The A-League returned on Friday with Sydney FC’s 3-1 victory over Wellington Phoenix. Steve Corica’s side were in action again on Tuesday as they faced Newcastle Jets in Sydney. The Hosts came into the game well clear at the top of the table knowing that a point would be enough to secure their 4th A-League title. Meanwhile, the visitors sat 9th in the table and were aiming to keep alive their faint hopes of a place in the finals. Sydney having the best home record in the league while The Jets have the second-worst away record, this seemed like a mismatch. However, the visitors prevailed coming away with a 2-1 victory thanks to a late winner from Kosta Petratos.
The home side lined up their familiar 4-4-2 formation. Andrew Redmayne continued in goal behind captain Alex Wilkinson and Ryan McGowan at the heart of the defence. Rhyan Grant also kept his place on the right of the back four while Michael Zullo was in from the start replacing Joel King. Former Man City man Luke Brattan lined up alongside Paulo Retre in the centre of the park. Anthony Caceres kept his place, moving to the left while former Bundesliga man Alexander Baumjohann came in on the right. Top goal-scorer Adam Le Fondre was partnered by Kosta Barbarouses in attack.
The visitors opted for a more conservative 5-4-1. Lewis Italiano started in goal behind a back three of John Koutroumbis, Nigel Boogaard and Nikolai Topor-Stanley. Matthew Millar got forward well from right wing-back supplying the most crosses in the match. Chris O’Toole played at left wing-back staying slightly deeper than Millar. Steven Ugarkovic and Angus Thurgate started in the centre of the park with Bernie Ibini and Nick Fitzgerald on either wing. Irish veteran Roy O’Donovan led the line.
As is typically the case with systems using wing-backs, a lot of Newcastle’s play went through them. Millar was their main threat staying very high on the right with Ibini sitting inside. This saw 71% of their attacks coming down the right flank. Millar was one of the visitors furthest forward players for large spells of the match. As shown by the average positions map below, Millar was right beside Ibini while O’Toole on the other side sat deeper.
Millar’s overlapping runs would be a focus of many of Newcastle’s attacks. In the example below, Ibini dropped deep to collect the ball. This attracted the attention of Zullo who followed him. This created a large amount of space for Millar to run into. On this occasion, Ibini carried the ball himself, however, could’ve found Millar who was in a dangerous position to cross.
We can also see another benefit of these attacking wing-backs below for the Jet’s equaliser. Millar is again high and wide which attracts the attention of two defenders. Thanks to the wing-back pushing on, Ibini is able to get into the box. This means that when Millar delivers his cross there are four Newcastle players in the area causing disruption. The ball finds its way to the back where Nick Fitzgerald was able to find space to acrobatically finish. Millar attempted 11 crosses in the match which was the most of anyone on the park while also contributing two key passes. This shows the Jet’s reliance on him to create from wide positions.
This tactic of crowding the box can also be seen from the other side of the pitch. When the ball is moved to O’Toole there are five Newcastle players in and around the box. The most notable again is Matthew Millar who has gotten in at the back post. Thanks to Ibini moving inside Millar finds himself unmarked which could’ve been utilised had O’Toole managed to get a cross in. By getting lots of bodies into the box Newcastle maximise the chance of finding one with a cross. With their obvious reliance on their wing-backs, it is sensible to make these crossing situations as dangerous as possible.
Sydney’s buildup play
In possession, Sydney opted for a patient approach. As shown below, Luke Brattan would often drop back alongside the defenders. This saw the hosts adopt a 3-5-2 formation when building their attacks. As mentioned Brattan dropped into the right side of the defence as both full-backs push forward. Retre holds his position in the centre of the park while the wide-men move inside. By dropping back, Brattan creates himself more passing options with the game in front of him as shown. He now has options to pass in almost any direction with nobody directly picking him up.
Brattan also drops into the same area to create options for his teammates. As shown below, the ball is played to Retre in space in the centre of the park. Rather than staying alongside him, Brattan drops into the backline creating more space in the centre. The two wide-men, Caceres and Baumjohann, tuck inside to create options ahead of Retre.
The full-backs push forward in the wide areas to compensate for the wide midfielders who have moved central. This allows Sidey to match Newcastle’s general shape and create an overload in the centre. Kosta Barbarouses drops off from the frontline creating a diamond which will allow them to play around the visitor’s midfield two.
This reliance on their central midfielders is shown below. Brattan and Retre were the two most regularly passed to players for Sydney receiving 63 and 45 passes respectively. This is significantly more than any other player showing that Sydney looked to build through the centre of the park where they could outnumber Newcastle.
Their two wide midfielders also functioned more conventionally leading to their opening goal. As shown below, Baumjohann was played the ball wide after a one-two with Rhyan Grant. This drew O’Toole out of position allowing the German space in behind. Baumjohann delivered a low cross picking out Caceres to open the scoring as he got in front of Millar. This dynamic was one which wasn’t utilised enough by Sydney as they could’ve caused Newcastle more problems with their runs from midfield.
Newcastle brought on the league’s top creator Dimi Petratos in the 65th minute. The midfielder creates 3.59 chances per 90, better than any other player. This was a clear show of intent from Carl Robinson as they looked to find a winning goal. Dimi’s brother Kosta was also brought on in the 78th minute as they continued to chase a goal.
Dimi looked to play between the lines to help pick apart the Sydney Defence. As shown below, Dimi Petratos gets into a pocket of space and asks for the ball. He has drifted to the right where Millar has once again gotten high up and Kosta Petratos is playing ahead of him. This creates a triangle for them to play in as they overload flank. This left a 3-on-1 against substitute left-back Joel King, however, the Jets were unable to take advantage.
Kosta Petartos also had a significant impact on the game and scored the winning goal. The 22-year-old attempted two dribbles in his short time on the park which was 4th most among his teammates. This attacking intent helped to drive his side forward in the closing stages. The forward played across the front line and was clearly given the freedom to roam.
Similarly to his brother, Kosta looked to drop between lines and find pockets of space. This was the case for his winning goal, below. Petratos had been lurking in an offside position as Topor-Stanley carried the ball out of defence. As the veteran looked for a pass, Petratos moved in front of his defender and took the ball in well. He was strong enough to hold the ball up and look for a pass however, this didn’t come. As the defence regrouped, he bounced off another defender and shot from the edge of the area finding the far corner.
This game proved to be much more evenly matched than anticipated. The visitors came out with a clear gameplan to exploit the flanks, taking advantage of Sydney’s narrow midfield. This worked to great effect with Matthew Millar the key man. Their back five allowed them to keep former EFL man Adam Le Fondre quiet not allowing the forward a single opportunity. Carl Robinson’s substitutions, particularly the Petratos brothers really changed the flow of the game back in his side’s favour as Sydney were looking for a winner themselves.
While the hosts will lift their fourth title in the coming weeks, they weren’t at their best against the Jets. Their usually creative midfield weren’t in full flow and struggled to create with an xG of 0.6. While their progression from defence to midfield was good they struggled to penetrate Newcastle’s backline throughout the match. Adam Le Fondre was barely seen while he is usually such a key component for the league leaders.