Adelaide United hosted Melbourne City in the 2019 FFA Cup final at their home ground, Coopers Stadium. The hosts looked to defend their title, having previously defeated Sydney FC in the 2018 final. Meanwhile, the visitors featured in their first final since winning the cup in 2016. Melbourne went into the match on the better form, a run of six games without defeat. The Reds had enjoyed four wins in this competition. However, they suffered back to back defeats in their opening A-League fixtures, losing to Sydney FC followed by a 2-1 defeat to their final opponents three days prior to the final.
This tactical analysis will look at the tactics used by both sides and how these contributed to Adelaide securing their third FFA Cup. The analysis will look at aspects of both sides’ tactics and what influence these had on the match.
The home side set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, one of several systems used by Gertjan Verbeek. Paul Izzo started in goal, protected by a back four of Ryan Strain, Michael Marrone, Michael Jakobsen, and Ryan Kitto. Louis D’Arrigo played alongside Michael Maria in the centre of the park with Riley McGree playing in attacking midfield. Ben Halloran and Nikola Mileusnic played on the wings while 19-year-old Al Hassan Toure replaced Kristian Ospeth in attack.
Erick Mombaerts set his side up in their familiar 4-3-3 formation, similar to that of their sister club Manchester City. Dean Bouzanis continued in goal with Scott Galloway and Scott Jamieson keeping their places at full-back. Former Premier League player, Curtis Good replaced Richard Windbichler to partner Harrison Delbridge in central defence. Joshua Brillante marked Riley McGree in front of the defence. Connor Metcalfe and Adrian Luna played in the more advanced midfield roles as Lachlan Wales and former EFL man, Craig Noone supported the competition’s top scorer Jamie MacLaren in City’s attack.
The sides’ formations largely matched each other with Brillante playing close to McGree throughout the match. Adelaide’s wingers made up for this with over 80% of the host’s attacks coming down the flanks. Adelaide likely opted for this system rather than a 4-3-3 which they had used previously as this allowed them to nullify the threat caused by Joshua Brillante.
Adelaide’s man-marking and pressing
Off the ball, Adelaide stuck to a man-marking system to stay tight to Melbourne’s players. This saw them hold their formation for the most part with players following their men as Melbourne looked to break the Reds down. In the example above, we can see very clearly Adelaide’s shape with D’arrigo and Maria tight to Metcalfe and Luna with McGree close to Brillante. Out wide, both wingers are close to the full-backs while Kitto has moved up to stay with Wales who had dropped deep for the ball.
Adelaide allowed the Melbourne defenders plenty of time on the ball in their own defensive third with Riley McGree picking up the deep-lying playmaker, Joshua Brillante, and stopping them building through the midfield. This time allowed on the ball saw Melbourne’s central defenders be the two players with the most touches, both having over 100 in the match.
As Melbourne progressed into midfield, Adelaide became more aggressive. They looked to get tight to their men as quickly as possible. McGree often led the press as Melbourne looked to play through Brillante. This saw the midfielder rack up the most duels in the match and winning 79% of his 14 duels. McGree’s impressive pressing ability allowed his side to stop Melbourne’s attack at the source.
Adelaide were defensively solid throughout, winning over two-thirds of their tackles. Below, we can see late in the game Adelaide kept their shape. The same pressing system was used too. As the ball was played to Wales on the left-hand side, Strain followed the winger up triggering the press. The ball was returned to the defence, substitute Kristian Ospeth closed down Curtis Good forcing him to play a quick pass into midfield where Halloran nicked in front of his man to win the ball back.
Due to their structured defending Adelaide were reliant on counter-attacks throughout the match. As they allowed Melbourne time on the ball their defence could become stretched as they looked to find a kink in the Reds’ armour. This often resulted in a long ball being cleared and Adelaide breaking at pace. The contrast in build-up can be seen by Adelaide’s 29 clearances to Melbourne’s nine. The hosts looked to get the ball up the park as quickly as possible while City preferred a slower build-up. This quick counter-attacking was pivotal in three of the hosts’ goals.
In the example above, a long ball from Delbridge found Noone who was dispossessed by Strain. He plays the ball straight to Al Hassan Toure, bypassing the midfield. Toure uses his strength to turn the defender while his midfielder teammates bomb forward beyond him. Riley McGree drifted wide while Halloran had followed Jamieson inside. McGree and Mileusnic (out of shot) made straight runs forward on either flank while Halloran bombed on in between the two central defenders. As Toure turned he played a well-timed ball inside of Curtis Good, who was caught flat-footed. McGree latched onto it and squared to the onrushing Halloran who finished.
This was a good example of how both sides’ tactics influenced the match. Melbourne’s long ball had seen their defensive line push high with Jamieson, the ball-side full-back, pushed further up. This allowed space for Adelaide on the flanks and between the lines. The effectiveness of the three behind the striker can also be seen as they get beyond Toure after his impressive holdup play.
A quick break would also lead to Adelaide’s third goal as shown above. The first substitution of the game saw Melbourne change formation as Richard Windbichler replaced Scott Galloway. This saw the Austrian play in a back three alongside Delbridge and Good. Lachlan Wales dropped back to right wing-back while Scott Jamieson stepped up to left wing-back. The visitors were clearly still adapting to their new formation as Jamieson was caught well out of position. Riley McGree beat Brillante in the middle of the park and carried the ball forward. As Al Hassan Toure ran inside, Good followed him opening a gap for McGree to feed the ball to Halloran on the right. The wide man played it across the box and found Mileusnic who tapped in at the back post.
City’s attacking struggles
As mentioned earlier, the visitors struggled to get a grip on the game as they were unable to break down Adelaide’s stubborn man-marking. Mombaerts’ side like to build from the back, however, this wasn’t allowed due to their midfield having such little space and time on the ball. This saw them often resorting to long diagonal balls from their central defenders to Noone and Wales who stayed tight to the touchline. This more often than not resulted in them being closed down quickly and losing the ball, as was the case for Adelaide’s second goal above.
Above, as Delbridge picked up the ball in the City defence he looked up for a midfielder to play out to. However, Adelaide’s disciplined midfield had once again blocked this out ball. The defenders play a few more passes between themselves while the midfield rotates, however, there are still no options.
This passing around the back was a feature of City’s play and contributed to their dominance of possession, having 66%. The ball eventually moved to Curtis Good who took a touch and sprayed a long ball towards Noone on the left-wing. However, this ball was over-hit and easily shepherded out of play by Strain. These long balls caused the visitors to struggle in creating good chances.
The visitors also failed to provide options when they did venture forward. As shown above, Curtis Good brought the ball out of defence and got his head up to look for a pass. Scott Jamieson is on the touchline however is picked up by Ben Halloran. While D’arrigo quickly blocked off his option in the centre of the park, this led to Good floating another poor ball into the box which Marrone dealt with easily. It would’ve been beneficial for Jamie MacLaren to drop in and ask for the ball to then link with his teammates. This would’ve allowed time for more bodies to get into dangerous positions and find a different angle to attack from.
Normally when Melbourne attack the midfield are higher up meaning MacLaren can focus on getting into goalscoring positions. However, in this game Adelaide forced them to play more direct, often bypassing the midfield. This led them to crossing more often than usual. Wales and Noone attempted a combined 11 crosses compared to their average of 8 per game, completing just 12.5%. This could be put down to both the quality of crosses and Jamie MacLaren’s aerial ability compared with Adelaide’s defenders. MacLaren’s touch map, above, shows that he rarely got on the ball in deeper areas. This indicates his lack of involvement in build-up play which also caused his side to play longer and stretch the game. Had he gotten more involved in build-up play, he could have helped get more bodies close to him and create better opportunities.
Overall, the cup final was an entertaining encounter. Adelaide played with a clear game plan as they looked to stop Melbourne from playing the way they wanted to. This worked to great effect as Melbourne were regularly forced into long balls resulting in turnovers. These turnovers allowed the hosts to counter and take advantage of the pace which they possess. This would prove to be the difference between the sides with three of the Reds’ four goals coming from quick breaks.
Melbourne were unable to carve out any clear-cut chances and instead resorted to hopeful balls into the box or shots from range. Jamie MacLaren failed to be involved in the attack, making City’s approach predictable and easy to deal with. The tactics deployed by Adelaide were certainly instrumental in becoming the first side to win back-to-back FFA cups.