A-League has restarted with the motto – “let’s finish what we started”. On 17th July, table-toppers Sydney FC took on Wellington Phoenix in the Netstrata Jubilee stadium. Sydney FC won the game 3-1 to strengthen their hold on the first position. Currently, they are 11 points clear of second-placed Melbourne City FC with five games still in hand, while the latter has only three games, and are on track for their fourth premiership. Wellington Phoenix, on the other hand, is positioned third on the table and are on track to progress to the finals series.
Despite a poor start to this season, Wellington Phoenix has performed exceptionally well under Ufuk Talay. Before the break, they had four continuous wins while Sydney FC had a loss, a win and two draws. A win from this game would have strengthened their hold on the third position. This tactical analysis will look at the tactics employed by both teams and provide an analysis of this game.
Sydney FC lined-up in their usual 4-4-2 formation (bottom side in the image) with Adam LeFondre and Kosta Barbarouses forming the front line. Midfield consisting of Serbian maestro Milos Ninkovic, Paulo Retre, Luke Bratton and Anthony Caceres. The back four were Joel King, Alex Wilkinson, Ryan McGowan and Rhyan Grant. Andrew Redmayne between the sticks. Steve Corica brought in Trent Buhagiar for Kosta Barbarouses at 69th minute, who netted two goals and sealed the win for Sydney FC, which was an exciting substitution.
Wellington Phoenix lined-up in a 4-2-3-1 (upper side in the image), similar to Manchester United, with the 19-year-old Ben Waine leading from the front. The midfield was formed by Reno Piscopo, David Ball who played more like a second striker beside Maine, Jaushua Sotirio and holding midfielders were Matti Steinmann and Alex Rufer. The backline in front of the goalie, Stefan Marinovic, was formed by Liberato Cacace, Luke DeVere, Steven Taylor, and Luis Fenton. Leading goal-scorer for the team, Ulises Davilla was brought on by Ufuk Talay for Sotirio on the 66th minute, which was an exciting substitution and also Gary Hooper, a former player of Norwich City FC of EPL, was brought in for Piscopo.
The defensive structure of Sydney FC
Ufuk Talay, current coach of Wellington Phoenix, in the last season worked as an assistant coach at Sydney FC under Steve Corica. Hence, after taking charge of the Nix, Talay employed similar tactics of Sydney FC which have brought good results to the club. Wellington phoenix also, similar to Sydney FC, attack in a 4-2-2-2 formation with the wide midfielders tucked-in and full-backs used to provide the width.
Sydney FC defended in a rigid 4-4-2 formation, similar to Everton under Carlo Ancelotti. When the ball would be played to any of the flanks, the respective wide midfielder would press the full-back of the opposition while the other wide midfielder would drift in towards the centre and mark the midfielder of the opposition and freeing one of the players to give protection against through balls. An example of such a movement is shown below.
The forwards, Barbarouses and LeFondre marked in red, are covering the holding midfielders. The wide midfielders, Ninkovic on the far side and Caceres on the near side are marked in yellow. Ninkovic is pressuring the full-back who has played the ball back to the CDM, Steinmann, while Caceres has drifted in towards the centre to mark the attacking midfielder, Sotirio. This creates a free player in the centre, Bratton is circled, who can protect against the through-ball passes. Another instance just a few seconds after the above one, in which Wellington players have changed the flank of action is shown below.
Caceres and Ninkovic are marked in yellow. Caceres is pressuring the full-back, while the forwards are marking the holding midfielders. Ninkovic has drifted in towards the centre and is tracking the run of Piscopo, marked in orange. Hence, Retre who is circled is a free player in the centre of the pitch and can track any players who come down the pitch or can defend against the through-ball passes. Both the teams defended using the 4-4-2 formation but Sydney FC though not pressuring the centre-backs and intensifying the press, defended tactically.
Wellington Phoenix’s tactics against the defense
Wellington Phoenix attacked in a 4-2-2-2 formation with Waine and Ball upfront. The tactical defensive structure of Sydney FC created problems for Wellington Phoenix while attacking. To break the defensive structure, one of the forwards of the Nix would come down the pitch while one of the midfielders would try and create space. This forward was usually Ben Waine. An instance is shown below.
The ball carrier was the right centre-back. Hence, Retre who is circled is free, and Bratton, marked in yellow, was marking Sotirio, marked in red. Sotirio makes a decoy run to get Bratton out of position and the same space is quickly occupied by Waine, forward of Wellington Phoenix, marked in red who came down the pitch to support the attack.The wide midfielders of Sydney FC, are indicated by orange markers. On the near side, it is observed that Caceres is marking the right full-back who is out of the picture. Ninkovic on the far side is marking Piscopo.
Another thing to observe is that following Waine, the centre-back of Sydney FC also gets out of position to defend the attack up the pitch. This creates a gap in the defensive line of Sydney FC which could be exploited. However, this attack fizzled out without causing much damage. Another instance of similar to this tactic is shown and explained below.
In this case, again Bratton, marked in yellow, is marking Sotirio, in red, and a passing option is opened where Waine, marked in green, quickly runs in to receive the ball and passes it on to the flank where the attack continues. The midfielder, Retre circled, is free in the midfield and Ninkovic is marking Piscopo on the far side.
In the second half, Wellington Phoenix got better in their positional attack. The half-time substitute, Callum MacCowatt who came in for Ben Waine, began occupying and exploiting spaces in the midfield while Sotirio and Ball played upfront. An instance is explained below in a series of images signifying one of the attacks of Wellington Phoenix.
The problem of Wellington’s forwards receiving passes in between the lines was avoided by cover-shadowing them by Retre and Bratton. As can be observed in the above image, the forwards, marked in white are being covered by CDMs of Sydney FC, Bratton, and Retre. Notice the decoy run by Fenton, marked in orange, which drags Ninkovic, in yellow, away and creates a space for Piscopo, marked in green, to receive the pass. McCowatt passes to Rufer who in turn passes to Piscopo.
Ninkovic, in green, comes back to press Piscopo who passes the ball to Fenton on the wings. Notice that with Fenton, in red, the full-back, King also follows him out of position. This creates a space between the full-back and the centre-back, which is exploited by Piscopo as shown in the next image.
Piscopo, in red, is observed to run into the gap between the full-back and centre-back to receive the pass. Though this attack was defended, this example signifies the positional attack of Wellington, drawing the players out of position by decoy runs to create and exploit spaces and gaps.
Sydney FC attack and excellence of Bratton
Sydney FC also attacked in a very similar manner to that of Wellington Phoenix. The wide midfielders, Ninkovic, and Caceres would be positioned in the half-space area. Sydney FC also employed a positional attack and would often look to exploit the spaces between the midfield and defensive lines. An example is shown below which signifies the similar attacking approach between the two teams.
Sydney FC’s CDM, Retre in green, makes a run inside towards the centre of the pitch and is followed by Rufer, marked in orange. This movement creates a gap in the midfield line which is quickly exploited by Ninkovic, marked in red, who receives the pass in that area. Both the teams followed the same principle of exploiting the gaps created by players who get out of position to press, similar attacking approaches.
Sydney FC’s holding midfielders, Bratton and Retre were very efficient in playing through-ball passes cutting the midfield line of pressure. An instance of Retre playing a through-ball pass is shown below.
Here, Retre, marked in red, plays a through-ball that cuts right through the midfield line and reaches straight to LeFondre. There were many dangerous chances created in the first half by Sydney FC but they were blocked due to the compact defensive structure of Wellington Phoenix. Compactness while defending allows the players to close down the opposition player, who receives the pass in between the lines, quickly.
During the attacking phases, Sydney FC used a back-three line, with Bratton coming down the pitch and playing with the centre-backs. An instance is shown below.
Bratton, marked in red, is playing in line with the centre-backs. Most of the through-passes were made by Bratton. He is a deep-lying playmaker. A couple of examples are shown below which signify his passing capability.
Sydney FC’s crux in the attacking phase is the constant movement of the wide midfielders and dragging opposition players out of their position to create and exploit gaps. Bratton, marked in red, picks out this pass to Caceres, marked in yellow, who is moving in the half-space area. This pass cuts through the midfield line of opposition and provides an opportunity for a dangerous attack. Another instance is shown below.
Bratton, marked in yellow, picks out the run of Ninkovic, marked in red, and plays an overhead pass inside the box. The goal-keeper reached there first but this example signifies the passing capability of Bratton.
Both the teams scored their respective first goals through penalties. As happens when two teams of similar attacking strategies clash, the result depends on the quality of counter-attacks. Sydney FC scored the last two goals in just two minutes, one at 88th and another at 90th minute, both were counter-attacks. Sydney FC enjoyed 51% of possession and Wellington phoenix 49%. Both sides played with a similar plan with very minute changes.