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Tactical Triangles - analysis exploring on-field strategy in the A-League. Each piece includes three points, just like the passing triangles that are key to beautiful football

The 2013-14 A-League season decider shapes as a classic clash of football philosophies. In the orange corner, Mike Mulvey's 'Roarcelona' - built by Ange Postecoglou and turned back into a lethal possession-hungry beast by the Mancunian-born coach.

In the red and black corner, Tony Popovic's high-pressing, counter-attacking Wanderers, desperate to make amends for last campaign's grand final disappointment.

Western Sydney Wanderers have a brilliant record against Brisbane Roar - four wins and two draws from seven matches - but have not beaten Mulvey's men this season. The Roar's only loss in their past nine finals matches came against Western Sydney in the semi-finals last year.

It is difficult to split the two teams and the past two meetings between them point to a tight grand final at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday.

Wanderers have the second-half edge

The three regular-season fixtures between Brisbane and Western Sydney this season have ended in a victory for the Roar at home, followed by consecutive 1-1 draws in Parramatta. The main theme from the three matches has been that Popovic's men have dominated after half-time in terms of scoring opportunities (see table below).

Total Shots, Shots on Target, Goals - Brisbane vs Western Sydney - 2013/14 A-League season

 

Round 7

Round 17

Round 25

 

1st Half

2nd Half

1st Half

2nd Half

1st Half

2nd Half

Brisbane

6, 2, 2

5, 1, 1

3, 2, 1

7, 2, 0

7, 3, 1

6, 1, 0

Western Sydney

6, 3, 1

9, 0, 0

5, 2, 0

14, 4, 1

8, 1, 0

12, 7, 1


While Brisbane have yet to lose to the Wanderers this season - in stark contrast to Western Sydney's inaugural campaign - Mulvey's team have uncharacteristically been forced to hang on in second halves against the red and blacks. The Roar have scored 30 percent of their goals this season (13) in the final 15 minutes - more than any other team in the A-League. But against the Wanderers they have been unable to score at all after the break. If Brisbane fail to kill off Western Sydney early on Sunday, the visitors will believe they can reel in the Premiers.
football formations
The concern for Popovic is that despite being a strong second half team, they have only won one game this season after conceding first. Plus, Brisbane have triumphed 73 per cent of the time when they have scored the opening goal. As stated previously in Tactical Triangles scoring the first goal is so important and, in Besart Berisha, Mulvey has a specialist. Berisha's goal in his team's 1-0 win over Melbourne Victory in the semi-finals was the ninth time the Albanian has struck the opening goal of the game this season and the striker has done it both times he has faced the Wanderers in 2013/14, in Round 7 and 17.

Tougher midfield battle must be expected

Both of last week's semi-finals were characterised by the victorious teams dominating the midfield due to their opponents' choice of formations. Melbourne Victory's much-discussed 4-2-2-2 strikerless set-up and Phil Moss' decision to play Nick Montgomery as a libero in a 5-4-1 formation, when Central Coast Mariners defended, saw both losing teams sacrifice control of the midfield.

In Brisbane, the home side took advantage of Melbourne's fatigue - following Victory's busy schedule - and Mark Milligan and Leigh Broxham's lack of support in central midfield to take control of the game after half-time (see the two line-ups on the left). Victory struggled to get out of their own half, with just 31 of their 80 total completed final-third passes coming in the second period.

Western Sydney strangled the Mariners in the first half on Saturday night with the visitors managing just one shot before half-time (see the two line-ups below). It became quickly apparent that Montgomery's defensive position in the centre of Central Coast's back five robbed them of a crucial outlet as they attempted to push up the pitch. While Moss had some joy with the 5-4-1 formation towards the end of the season, he got it wrong tactically in the semi-finals, as it simply made the Wanderers' famed high press even more effective. Once Western Sydney opened the scoring, they were happy to sit back and absorb pressure after the break, relying on their ability on the counter-attack, which led to their second goal.

The grand final should see a much tougher battle in central midfield as both teams rely on a trio in the middle of the park. While Popovic's men will undoubtedly allow Brisbane more possession, Iacapo La Rocca, Mateo Poljak and Shinji Ono will deny the Roar space and Mulvey's preferred combination of Luke Brattan,football formations Liam Miller and Matt McKay will face a tougher challenge.

Gambles at the selection table could pay off

Neither Mulvey nor Popovic are renowned for springing surprises when naming their starting line-ups. Both Brisbane and Western Sydney have distinctive styles of play and - despite Popovic's penchant for rotation - it is generally fairly easy to predict the formations of the two coaches. But considering the last two games between the grand finalists ended in stalemate, a gamble on Sunday might be enough to be crowned champions.

Both coaches have injury worries to contend with heading into the competition decider. Western Sydney's Mark Bridge and Dimitri Petratos of the Roar are struggling to prove their fitness after sustaining ankle injuries in the semi-finals, and Popovic and Mulvey may take the opportunity to spring a surprise with their replacements.

Labinot Haliti is expected to replace Bridge on the left of the Wanderers' attacking midfield troika but Popovic may see this as an opportunity to bolster his goal-scoring power. Bridge is Western Sydney's equal-second leading goal-scorer in all competitions this season with seven goals. Haliti has just four, including only one in the A-League.

Tomi Juric is the Wanderers' most lethal marksman but has seemingly dropped behind Brendon Santalab as Popovic's preferred centre forward. Western Sydney's boss could pick Santalab on the left and start Juric against Brisbane, which would certainly give the Roar something to think about. Shannon Cole would be another interesting option on the left, as his crossing ability would provide something different to the Wanderers' attack.

Henrique looms as the obvious replacement for Petratos as they have scored the same number of goals this season (five) and the Brazilian has grand final pedigree, although Ivan Franjic might be a smoky as a right winger. Franjic started the season playing in more advanced roles - both wide on the right and in central midfield - and was a key man in the Roar's eight wins from their opening 10 matches.

The Socceroo has also scored five goals this season and his energy and tactical discipline potentially make him a better option than Henrique, who is rated as more of a super-sub by Mulvey.

Final Word

As Real Madrid showed in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals on Tuesday, set pieces can be critical for a team that knows it will surrender the majority of possession to an opponent. In a good sign for Popovic, the Wanderers have begun to produce similar results over the past month.

Tactical Triangles has underlined previously that Western Sydney did not get enough out of their height and aerial ability in attack but the past seven games in all competitions has seen an improvement in that area. The Wanderers have scored four of their past 15 goals from set pieces. Nikolai Topor-Stanley has notched three of those and hit the bar against the Mariners. If the visitors are to overcome Brisbane on Sunday, goals from dead-ball situations could be critical.

But the Wanderers must be wary when they do attack of leaving too much space at the back. Central Coast had some joy on the break when Western Sydney's full-backs pushed up last week. Poljak and La Rocca generally cover when that occurs but the former struggled to handle the pace of Bernie Ibini and Mitchell Duke. Brisbane will surely be more clinical than the Mariners if given a chance to counter-attack.

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