This massive A-League fixture was seen as a must-win game for both sides, and it did not disappoint. Newcastle Jets headed into this Round 27 game in ninth place with 28 points and needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Western United were playing their second game since the restart and sat seventh on the ladder with 30 points. Victory would see United positioned 1 point of the top six with two games in hand over Adelaide United above them.
A great overall game of football played out with the two teams cancelling each other out deploying similar tactics, which made for a battle of high intensity and quality possession phases throughout the full 90 minutes.
In this tactical analysis, I will discuss Western United’s impressive high press, the movement and positioning off Newcastle’s front three, as well as the chemistry and connection of Alessandro Diamanti and Connor Pain for the away side. In the end, Newcastle turned out the victors 1-0, but it wasn’t an easy victory by any means for the jets, and United certainly made the home side work for the win.
Coaches Carl Robinson (Newcastle Jets) and Mark Rudan (Western United) have shared similar football philosophies throughout the season to date, setting their teams up to play possession-based football in 3-4-3 formation with detailed variations for each side. These tactics coincide with the recent evolution in Australian top-flight football moving away from a more direct style of play. Newcastle would drop into a 5-4-1 defensive shape creating two strong banks behind forward Roy O’Donovan, proving difficult for United to break down. Western however looked to press high against the jets and bring a strong defensive intensity to their opponents, establishing a 5-2-3 shape in transition to defence which I will examine further as we go on.
Both sides pulled their wing-backs down in defence to create the back fives, conceding space in the wide areas. A notable absentee for Newcastle was young right wing-back Matthew Millar who was out due to injury. With his unavailability, Jason Hoffman was given the nod by Robinson.
Western United Press
This analysis proves Western United used their defence as their best form of attack in this match. Rudan has embedded a high work rate and disciplined pressing approach in defence for United this season, trying to replicate the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City in this tactic. The aim being to win the ball back as quickly as possible once it has been turned over, as well as not allowing the opposition to play out easily from the back and instead force the long ball or a critical error. From Newcastle’s goal kicks, United would have a very high starting position, with the front three of Besart Berisha, Max Burgess, and Diamanti looking to instantly pressure the ball once it had been played short by goalkeeper Lewis Italiano.
Before the kick-off, it is clear to see Rudan had identified Newcastle’s reluctance to go long from goal kicks, alternatively playing short at every opportunity and building up from the back, mirroring Robinson’s tactics. The Jets attempted to play out from the back 11 times throughout the game with little success due to the opposition press. Newcastle’s stubbornness throughout the game to adapt and change this became their biggest problem as they struggled to find a solution to play out of the United press, with United consistently applying effective pressure starting with their eager front three.
The United front three remained narrow aiming to block passing channels into Newcastle’s central midfield, instead forcing the play into the wide areas. Behind the forward line, United’s midfield two of Steven Lustica and Sebastian Pasquali locked onto Newcastle’s central midfield pair of Steven Ugarkovic and Angus Thurgate, not allowing them to turn if they did manage to receive the ball, forcing the Jets to play backwards. United’s back five would now step and squeeze higher up the field creating a very compact shape for United, nullifying the space for Jets to play into between the lines.
Western’s wing-backs Pain and Josh Risdon were given license to push high onto Newcastle’s wing-backs should they drop deep to receive also, ultimately forcing the Jets into mistakes under pressure or having to go long in search of their forward players. Western won possession from pressing the goal kicks multiple times in the first half, and this enabled them to be an immediate threat to the Jets goal turning over the ball high up the pitch in dangerous areas. It wasn’t until midway through the second 45 we started to see the Newcastle keeper Italiano decide to distribute long with his side accepting defeat in the build-up phase to the United press. This turned Newcastle goal kicks into a 50/50 aerial battle, much to the liking of Rudan’s side who are notably strong in the air with the likes of Andrew Durante and Tomislav Uskok.
We found from this pressing tactic that Newcastle hadn’t come up against anything like it to date and didn’t have the answers or forward outlets to bypass the press throughout the game, putting themselves under huge pressure attempting to build up from the back.
Newcastle Breaking Midfield Line
When Newcastle had possession in the middle third of the pitch, they would often look to the positioning and movement of their attacking trio Nick Fitzgerald, O’Donovan and in particular Bernie Ibini to play through Western’s compact defensive shape. Western tried to pressure the Jets with every opportunity as previously mentioned and to combat this, the positioning of Newcastle’s front three was key to getting time on the ball for their playmakers.
The front three would start very high pinning down United’s central three defenders, but more importantly, remained very narrow. This was crucial as it allowed their wing-backs Connor O’Toole and Hoffman space to operate in the wide channels, and advance themselves high in line with the front three. By doing this and proceeding forward, United consequently had to bring their wing-backs Pain and Risdon down to track their runners, making a back five for United.
Seems pretty standard, but what this meant was that the United wing-backs now couldn’t afford to press the ball as they would have wanted to and by dropping off, this gave more time and space for Newcastle’s ball carriers to operate in. Western were forced to drop the press at times and concede possession in a mid-block structure as a result of Newcastle’s front three positioning.
From this, the next phase was the movement of the attacking three. Now the trio would look to drop into the half-spaces between United’s defensive and midfield line, with the intention of receiving a sharp pass to feet, where they could quickly turn and run at the United defence.
Throughout the game, Western’s central defenders choose not to step up and follow the Jets runners dropping off at the risk of leaving their line, and creating space through and in-behind for forward angled runs of the Newcastle attackers. We saw multiple times Ibini would receive in these spaces after quickly dropping off the line and receiving from the midfield. He was then afforded the opportunity to turn out and play to the opposite side (Western’s weak side) or play a forward through ball to an on running O’Donovan or Fitzgerald. This becomes a frequent pattern throughout the game and an effective process for Newcastle to break down United’s compact system.
No attempt was made from Rudan’s side to screen or block these passes into the feet of Newcastle’s front three which made me question if United valued pressure on the ball over protection of the backline. Newcastle were controlled and patient in possession, waiting for the right opportunity and space to open up before playing these sharp forward passes breaking the midfield line of Western United. When the ball was played into the feet of one of the attackers, the other two for the jets would react with a run in-behind, further stretching the Western backline and creating multiple problems for the side now out of defensive shape.
I feel Newcastle didn’t take full advantage of this passing pattern and the way they carved through United at times, only to have poor execution let them down in the final third. This is reflected in Robinson’s half time interview when he said “…our pass selection was poor”.
Diamanti and Pain Connection
A unique feature of the game was Western United’s reliance and consistent use of the long diagonal pass from Diamanti in the middle of the park, to left wingback Pain. This switch of play was frequently used from the Italian playmaker in an attempt to catch Newcastle out on their weak side, and penetrate the 1v1 battle of Pain vs Hoffman. What was most interesting was Diamanti’s change of positioning to get into position for the switch in offence versus his positioning in defence.
When the initial line-up came out, I predicted Diamanti would play as part of the front three for United or operate just in behind Berisha and Burgess. This was what we saw when United defended with the press as Diamanti joined in the forward line forming the pressing three. In possession, however, Diamanti drops extremely deep for a forward player, into Western’s midfield line creating a midfield five. This allowed him to receive from the backline in the middle of the park, turn without intense marking and switch the play to Pain using his deadly left foot. At times United would push Lustica onwards in order to avoid cramping in the middle of the park, this suggesting a complete swap in positioning with Diamanti.
With the number 23 obviously being a highly influential and important player for Rudan’s side, this reoccurring theme demonstrates how United’s entire system revolves around the Italian and bringing the best out of the maestro. This simple pass turned out to be a heavy contributor to United’s 12 penalty area entries throughout the match.
Throughout the 90 minutes, Pain offered height and width at every opportunity, always making himself an option to receive the switch ball from Diamanti. This hurt Newcastle as Hoffman would often be isolated 1v1 with Pain once this ball was played, and he struggled to manage the pace and skill of Pain in the final third whilst waiting for additional support from his teammates arriving from the opposite side of the pitch.
We see in the image above Pain’s advanced positioning in the final third looking to make an angled run into the Newcastle penalty area. Wing-back Hoffman is now dragged out to mark Pain, leaving Berisha isolated 1v1 on top of the box with John Koutroumbis, a favourable situation for the lethal striker.
Ultimately two sides with similar styles and tactics locked horns and produced one of the better A-League games I’ve watched this season in terms of footballing quality. Both teams created chances through fine passing sequences and prolific combination play to break down the other’s defence, and I believe Western will feel hard done by not to come away with at least a point considering the work output of the side. The away side pushed for an equaliser late on, but the execution in the final third again let the side down. A possible consequence of tired legs in this packed schedule.
Throughout this tactical analysis, I have covered how United’s press was effective in turning over possession in dangerous areas and caused huge issues for the jets who were determined to play out from the back at every opportunity. Additionally, I discussed Newcastle’s ability to break Western’s midfield line and progress up the field using the positioning and movement of their narrow forward trio. Finally, we finished by covering a key on-pitch relationship between Diamanti and Pain for United, whose chemistry was evident and effective in stretching Newcastle’s defensive shape.
In the end, this result leaves Newcastle Jets placed 7th, 3 points off the top six. Whereas Western United now find themselves 4 points off the same group, looking at the playoffs from the outside in.