The defining feature of Brisbane Roar and Western Sydney Wanderers this season has been their consistency - both in results, performance and crucially, style.
Tony Popovic and Mike Mulvey have barely deviated from their contrasting templates: this was a Grand Final about counter-attack against possession.
Even the specific pattern of the game was predictable. The objective of both coaches was to replicate their approach from their two prior meetings, keeping with the general philosophy that has served them so well this season.
Popovic instructed his side to press high up from the opening moments, closing down energetically and preventing Brisbane from settling on the ball and establishing their dominance of possession. When the Roar control the ball, they grow in confidence, and it was the Wanderers’ intention to prevent that from happening.
For large periods of the first half, that was the case - in the first 15 minutes, Brisbane completed just one pass in their attacking third, put under pressure by a series of Wanderers’ corners which would eventually prove significant for the opening goal, even if that came later in the second half.
The first 45, rather, were characterised by the general feeling that these two sides were cancelling each other out. Even the identified danger men - Youssouff Hersi and Thomas Broich - struggled to find space, because their respective markers, Shane Stefanutto and Jerome Polenz, played more conservatively, which in turn limited their usual overlapping threat. The best chances came from long range, and both Ono and Broich came close with shots from outside the area.
When Matthew Spiranovic headed in at the near post 15 minutes after the break the entire complexion of the game changed. Now Brisbane had to chase a lead and immediately pushed forward, raising the tempo of their play and pushing the full-backs high up, with Ivan Franjic looking dangerous with both his delivery and powerful shooting.
It was surprising that the Wanderers weren’t able to take greater advantage of the increased space afforded to them on the break but it felt as if their counter-attacking potential was limited by weeks of dual commitments both domestic and in Asia, with Hersi noticeably tiring quickly.
They were, too, dealt a blow by the injury to Nikolai Topor-Stanley which triggered the game’s only real tactical deviation, seeing as it meant Iacopo La Rocca had to drop into centre-back in the absence of Michael Beauchamp from the bench. Aaron Mooy’s defensive ability is probably overshadowed by his superior passing quality but he maintained the combativeness Western Sydney had in the centre of midfield, while La Rocca proved a capable replacement alongside Spiranovic at the back.
Rather, it felt as if the absence of intangible qualities like leadership, organisation and inspiration were decisive - no player can truly account for the absence of the captain, and that might have played a role in the lax set-piece marking that eventually proved decisive, Besart Berisha left unmarked to head home Broich’s wonderfully curled free-kick. It was the Albanian’s first genuine sight of goal and demonstrated his clinical quality in his final game for Brisbane.
Now, extra time beckoned. Here the feeling of fatigue certainly became prominent, with the intensity of atmosphere increasing but the actual tempo of the game slowing. Errors on the ball became more commonplace, and the manner of the goal - La Rocca being out-jumped by Henrique, and the Brazilian smashing home from the resultant cross - was almost alien from the tactical battle. Both these sides had effectively cancelled each other out over 90 minutes and with no player really standing out the game came down to small margins and individual errors rather than any particular tactical feature.
Indeed, the two players deemed most outstanding - La Rocca and Broich - had both rightly been excellent in open play, but were also directly responsible for two goals. Broich failed to mark Spiranovic from the corner and La Rocca was amazingly out-jumped by Henrique for the third, match-winning goal. It served as a neat microcosm for the overall pattern - two sides battling in an even game, separated only by the tiniest margins (or, in the case of the Joe Marston medal, finished as a draw - which, incidentally, was the result at the end of regular time).
Ultimately, though, what the Grand Final lacked in tactical interest, it made up for in sheer drama.
Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com