On Saturday afternoon, Sydney FC took on Western United at the Leichhardt Oval in their last match of the league. Sydney was presented with a record-breaking 4th Premiership trophy they won three games ago, in front of their own fans. Despite a 2-1 loss to United on Saturday, they put in their best performance since the A-League has resumed but they haven’t won in 5 games. Western continued their rich vein of form after winning a third consecutive game in the league, having booked their spot in the Final Series with two games to go after their triumph over Perth Glory on Wednesday.
Just as both the teams were about to settle for a draw, Steven Lustica bagged a 90th minute winner from close range on a counter-attack. They were on the back foot for most of the second half after their star players Alessandro Diamanti and Besart Berisha were substituted. United have shown that they could be the dark horses of the Final series in their maiden campaign after another disciplined performance against Sydney. This tactical analysis will explain the tactics deployed by both teams and provide an analysis of this match.
Steve Corica opted for his usual 4-4-2 formation with former EFL forward Adam le Fondre and Kosta Barbarouses playing up top. Andrew Redmayne continued in between goals behind Ryan McGowan and captain Alex Wilkinson, who returned from a well-deserved rest. Left full-back Michael Zullo was also called back into action after sitting out the previous game. Rhyan Grant slotted in at the right full-back position after returning from injury. Midfielders Milos Ninkovic and Anthony Caceres also returned to the line-up after they were rested for the previous game.
United’s coach Mark Rudan made a small change to his formation, switching to a 3-4-2-1 with former West Ham United and Serie A midfielder Alessandro Diamanti and Max Burgess operating as inside forwards. In defence, right wing-back Josh Risdon was given a rest for this game and Dylan Pierias was brought in. Also, youngster Oskar Dillon replaced Aaron Calver as the left-centre back and the young midfielder Joshua Cavallo slotted in at the left wing back in place of Connor Pain. In the midfield, former Ajax midfielder Sebastian Pasquali was recalled while Tomislav Uskok made his way to the bench. Rudan promoted three players to the squad–Valentino Yuel, Apostolos Stamatelopoulos and Luke Duzel, who started on the bench.
Sydney FC’s build-up play and attacking tactics
During the build-up play, Sydney lines up in a 2-4-4 formation like in the above image. Sydney like to keep possession of the ball and always build-up the play very slowly with a cautious and patient approach. They make use of their double pivot of Brattan-Caceres in the build-up play. Their duty was to cover the midfield. While, in possession of the ball one of them moves forward and joins the attack as the other stays back. Sydney relies heavily on their double pivot to initiate their attacks. Their positioning is very disciplined so they can limit the space in between the lines easily.
As shown above, Caceres has dropped back and tucked in as a left centre-back. This allowed both full-backs to move forward. The wingers Ninkovic and Baumjohann can now tuck in and operate in the central areas. Now, Caceres provides an extra safe option for his teammates to pass back and also creates more space for other attackers in the centre to move freely. Thus, they could match United’s shape without possession of the ball.
After scoring the first goal, United sat back and defended in a low block in their own half. They offered the opposition centre-backs more time on the ball and also cut off their passing options. Hence, Le Fondre started to drop and give an extra passing option to his centre-backs in between the line. This movement disoriented United’s defensive structure as he could create a diamond along with Caceres and Brattan which allowed them to play around the opponent’s midfielders.
Sydney started pushing more forward and looked to overload the box after scoring the equalizer in the second half. In the above picture, you can see that three players are present in the opposition’s box sniffing out a chance at goal and three more players are on the edge of the opposition’s box. This tactic forced United to defend narrow inside their own box. Hence, Sydney could put crosses in the box in the lookout for a goal as it was overloaded with their own players.
Sydney’s position-oriented zonal marking
Sydney defended in a 4-4-2 formation and used a position-oriented zonal marking scheme. Thus, they could maintain compactness in the middle, giving space to United on the wings. Their priority was to keep the gaps and spaces as small as possible in between the lines. Le Fondre and Barbarouses were pinning the United centre-backs. As you can see here, Sydney is shuffling to the right side of the field as a group. The space that appeared to be open for Baumjohann, will suddenly become tight and cannot be played through safely. He approaches the ball slowly and step by step. However, the block will remain compact and any passes in between the lines will be compressed by narrowing of spaces.
In the above image, you can see Sydney has overloaded their left flank. Hence, not allowing United to progress their play. Here you can see a variation in their tactics. They have applied a man-oriented zonal marking. Sydney players are staying tight to their opponents and this leaves fewer open holes. All the passing options have been blocked, directly by tight marking or cover shadows and indirectly by staying compact. This forces the opposition wing-back to not take any risk but play back.
Sydney equalized in the 52nd minute with a header by Le Fondre, they changed their tactics. As you can see here, Sydney is pressing high up the field and have adopted a man-man marking scheme. Every player has a direct opponent to mark. This eliminated the short passing options for the defenders, forcing them to look for intermediate-range passes or long passes and stopped United from playing their natural game. The Sydney forwards were pressing the United centre-backs aggresively as soon as they received the ball.
Western United’s positional play and attacking tactics
Western United used different tactics to break down the opposition’s defence. During the game, many times Tomoki Imai made an overlapping run on the right flank. This allowed Pierias to cut inside and either charge himself, cross into the box or play it to Imai. As you can see here Imai makes an overlapping run. This way United has created triangles on the wings, forcing their opponents to overload the right flank, in before switching the play. Thus, they could move around within that triangle in which one player provided width, one supplying an option square and one moving in between the lines. The strategy of overlapping centre-backs comes in handy to break down low blocks in defence.
Diamanti and Burgess offered an attacking threat which was very significant for United. They were the main playmakers for the team. As you can see here, Burgess drops to receives the ball and quickly plays it to Cavallo. Brattan had to follow him which then left a gap in their defensive block. Burgess’s movement in the middle third was very vital for United’s build-up play. He looked to create triangles and make under-lapping runs in the half spaces.
In this match, United looked to attack through the flanks, mostly. They attacked 23 times from right flank alone and this is where their danger man Diamanti was operating. United always involved their wing-backs in all the attacks. Sydney’s full backs were playing very high and couldn’t fall back to defend. As you can see here Lustica makes a diagonal run to exploit the space between the left centre-back and left-back. In this way, United could get into the final-third and deliver dangerous crosses into the box.
United used the flanks to get into the opposition’s area. Their aim was not to keep possession of the ball. During the build-up, the three centre-backs along with Pasquali formed a shape which resembles a rhombus to beat the first line of defence of Sydney. Hence, they had a numerical superiority in this case. If the opposition midfielders pressed higher, then Diamanti and Burguess would drop to provide a passing option, which also opened up the flanks for their wing-backs.
Western United’s organised defence
United would set up in a 5-2-2-1 formation while defending. As you can see here, Berisha was leading the first line of defence. He was staying in front of the double pivot and using his shadow to cover the passing lanes. Burgess and Diamanti were marking Brattan and Caceres tightly, hence cancelling out the passing options for the opposition defenders. Wing-backs Cavallo and Pierias were pinning the opposition full-backs whenever they got the ball, leaving them with the only option of passing it back every time. While, United’s three centre-backs took care of Le Fondre and Barbarouses. Their man-marking all around the pitch aimed to give them a numerical superiority in the midfield and defence and, didn’t allow Sydney to move the ball out of the defence line.
As you can see here, United switched to a 5-2-3 formation, when Sydney entered their half. United has used a strict man-marking scheme in which more or less every player is following a specific opponent. Since there were no rotations amongst the opposition attackers or any position interchange in between the lines. It became easy for United to defend. This tactic deployed by United didn’t allow Sydney to play with a lot of freedom. United outnumbered Sydney all around the pitch, leaving them with only two options, either to pass it back to the centre-backs or to play long balls into the opposition’s box.
“The Thorn” for Sydney
Diamanti was like a thorn for Sydney as they could not shut him down. Rudan had deployed him as a right inside forward who had the license to free roam in the opponent’s half. He provided a different kind of direct threat. He liked to drop deep or drift wide and then he looked for passing options in the final-third. Diamanti completed 2 key passes and 4 successful dribbles in the match.
As you can see here, Diamanti drops deep to provide an extra passing option to the defenders. This movement forced Ninkovic to move infield and close him down. Thus, Sydney became narrow which allowed Pierias to move high up the pitch on the right side to provide width. Diamanti and Pierias combined well and provided an extra attacking thrust on the right flank for United.
During build-up United’s goal was to find Diamanti as he’s their main playmaker. Diamanti would often drift wide or come short to get the ball to disrupt Sydney’s defensive structure. In the above image you can see Diamanti drifting wide into space, which forces Caceres to follow him. Thus, Lustica could receive the ball now in acres of space because of the space left by Caceres who had to follow Diamanti.
United opened the scoring in the 21st minute through a counter-attack initiated by Burgess, who won the ball in the centre of the pitch and immediately passed it to Berisha. Berisha received and turned with the ball and floated a lobbed pass into the path of Diamanti who made a diagonal run between the left centre-back and left-back. After which Diamanti trapped the ball, turned and took a shot at the goal. Sydney’s goal-keeper Redmayne could not clear the ball after blocking it. The ball landed right on the feet of Berisha, who simply tapped it in.
Just as the match looked to be heading for a draw, United snatched out a last gasp 2-1 on Saturday. Lustica netted the winner seconds before the clock ticked over to 90 minutes from close-range. Sydney’s hopes of rediscovering their form before the start of the A-League finals series shattered. This result meant that they haven’t won a single game in their last five games. While for United, they could secure a place in the finals and also jumped to the fifth position in the league table. It was United’s sixth win in their last seven games. Overall, it was an entertaining encounter, but the pace dropped in the latter stages and Sydney resembled to their old selves. Yet United emerged as winners and soured the evening for Sydney.