This tactical analysis, will focus on a Wellington Phoenix academy product, Liberato Cacace who has been a break-out star for them in the 2019/20 Hyundai A-League season. At the ripe of age of 19, the young left-back has excelled under new manager Ufuk Talay’s tactics, being a catalyst for the New Zealand squad this year. His offensive brilliance has contributed heavily to what could proceed to be the Wellington Phoenix’s best season since establishment, currently sitting 3rd on the A-League ladder before Friday’s resumption. To partner this, his defensive solidity and efficiency in 1v1 situations stand him out in comparison to opposition full-back, resulting in rumoured interest from unnamed European clubs for the kiwi.
Through this tactical analysis, this is highlighted in an average of 11 challenges won per game this season for the Phoenix, a tied best in the league.
Down the opposite end of the field, Cacace has contributed to eight combined goals and assists from the full-back position, indicating the balance of threat and stability he possesses in both defence and attack. Additionally, Cacace attempted 102 total dribbles, more than twice as many as second-placed Michaël Maria (45) in this metric amongst left-backs in the A-league. These had a success rate of 56%, the second-best in the A-league and an outstanding attacking metric for any full-back.
In this scout report, we will discuss Cacace’s role and positioning within this Wellington Phoenix side, his brilliance on the ball and what makes him the best-attacking full-back in the league, as well as his deep crossing and the benefits this brings to his teammates. I will then go on to cover his defensive solidity, most importantly in 1v1 situations, as well as his pressing and desire to win possession in advanced positions of the pitch.
Role within Wellington Phoenix side
Talay has started Cacace in all 18 games the left-back has been available for this season, demonstrating his value to this team. Talay’s tactics see him deploy his team in a 4-4-2 formation, but this shape changes drastically in and out of possession.
Through this analysis we see from the second graphic, when they are in possession, often one of the central midfielders – Cameron Devlin or Matti Steinmann – will drop into spaces between the back four, creating a back five. This gives licence for Cacace and right-back Tim Payne to push higher up the field with the extra defensive cover provided by the central midfielder. This rotation is much to the liking of Cacace’s attacking play, giving him time and space to link and drive with teammates in advanced areas, as well as opportunities to take opposition players on in 1v1 situations.
With the Phoenix full-backs encouraged to push forward, the wide-men Reno Piscopo and Ulises Dávila become inverted wingers, squeezing inside to ensure the wide areas aren’t cramped for space for Cacace and Payne. Furthermore, the forwards Gary Hooper and David Ball will look to drop off the opposition’s defensive line to receive in the half space’s between the oppositions midfield and defensive line, enabling Talay’s side to outnumber and dominate the central areas, effectively opening space for forward runs in behind. Cacace now has space in behind to overlap his winger from full-back and threaten the penalty area either with direct dribbles or deep crosses, which we will touch more on later.
The Wellington Phoenix often look for Cacace through this rotation as an outlet to playing out of an opposition press as he finds himself in a position with time and space on the flank. Cacace and Payne are responsible for providing the width for Talay’s side, ensuring the central areas don’t become crowded for playmakers Davila and Piscopo.
Personally, I believe labelling Cacace as a wing-back represents his role and responsibilities more appropriately within this Phoenix set-up, dominating the entire left side from crucial defensive actions in his own penalty area to providing crosses and assist’s down the other end.
In this analyst’s opinion, Liberato Cacace has been the best attacking full-back in the A-League this season, battling with Sydney FC’s Rhyan Grant for the bragging rights. The young kiwi is the highest-scoring left-back in the league finding the net three times accompanied with five assists thus far. He’s second for the highest amount of shots in his position (20), and also second for producing the most key passes (12).
Cacace takes full advantage of Talay’s tactics, looking to steam forward with every opportunity and add an attacking threat opposition sides lack in the A-League. Space is created for Cacace’s late runs into the final third commonly with wide-men Piscopo or Callum McCowatt making the move towards the inside channel, dragging the opposition right-back with them.
Cacace’s discipline to hug the touchline now means one of two things for the Phoenix; either he will be left by the opposition with time and space to penetrate their weak side should he receive the ball, or he will be marked dragging an opposition winger wide. Consequently opening space centrally for the midfield and forward units to operate in, or giving the centre-half’s Steven Taylor and Luke DeVere time on the ball to make the right pass and room to drive themselves directly ahead. A long switch ball from the opposite side of the pitch, courtesy of either Taylor or DeVere, has been used effectively this season to use Cacace as an outlet and allow him to drive on the oppositions weak side and penetrate the back four.
We see from the image below against the Central Coast Mariners, Cacace gives himself space by remaining wide at all times and is aided by Piscopo occupying two defenders by positioning himself in the space between. The Mariners’ right-back considers Piscopo and more immediate threat than Cacace, forcing him to be sucked inside towards the ball. As a result, a well-placed long-ball from Steinmann finds a perfectly-timed diagonal run to Cacace in the box, resulting in a low first time cross from the left-back and a chance created for his side.
Cacace got himself on the score sheet here against Western United back in February from a combination of central positioning from his teammates and a well-timed deep run. When the Phoenix progress forward up the pitch, inverted wingers Piscopo and Davila look for the ball to feet between opposition lines inside, aiming to then turn and make the most of their excellent technical ability.
Hooper and Ball give the Phoenix height, positioning themselves on United’s deepest defender and looking for forward runs, giving Piscopo and Davila areas to receive in dangerous central spaces. Western United’s entire back four and two central midfielders are sucked inside to mark the Phoenix ‘front-four’, conceding huge spaces in the wide areas.
Cacace times his run from deep well, penetrating the space left out wide by the United defence, and slots the ball across Filip Kurto’s goal into the back of the net. Had Cacace made this movement earlier, he may have killed the space and halted his momentum, allowing extra time when receiving for a United player to get across and successfully defend the shot. A crucial element to Cacace’s chance creation this season is the timing of his forward runs from deep.
Cacace is also extremely skilful with the ball at his feet, and fully confident taking on opposition defenders in 1v1 situations when he receives the ball out wide. The kiwi has the highest amount of successful dribbles (57) when compared to left-backs in the league this season, and this metric capitulates his hunger and motivation to get forward for the Phoenix from left-back. His endurance and bravery throughout the full 90 minutes of games are commendable, this being reflected in his amazing solo goal against Western Sydney Wanderers in matchday 11 for the Phoenix.
Here Cacace picks the ball up on the halfway line with seemingly no threat to the Wanderers goal. He then uses his quick change of pace to beat two Wanderers defenders in an aggressive dribble forward before manoeuvring around a third and slotting home the goal with his weaker right foot. A spectacular 40-yard dribble to see live, and one which illustrates Cacace’s industrious attitude in attack.
The ability to cross from deep is another significant attribute to Cacace’s game and a threat to any opposition’s defence. Traditionally when wide players find themselves with space on the ball, coaches will encourage them to drive towards the by-line and get as close to the opposition goal before releasing. The downside of this is that you are effectively killing any space in behind the back four the further you proceed with the opposition dropping deeper and deeper.
Throughout this season, Cacace has recognised this and added to his cabinet of traits the ability to cross early in behind opposition defences, aiming to catch them off guard. This is much to the liking of Phoenix forward and aerial threat Gary Hooper, whose runs towards the back post area have been the successful target of many Cacace diagonal crosses this season. Unexpecting opposition defenders are caught back-peddling and in narrow-body positions when Cacace launches from deep areas, giving a head start to on-running Phoenix forwards anticipating this pass.
This action is very effective against teams with a high defensive line set-up who allow more space in behind for forward runs. The Phoenix though have used Cacace’s crossing ability for the opposite, with the other 10 A-League teams typically deploying a mid to low block defensive structure, aiming to nullify space in Wellington’s final third and eliminate space in-behind.
In response to this, Talay positions his full-backs wide and deep at times when opposing defences are in and around their own penalty area and recycle the ball through the back four, aiming to tempt oppositions to push forward and be drawn out of their low-block. This opens the space in behind, and should the opportunity present itself, Cacace is natural at targeting these spaces created from deep crossing positions. This makes Cacace a threat to the goal from anywhere on the pitch, not common amongst your conventional full-back who would need to be in very advanced areas to produce an effect cross for attackers.
This skill is comparable to the likes of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold of English champions Liverpool, masters of crossing from deep early with the purpose of drawing out defences before targeting space in-behind.
Again this reoccurring and successful Cacace action isn’t without the aid of teammate movement. Separating and stretching opposition defences is a hard ask in any league, but through productive off-the-ball movement by advanced players, Cacace is able to find his target men upfront more than any other full-back in the league.
Once the Phoenix have rotated, as previously mentioned, with a central midfielder dropping into the defensive line and the wide-men tucking inside, Cacace can find himself isolated when on the ball and the two forward players will still be marked comfortably upfront. Often to answer this, once Cacace has received the ball and a pass into the central areas isn’t available, Piscopo will proceed to make a decoy run diagonally back into the wide areas he originally started. The purpose of this is in the hope the opposition full-back will be dragged out to follow Piscopo, stretching the opposition back four and potentially creating a 2v2 scenario upfront for the Phoenix.
In support of this the opposite wide-man, typically Dávila, will come all the way across the pitch into the space left by Piscopo between the midfield and defensive line with the aim to force one of the back four to step up onto Davilla, leaving space in behind for forward runs of Hooper or Ball. This creates the dilemma for defences as to who marks who, now being matched 4v4 and ultimately will force one or more of the back four to step out of position presenting gaps in the defence.
These gaps opened are then targeted by Cacace’s deep crosses for forward runs of Hooper or Ball who have proven to be very smart throughout this season at recognising when and where defensive lines have been unravelled. Hooper will typically make the move away from the ball towards the back-post stretching out the defensive line even more and getting himself into a 1v1 situation (or sometimes completely unmarked) at the back stick for a Cacace cross.
The importance of movement off-the-ball is again demonstrated here in bringing the best out of Cacace’s game, although this attacking threat wouldn’t be possible without the elite crossing ability from the 19-year-old. Cacace’s deep crosses have proven to be an effective outlet for the Phoenix when under pressure from the opposition, and proves the left-back is an attacking threat from anywhere on the pitch.
Cacace’s defensive reliability and strength have the makings of a complete full-back when partnered with his offensive prowess. His decision making and eagerness to win tackles are seen as reckless at times, but more often than not he plays a pivotal role in turning over and winning possession for the Phoenix this season.
Cacace has 314 attempted tackles this season or an average of 17 per game, the highest in the A-League for his position. Of these, he has won 190 or 60.5%, again the best in the league for his position. He polls second in the league for most defensive challenges attempted (169) and defensive challenges won (116) amongst the same parameters.
Cacace has been exceptional in 1v1 defending situations this season, rarely allowing his opposite winger to get the better of him. His strength allows him to have a physical presence against much more experienced opponents, and his acceleration enables Cacace to keep up with and beat many attackers to the ball.
For a very young player, Cacace shows incredible composure in 1v1 situations, highlighting the importance of the fundamentals through his body shape and patience when defending this season, a good example of how to effectively win battles for up and coming defenders.
A key part of Cacace’s defending is his pressing high up the pitch, particularly in transition moments. As a consequence of Talay’s tactics and positioning of the full-back, in transition to defence Cacace often finds himself in advanced areas out of position. Instead of retreating into the back four, Cacace has been encouraged to push on and pressure the opposition immediately to either force them to play backwards, buying the rest of the Phoenix team time to set-up and restructure, or ultimately win possession back.
Of course, when Cacace has successfully done this the ramification is that the ball is now won in good attacking positions for the Phoenix and the opportunity to counter-attack in the transition moment is introduced. Cacace’s determination to win possession and his acceleration make him a pressing menace for the opposition who struggle to organise controlled possession when Cacace and his teammates decide to trigger a press in transition, a result of boss Talay’s offensive and high tempo philosophy.
The stats speak for themselves when showing his effectiveness in the press, recording 74 attacking challenges amongst left-backs in the league, the highest this season with second place being Maria of Adelaide with a weak 45 in comparison for this metric. Cacace also has the second most ball recoveries, with 111 amongst the same group. From successful tackles in attacking areas, Cacace is then able to create chances for himself and teammates with his proven decision making in the final third.
Through this scout report, Liberato Cacace has shown immense potential for the future of his career, and the ability to be a great full-back for any football team. For a 19-year-old, the confidence and manner he presents on the field is exemplary, matched with his technical ability and tactical awareness.
Notable is the importance of his teammates’ movement off the ball, and the high influence they have over the chances Cacace will have to hurt opponents offensively. Whether or not Cacace will impact the game as effectively should he play under different tactics with less structure and chemistry in possession, is a question to be asked.
A fragility of the full-back’s game is his enthusiasm to jump into rash challenges at times, having collected eight cards in the 2019/20 season. I believe this could be put down to inexperience and a reflection of Cacace’s passion for the game and dedication to give 100%. Simple ‘rush of blood’ moments which I think will be fixed with age and the more experience the kiwi gains.
Cacace’s attacking ability and offerings stand him out amongst the A-League’s best full-backs, and I personally would like to see him deployed further up the field incoming seasons in the left-wing role, which I ponder whether it could see him unlock his true capacity. Cacace shows signs of great wing-backs such as Marcelo of Real Madrid and Gareth Bale during his early days at Tottenham, with his energy to link up with central midfielders Devlin and Steinmann through simple one-twos and dominating the left-hand side of the pitch.
His defensive actions are what you would expect and even more from a full-back with consistently good positioning to defend crosses, and his brilliant 1v1 ability sees him get the most out of opposition attackers in the A-League. Most admirable though is his work-rate on and off the ball for the Wellington Phoenix, showing pride and passion for his club, something that has made him an instant fan favourite in New Zealand.
Overall Cacace has taken to professional football as good as anyone I’ve ever seen in the A-League, and he is certainly one to watch for the future whether he’s playing in the A-League, or elsewhere.