It has increasingly become the case in the A-League that ‘if you can’t beat them, copy them.’
Since Ange Postecoglou implemented the principles of possession and pass-and-move at Brisbane the tendency has been for other clubs to attempt a philosophy revolution of their own, a trend made particularly obvious at the start of last season when Gary Van Egmond, Frank Farina and John Kosmina all pledged to implement a more “proactive” brand of football at their respective clubs.
The mid-season decree from the Wellington Phoenix for Ricki Herbert to adopt a more entertaining style only exaggerated the feeling further, that A-League clubs and coaches are reactive in their philosophy, adapting to what is successful or ‘fashionable’ with little regard for whether their squads are suited to such a shift.
It was refreshing, then, that last season saw the two teams that emphasised defensive structure and organisation over possession contest the Grand Final: the Wanderers, of course, averaged the least possession of any side in the competition, while the Mariners played a more all-round brand of football but were primarily focused on their compact, narrow defensive shape without the ball.
Remarkably, that triggered another shift, this time towards an increased emphasis on the 4-2-3-1, and defending in a ‘medium block’, a strategy adopted by Farina, Van Egmond, Alistair Edwards and John Aloisi. The competition was now dominated by tactics effectively copying those that had been successful for the Mariners and the Wanderers a year earlier - anyone who dared to try something different, like the latter two had been in 2012-13 amidst the craze for possession-based systems, stood a great chance of being successful.
So it has proved in 2013-14 with the emergence of Brisbane Roar and Adelaide United as the competition’s form teams. That’s not to say they’ve been successful only because they’re playing in a different style to the rest of the competition, but it’s a key factor - as is the fact both have been dedicated to a style of play developed over time and suited to the players, something that cannot be said of Sydney FC, who spent much of the pre-season working under Rado Vidosic to develop their possession play in a 4-3-3 only to switch to a counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 for the opening round of the season.
That showed a lack of faith in the new system - contrasting nicely with the confidence Josep Gombau and Mike Mulvey have constantly stressed in what they’re trying to achieve with their respective clubs. There’s no right or wrong way to play, but if there was anything to take away from when Ange Postecoglou implemented the ‘original’ possession ethos at Brisbane, it’s that his trust in the system was obvious - he constantly stressed in press conferences the importance of sticking to the principles, and even when Michael Theo’s disastrous error against Melbourne Victory cost his side a goal (and eventual 3-0 defeat), he continued to encourage his players to pass out from the back, something the goalkeeper later suggested was a key moment in the club’s season.
"It would've been easy for him to say no, go back to no-nonsense type of game, but he stuck to his guns and we went on that run,” said Theo, referring, of course, to that incredible 36-game unbeaten streak, which started the week after that loss to Victory.
It was a similar situation a few weeks back when mistakes in playing out from the back cost Adelaide goals in that 4-3 thriller against Melbourne Victory - including one particular howler from Eugene Galekovic when the goalkeeper tried to sweep in behind his side’s high line - but Gombau, too, stayed true to form.
'Even Barcelona, that is playing with this style, make these kind of mistakes,” he claimed post-match. “Because when you play from the back, you take this risk. When the keeper needs to be like a central defender, you take this risk.’ He’s right, of course - it’s simple risk management, and in the same way if you defend deep and rely on the counter-attack, you take the risk that opposition sides won’t break you down. It’s just that errors when playing out from the back are immediately more obvious, and therefore easier to criticise - even if the one mistake comes after one hundred successful passages.
Indeed, Adelaide’s success this season is indebted to their faith in playing out from the back the Gombau way, which came under intense pressure at the start of the season after a run of winless form. Many called for a scaling back of the project, for Gombau to make concessions to his style in order to achieve results - but this betrayed the point.
Gombau doesn’t want his side to be flexible in their approach: he wants them to be so good at the possession-based game that opposition sides are forced to adapt to them, just like Brisbane are, as evidenced by the pragmatism showed by Newcastle, Melbourne Heart and Perth Glory in recent weeks.
It would have been particularly pleasing for Gombau, then, to see his side dominate possession in the opening 20 minutes of Sunday’s clash against Brisbane. It was surely the greatest endorsement of his revolution - the fact that Roar, so long the A-League’s possession kings, were being forced to adapt to his side’s control of the ball. Adelaide completed nearly double the amount of Brisbane passes in the opening 20 minutes, even if the majority of that came in deep, harmless positions. Gombau would’ve simply been encouraged by the fact his side were nullifying Brisbane’s strengths.
As it eventuated, Brisbane won, primarily thanks to their clincality - in a game low on chances, Besart Berisha struck twice, bringing his personal tally against Adelaide to ten. It was telling that Gombau’s focus post-match wasn’t on the defeat, but on the performance.
“I think that in the first half we played better than in the second,' he said. 'And I think that what changed, maybe, the way that we played, and made it worse, was the second goal. Because when you start to lose 2-0, at that moment you want to arrive to the last (attacking) third faster, because you feel that you don't have time.
'And at that moment you start to play more long balls and you have less possession of the ball and this is a mistake, because in the end we are training to build from the back.’
There it is again - that incessant, at times infuriating, but above all, consistent line, that the possession, the style of play is king. Gombau’s not angry at the goals conceded, but concerned with the increased percentage of long balls when his side where chasing the game. Even when facing defeat, he doesn’t want to compromise the principles of his possession philosophy.
It’s not necessarily the ‘right’ approach, but in a time of constant coaching changes, where the majority of A-League sides adapt their tactics to copy whoever’s winning, it makes a refreshing change of pace and approach.
Tim writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com