FOURFOURTWO analysis expert Tim Palmer tears down the A-League's El Clasico and reveals how Adelaide United threw away their 2-0 lead over Melbourne Victory to share the spoils 2-2.
Adelaide got their first warning inside two minutes. Mark Milligan won the ball in midfield, it fell to James Troisi, who promptly chipped the ball over the top of Adelaide’s defence for Archie Thompson. A few minutes later, the Victory forward was flagged offside, then later, Connor Pain spurned an open goal, before scoring only to have his strike disallowed by an incorrect offside call. There are too many examples to list, as it was genuinely amazing how obvious, and how frequent, the trend was: simply a matter of Adelaide’s high line, and Victory getting in behind it.
Josep Gombau’s attempts to implement the Barcelona style of possession and pressing has been widely documented and a consequence of their bold new philosophy is a high defensive line. The by-effect of high-octane pressing is that the defence needs to minimise the space between themselves and teammates as much as possible; otherwise, it would be too easy for opponents to play out from the pressure.
However, Adelaide’s pressing wasn’t particularly intensive here, and although the side stayed relatively compact from the back four to the front three, it was too easy for Victory to construct short, neat passing moves. Tellingly, 28 of Mark Milligan’s 36 passes were forward, while right-back Jason Geria often had freedom to link up with Troisi, and passes between them accounted for the away side’s most frequent combination.
This was linked to the second, and more pertinent issue - the format of the away side’s attack. The two playmakers at the tip of Postecoglou’s 4-2-2-2 formation worked the space on either side of Cameron Watson, Adelaide’s lone holding midfielder. Granted, Adelaide also had Steven Lustica and Cirio in the midfield triangle but the latter two were drawn upfield towards Mark Milligan and Leigh Broxham, giving Troisi and Nichols the freedom to dovetail to either side of Watson in front of the Adelaide defence.
That was the crucial factor. Thompson and Connor Pain were making the runs, so it was simply a matter of finding them – and Nichols and Troisi repeatedly obliged, frequently exploiting the acres of space in behind Adelaide’s defence. They were particularly keen to the left-hand side of Watson – their right – presumably because of the ability to knock passes into the path of the speedy Thompson.
Nichols was particularly inventive in the first half, working the right-hand channel and finding pockets of space in which to feed Thompson’s incisive runs. Troisi, meanwhile, was inconsistent, hitting a few excellent through-balls but also sometimes guilty of being too ponderous in possession, giving Adelaide players the chance dispossess him before the damage was done.
Too often, though, the home side were reliant on Victory squandering their own opportunities, although the speed of Eugene Galekovic sweeping up in behind the defence must also be commended. However, the amount of times Victory were caught offside was staggering – 11, compared to never against the Heart, sums up how easy it was for their attackers to move in advance of the high line.
Comparing the contrast between Victory’s first two fixtures of the season is particularly instructive. As last week’s column discussed, that game was dictated by John Aloisi’s decision to adopt conservative, reactive tactics, asking his wide players to tuck in alongside the midfield two and prevent passes into Nichols and Troisi. Gombau obviously didn’t take heed of Heart's cleansheet, but then again, he might have noted that they also had a cleansheet for shots on target, indicative of their lack of attacking impetus.
That makes it two weeks in a row that the opposition’s defensive strategy has dictated a Melbourne Victory game. Interestingly, it was a set of two completely different challenges. Last week’s derby was all about breaking down a deep defence, the Adelaide match was all about breaking in behind a stretched defence – taking just a point from both is probably indicative of the need for Postecoglou’s side to become more clinical.