Sometimes it can be difficult to discern whether a team’s improvement is down to the quality of the players, the system that gets the best out of the players or, as in the case of Adelaide United, a bit of both.
Clearly, Josep Gombau’s philosophy - the possession-based system made famous by Barcelona under first Johan Cruyff and later Pep Guardiola - has improved Adelaide as a whole, giving the side structure and coherence about the way they want to play. It was Gombau’s missive when appointed to give the club a distinctive style, and in dominating the ball in all their matches and garnering a reputation for attractive, entertaining football, he’s certainly done that.
However, more subtly, Gombau has improved, in pure individual terms, a number of the players at his disposal. One of the more eye-catching features of his tenure has been the fact these aren’t really “his” players - it’s largely still the squad assembled by John Kosmina. That, in itself, has to be applauded, for it’s rare for such a drastic shift in style to be achieved without significant player turnover. Gombau only added three first-team players in Cirio, Isaias and Michael Zullo, yet managed to coach the existing players into learning to play what would have been, for many of them, a completely new way of playing.
In particular, there are five players who pre-date Gombau but have been reinvigorated by the Spaniard’s arrival.
1. Controlled Carrusca
Marcelo Carrusca always appeared ideal for the Gombau revolution - a silky Argentine playmaker who flourished even amongst the chaos that dominated his first season in Australia, finishing his debut campaign with five goals and five assists. That came in spite of never having a defined role within Kosmina’s side, basically switching positions each week as Kosmina looked to shoehorn as many attackers into his side as possible.
This season, however, Gombau has clearly entrusted Carrusca with the key playmaker role - operating at the tip of the midfield triangle, and providing the creativity behind the front three. Unsurprisingly, Carrusca flourished and it’s a shame injury has hampered his fitness recently, having enjoyed a fine run of form over the summer. Before that enforced period on the sidelines, he’d recorded 4 goals and 4 assists so, with three games and the finals series remaining, he should improve his raw numbers.
More intangibly, however, Carrusca has become more controlled. His positioning doesn’t feel as impromptu, and he’s become more intelligent with his use of the ball - knowing the killer ball is not always on, and so calmly distributing passes to the sides to help Adelaide retain possession. From his advanced position, he helps bring the wide players into the attack - and in cleverly drifting towards the sides to find space, helps draw defenders towards him and create 1v1 situations for Cirio and Fabio Ferreira.
That was particularly obvious in Friday night’s match against Sydney FC, where Carrusca constantly dropped into pockets of space either side of Hagi Gligor, finishing the game with two assists.
2. Ferreira’s attacking output
Carrusca’s fine form has an obvious knock-on effect for the other attackers. Like Carrusca, Ferreira has benefited from a definitive template, and he clearly understands his role within the side - that probably couldn’t have been said last season. His job is to provide the directness, both with his dribbling and aggressive running in behind. With his pace he’s a threat in both dimensions, and the opening goal against Sydney on Friday was a good illustration of the latter, darting onto Carrusca’s perfectly weighted ball and finishing calmly past Vedran Janjetovic, while he was more creative in the recent 5-1 thrashing of Wellington, laying on a number of chances from the right for teammates.
He’s also benefitting from Gombau’s instructions for his wingers to position themselves according to the opposite flank - if Ferreira has the ball wide on the right, Cirio comes short towards the far post from the left, and vice versa if Cirio is in possession down his flank. A sizeable proportion of Ferreira’s eight goals have come from simple tap-ins off low crosses.
With five assists on top of that highly respectable goal tally, Ferreira’s clearly the most potent attacking player, but combines that with selfless running, both pressing from the front as well as working hard to protect his full-back.
3. Djite’s all-round play
Perhaps the most improved attacker, however, is striker Bruce Djite, who’s shaken off his simplistic ‘target man’ tag to become a widely appreciated, highly dangerous all-round threat. It’s his contribution in general play that’s been most eye-catching. His first game of the season, against Central Coast Mariners, gave a struggling Adelaide a new dimension, as they could now play long into his large frame. It wasn’t an abandonment of Gombau’s possession-based principles, however, and just a different ‘type’ of possession - a more direct, physical approach that caught the Mariners unaware as Adelaide ran riot in a 4-1 win.
Since then, Djite’s been effectively the first choice forward, because he combines the qualities of the other option in that position, Jeronimo Neumann. Jeronimo tends to drop off the line into positions between the lines to become an extra passing option, helping to retain possession before darting forward to become a goal threat. Djite does this excellently, moving short in front of opposition centre-backs and using his body excellently to shield the ball and invite midfield runners forward, before moving forward to get on the end of low crosses and cut-backs.
Also belying his ‘big man’ appeal, Djite is deceptively quick off the mark, as demonstrated by his excellent turn to leave Sasa Ognenovski for dust and find space to fire in Adelaide’s third goal on Friday night - a fine reward for his excellent contribution in all-round play during the match, as has been the case throughout the season.
4. Galekovic’s kicking
Eugene Galekovic has been a stalwart of Adelaide United and this is his seventh year at the club, only missing the first year of their current incarnation as an A-League club because of a short-lived spell at Melbourne Victory, where he was part of Ernie Merrick’s unusual goalkeeper rotation policy. Galekovic shared the playing load with Michael Theo (then, Michael Theoklitos), and the two splitting 11 and 10 games between them respectively that season.
Eight years later, both have moved on from the Victory but, ironically, have ended up in similar roles at their current clubs. They’re both their side’s “11th man” in possession, required to sweep up in behind a high line and be available for backwards passes, to help retain the ball. Both Theo and Galekovic are actively part of the ball possession phase, a role that’s becoming increasingly more widespread but is still widely unorthodox, particularly in the A-League.
Interestingly, too, both endured blips adjusting to the new demands - a distribution error from Theo infamously lead to a 3-0 Brisbane defeat against the Victory at a time when Ange Postecoglou’s changes were only just taking effect. While Galekovic, too, was responsible for a goal when attempting to play out from the back in a 4-3 loss to again, the Victory.
Both Theo and Galekovic, though, eventually adapted to the new philosophy. Galekovic has now clearly become comfortable playing the ‘Gombau way’, always looking to keep his distribution short and tidy. He’s superb in the other traditional aspects of goalkeeping, but in adding this element to his game, he’s become a ‘Gombau’ player - and as such, was rewarded with a contract extension midway through the season, despite rumours Gombau would look to replace him with a more technically proficient keeper.
It’s also worth noting Galekovic has substantially improved with his long-range kicking. His drop balls have become ‘Matt Ryan-esque’, and he frequently hits long, flat diagonals towards attackers when Adelaide are on the counter-attack, which again, add another dimension to the Reds’ play.
The two defenders in front of Galekovic, too, have had to evolve. Even more so than goalkeepers, centre-backs have had to become more all-rounded in the modern game, where previously their role was primarily about no-nonsense defending.
Indeed, the ultimate model for Adelaide’s new style, Barcelona, epitomise this shift in attitude. It’s become clear in recent years they need a new centre-back, yet what might appear a simple task of signing a top-class defender, becomes complex by the specific demands required of a Barcelona centre-back. They must be technically proficient to ensure they can keep the ball and remain involved in passing moves, and especially because Barcelona (and thus, by extension, Adelaide) spend so much of their time in possession against deep-lying defences, they must be creative enough to come up with killer balls as is often required against extremely conservative opposition.
Indeed, all three centre-backs, Jonathon McKain, Nigel Boogard and Osama Malik, have embraced that responsibility this season, becoming confident to stride forward on the ball and hit penetrative forward passes. They’re frequently the highest passers in the competition’s most pass-happy side, creating a neat triangle at the back with the deep-lying midfielder, Isaias, to play out from the back.
For players to have the confidence to execute this kind of high-risk strategy there must be great confidence in the coach - and it’s a testament to Gombau’s vision and patience that Adelaide have made such great strides in their transition towards a new philosophy, despite the criticism levelled at them in the opening rounds of the season. Few expected Gombau to transform Adelaide so quickly, and even fewer who expected that to be with most of the pre-existing squad - very few, except perhaps Gombau himself.