation among the disciples of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, note Pep Guardiola's inspired decision to transform Philipp Lahm from a marauding fullback to a dynamic holding midfielder at Bayern Munich, who fielded what was effectively a 2-1-4-2-1 in their supreme destruction of Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League.

And so to the less glamorous but nevertheless engaging surrounds of an empty AAMI Park on a Thursday afternoon.

Adelaide kicked off with four at the back, three in midfield and three up front, but it quickly become apparent the deepest of the midfield trio, Malik, had been instructed to drop between the two centre-backs at will, usually when the visitors were in possession.

That prompted central defensive duo Jon McKain and Nigel Boogard to spread out, and fullbacks Daniel Bowles and Tarek Elrich to push up, joining Steven Lustica and Isaias Sanchez in a midfield four.

Forwards Brent McGrath, Jeronimo Neumann and Fabio Ferreira were then afforded far more space and passing options than Ange Postecoglou would have liked, as Victory's flat back four and two holding midfielders struggled to contain their opponents early on, the hosts ultimately losing 2-1.

Was this progressive, fluid approach a mere experiment in a match with nothing at stake? Not according to Gombau, who intends to employ the tactic in the A-League itself, at least until his counterparts in the opposing technical areas figure it out. Then it will be time for the next trick.

"This is something that we are doing," he said when asked if the transition from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 would be used in competitive action.

"But, of course, after some games, the other teams will see and make something to counteract it. And in that moment, we will need to change. We are starting this, making this [our approach]. And after [that], we [do] another thing.

"We want to start playing from the back. And this is the first movement that we are doing. But after two games, the people will know and we need to change and put another movement [into practice]. Today we do this, another day another [tactic]."

Despite his impressive English, 'movement' isn't quite what Gombau meant. Tactic or strategy would be more appropriate, at least in a football sense.

The word 'movement', in the context used by the Reds' coach, would more naturally be associated with the arts. Any student of classical music will tell you the performance of a complete symphony requires all the movements of a composition to be played in succession.

Perhaps, by the end of his first season in Australia, Gombau will have put together enough of his own 'movements' to create something beautiful at Adelaide.

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