Sydney FC won their fifth A-League championship in an entertaining but low-scoring final where both teams definitely put their best foot forward.
It was first versus second, with Steve Corica chasing his second straight A-League championship against Erick Mombaerts, taking Melbourne City to their first grand final appearance. The teams lined up as expected and both were unchanged from the semi-final.
Adam Le Fondre and Kosta Barbarouses led the line for Sydney, with Milos Ninkovic and Anthony Caceres taking up the attacking midfield slots. Luke Brattan and Paulo Retre continued their productive midfield partnership, while the back four of Rhyan Grant, Ryan McGowan, Alex Wilkinson and Joel King protected Andrew Redmayne in goal.
Sydney played their standard set-up, a 4-2-2-2 with the attacking midfielders coming inside and the fullbacks (especially Grant) coming up on the overlap to provide width, progressing the ball through neat combinations to create direct penetration.
Melbourne City’s golden boot winner Jamie Maclaren was accompanied by Craig Noone and Lachlan Wales, the trio of Adrian Luna, Florin Berenguer and Josh Brillante in midfield, with Nathaniel Atkinson continuing at left back with Curtis Good, Richard Windbichler and Harrison Delbridge in front of Tom Glover.
City’s 4-3-3 set-up is asymmetric, with a big difference between the left back Atkinson and right back Delbridge. Delbridge is more defensive and plays almost as a centre back, while Atkinson has license to get forward more. As such, the shape often looks like a 3-at-the-back system, with Atkinson joining the midfield or overlapping even further ahead. Brillante sits just in front of the defensive line, always ready to help City play through the Sydney structure.
The way City set up means that they can pack or empty the midfield on demand – in attack they empty the midfield and expand the field of play with Berenguer and Luna pushing forward and wide, while in defence, they pack the midfield, with their players bunching and pressing centrally, overcrowding their opposition and making it difficult to play the ball through the press.
Melbourne City’s first half set-up The first few minutes of the game were quite chaotic and high tempo as both teams fought to gain control of the game early. Both sides started by pressing high up the pitch, not letting their opposition settle at all and play was generally quite disjointed.
This higher tempo game suited City, whose organised and energetic pressing ensured they were able to wrest control of the ball by making it difficult for Sydney to play out when they had possession of the ball. City pressed high, with at least the front five committed and if the ball made it out to the flanks, the fullbacks would also join in. Brillante would generally man-mark Ninkovic, making it difficult for him to receive the ball.
When City were in possession, they had three planned out ways to attack.
1. Combinations on the left of midfield As I covered in my preview, Noone, Berenguer and Atkinson rotated and had good complementary movement through the game, looking to disrupt Sydney’s defensive structure. Each of the three had a direct opponent (Noone – Grant, Berenguer – Brattan, Atkinson – Caceres) that they would look to drag out of position through their movement.
With Grant being drawn out to Noone and Berenguer drawing Brattan as he runs into the channel, Atkinson easily cuts inside into an empty midfield and manages to take an early long shot.
Another pattern that we saw in the game was Atkinson and Noone both dropping short for Berenguer to receive in Sydney’s right back area.
With Noone dropping deep and pulling Grant out of fullback, Berenguer makes a run into the vacated space, getting away from Brattan.
2. Direct balls into Wales On the right, Wales provides a different threat. Because of his pace and his height, Wales is a direct option, always available for long balls in behind King, who he either tried to outpace, or beat in the air. Luna’s movements are more towards the right, looking to either help to link play in the gaps between Wales and the midfield, or to assist Wales with combination play.
This was a very productive avenue for City, with Wales dominating King early with his pace and he was able to get a few crosses into the box.
3. Direct balls into Maclaren The best example of this was an early opportunity that arose from Delbridge playing a pinpoint long pass in behind the Sydney back line and just in front of the goalkeeper that Maclaren managed to get on the end of, but unluckily couldn’t manage to bring it down effectively.
Aside from this instance, however, this had limited effect. Wilkinson and McGowan managed to make it extremely difficult for Maclaren to receive the ball. The deep Sydney line meant any pass in behind had to be pinpoint, and the centre backs made it extremely difficult for him to challenge in the air or when coming short.
Sydney’s difficulty in stringing passes together led to two great chances for City: Noone’s shot, which almost trickled into the goal, and of course, Delbridge’s goal, which was ruled out for offside.
Sydney FC’s response Of course this didn’t mean that Sydney couldn’t do anything to stop them in this early period, and after Delbridge’s no goal, the game took on a completely different complexion, with Sydney growing back into the game. There were a few things that helped Sydney to do this.
1. Taking the tempo out of the game The tempo of the game suited City much more than Sydney, so any actions that resulted in stoppages of play suited Sydney. The first ten minutes saw four Sydney goal kicks, which took an average of 36 seconds from the ball going out of touch before the kick. Granted, the lack of ball boys meant that Redmayne wasn’t served up balls as quickly, but he also wasn’t in any particular hurry to get the game restarted.
The VAR stoppage for Delbridge’s goal also helped Sydney, taking a further two and a half minutes out of the game and halting any momentum that City had been building. The combination of these two factors took out five minutes – a quarter of the game so far.
2. Pressing the midfielders With their forward and sideways movement, the City midfielders have an ability to influence the game if they are left alone, and in response to this, Sydney’s midfielders marked their direct opponents quite tightly – Brattan on Berenguer and Retre on Luna.
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Berenguer had a quiet game in the semi-final against Western United due to the tight marking and seems to be best off the ball or when he’s got space to manoeuvre. It seemed that Brattan was told to always be in Berenguer’s face, closing him down tenaciously and winning the ball back from him on a few occasions to start counterattacks. Berenguer contributed well in defence, but wasn’t able to be as effective on the ball.
On the other side, Luna was marshalled by Retre and Ninkovic, whose direct opponent was the more defensive-minded Delbridge, so he could shift inside more to congest the spaces that Luna might want to receive the ball.
Brillante would position himself in between the forwards and the midfielders in good positions, but whenever the ball came to him, all four players (strikers and central midfielders) would collapse on him and deny him the opportunity to turn on the ball or pick a pass.
3. Brattan getting into the game As an indication of how successful the City press was, Luke Brattan (the main playmaker of the team) only managed two successful forward passes in the first 20 minutes. After this period, he managed to get on the ball a lot more effectively and managed eight successful forward passes for the rest of the half.
This was partly due to City’s press dropping in intensity a bit, and also because Sydney would attempt to play quickly through before the City press could set up and organise. This meant that City had to instead defend by dropping deep, and forced the more attack-minded City players into defence.
4. Caceres and Ninkovic coming inside The key to play through the City press was to find the two attacking midfielders Caceres and Ninkovic in space through the press. On the left, Ninkovic had a harder time receiving the ball, with Brillante marking him tightly, while Delbridge was also happy to step up, partly due to King’s hesitance to push forwards.
On the right, Caceres was able to find more space. With Ninkovic dragging Brillante’s coverage to the left, the centre of the midfield behind the press was frequently left vacant. His natural opponent Atkinson couldn’t follow him inside without exposing the flank to Grant driving forward or leaving a two-on-two at the back, and as a result, Caceres was often able to receive the ball completely unmarked in the centre.
The City midfielders head forward in the press, while the defensive midfielder Brillante has shifted out wide to mark Ninkovic. Grant pushes up to cover the right flank, allowing Caceres to shift inside into the the empty midfield space to receive.
This spell for Sydney was marked by two opportunities created for Barbarouses and the two penalty shouts for Sydney. From here, the rest of the first half balanced out, with both teams taking turns to attack and creating decent shooting chances, taking us into halftime.
Second half Both sides made minor tweaks to their play in the second half.
Sydney’s change saw King being sent further forward on the left to attack. City had frequently left him alone on the left, and it seemed that Sydney wanted to take advantage of that, and also force Wales to come back deeper on defence.
City sent the energetic Luna further forward in the press, perhaps with a view towards better controlling Brattan from deep. This meant that there was more space for Brillante to cover in behind, and allowed both Ninkovic and Caceres to find more space between the lines.
The early stages of the second half carried off where the first half left off, with both teams getting attacking chances. City created good chances through both Wales on the right and Berenguer from the left, while Sydney’s Caceres and Ninkovic both managed to find spaces in between the lines and combined well to create two chances that Glover did excellently to stop, especially the one-on-one with Ninkovic.
City had bad luck this game with injuries. Firstly, aside from the first stoppage, Luna’s head injury caused him to have to leave the pitch two more times to receive treatment, leaving his team a man short on both occasions and unable to retain possession or control the game. Following a sprint, Delbridge’s ankle injury sustained from a first half collision with Le Fondre flared up, and meant that he had to be substituted.
Substitutions Scott Galloway came on for Delbridge as a like-for-like replacement on paper, but his interpretation of the right back role was vastly different. While he started his appearance taking up the same positions, his first foray forwards saw him cut into the centre as an inverted fullback, and his second saw him cut inside again and take a dangerous dipping shot from distance with his weaker left foot.
Connor Metcalfe was next to make an appearance, replacing Berenguer, who grabbed his hamstring after he came off the field, so might have been harbouring an injury. Incidentally, the passage of play just prior to this substitution showed one of Berenguer’s best contributions to the game in one of the rare moments that he managed to get into space away from Brattan. He ran over to win the ball back in the press, played the ball forwards and then received the ball as he overlapped on the flank to measure a perfect cutback to Noone, who couldn’t shoot with enough conviction.
Wales then made way for Ramy Najjarine. Wales was probably City’s brightest player in attack, continually making runs down the right flank and giving King a hard time at fullback with his pace and strength, delivering a few good crosses that were a bit unlucky not to be attacked.
Sydney’s two were their standard substitutions to refresh a game: a striker – Trent Buhagiar for Barbarouses – and a right-sided midfielder – Alexander Baumjohann for Caceres. Buhagiar would have expected to come on with his usual role of stretching a tired defence late in the game, but Caceres would probably have felt slightly aggrieved to be taken off. He had an excellent game, coming inside to receive the ball in space, holding the ball up very well, laying off passes to onrushing teammates and helping out in defence. Perhaps the rationale was that Baumjohann would be able to make the most of those spaces that were available and attack more directly.
By this stage, the game had become like an evenly matched boxing match, with both teams landing punches but not able to get a knockout blow. Sydney was more dominant and managed to create the better opportunities but were again foiled by an excellent Glover.
Extra time The game continued in the same manner in extra time, with both teams taking turns attacking. It’s commendable that even with 90 minutes played, both teams managed to keep their structure well and attack in their own style – City continuing to press and counter while progressing the ball down the wings and Sydney generating penetration through the attacking midfielders or fullbacks, getting players up the pitch.
Sydney’s goal went back to basics, with the build-up seeing a few common themes: Brattan getting on the ball to find Ninkovic in between the lines (and away from Brillante), with Buhagiar stretching the back line. With so many men forward from Sydney, City retreated back into the box, and surprisingly, no-one was anywhere near Brattan when the ball came back out. Luna had engaged his opponent Retre, so you might expect Metcalfe to be tight to Brattan accordingly (as Berenguer generally was before he was substituted), while Maclaren had not retreated to press as he had done on occasion throughout the previous 90 minutes.
That’s not to take away from the excellent rehearsed pattern play from Brattan and Grant, with the pinpoint pass from Brattan and Grant’s cheeky chest flick catching Glover off guard.
You can see this pattern emerge multiple times over their past few games – a chipped ball from the central midfielder in behind for Grant to shoot or square the ball.
End game Erick Mombaerts went for broke and put on Moudi Najjar for Luna and Stefan Colakovski for Noone. Noone overall had a good game, but unfortunately couldn’t produce the end product that was required. He got into excellent positions, especially on the counter, but there were a few instances that he might be annoyed that he decided to take too many touches rather than taking an earlier shot/cross.
Surprisingly, Sydney didn’t sit deep and try to see out the game in the final period, instead pressing high and attacking. Buhagiar’s pressing was especially dangerous, as his pace meant that he would close down the defenders extremely quickly. They actually looked more likely of the two teams to score, with a few shots that genuinely tested Glover in goal.
The high press managed to disrupt City’s build up from deep so much that Mombaerts replaced Windbichler with Rostyn Griffiths, who as a midfielder has more technical quality and passing range.
It was notable that aside from the incessant crosses and shots from distance, City weren’t able to create any penetration through central areas as Sydney’s midfield could sit in these areas to occupy space. Maclaren had faded and couldn’t come short to receive, Metcalfe (and sometimes Atkinson) was frequently the only player who was found in advanced central positions. It proved to be a nail-biter nonetheless, with the centre back Good rising to head a cross at goal in the last few seconds, but he unfortunately headed right at Redmayne.
Summary As I mentioned in my preview of this game, there weren’t going to be any surprises in this game. Rather, it would be a fight to see whose style would come up on top. The game showed this too. It always looked like a very tight game and both sides had periods of dominance where they looked like they were more likely to score.
City were seemingly unable to continue with their high-tempo, expansive and attacking playing style over the 120 minutes. At times they also seemed to lack that killer creativity or guile that would enable them to cut through the Sydney defence, and this relegated them to taking shots from outside the box or crossing, and their shooting was able to be met by Redmayne.
The build-up to the game highlighted the match-up of Brillante versus Brattan, who had swapped clubs at the start of the season, and it was fitting that Brattan provided the assist for the deciding goal. You can’t help but feel that if City possessed a playmaker like Brattan in their side, then things might have been different. Could Markel Susaeta have made the difference?
In the end, Sydney just about edged it. They managed to put their poor form aside and the Sydney defence from earlier in the season was back, able to shut down Maclaren fairly easily, while up front they were able to combine effectively and work their way through City clinically, and if not for an in-form Glover, the game could have been decided much earlier. Sydney’s tried and tested blueprint ended up providing the results again with two of the usual suspects combining to create the goal.
Sydney’s period of dominance in the A-League continues.