The Breakdown: The scrappy derby
The focus of each, rather, has been on the fans and atmosphere, and the latest edition on Saturday night was no different. Fierce rivals rarely produce strategic encounters, and we’re yet to see a Sydney Derby where the on-field performances has matched the action in the stands. The contribution of the crowd to a fantastic atmosphere was significant but in terms of aesthetics this was not a great advertisement for the A-League.
It was, effectively, a scrap. Frank Farina rejigged his midfield in the absence of Alessandro Del Piero although in theory the Italian’s absence should not have required wholesale changes – he’s been used as the furthest attacker in a 4-3-3 this season, and the same personnel from the midfield triangle that started the first two games of the season were fit and available for this fixture. Yet this was a 4-2-3-1, perhaps because Farina anticipated a lack of creativity from the loss of Del Piero and reacting by pushing Nick Carle further forward into the number ten role.
However, none of the four deep-lying midfielders had time on the ball and their roles were primarily about winning loose balls…
…and in attack, shuttling forward to provide energy rather than passing guile. The passing statistics show that the most prolific passers in the attacking third that played in midfield focused on spreading play wide, rather than attempting incisive forward balls.
The nominal away side’s bias towards the right is obvious in Mateo Poljak’s distribution. A high proportion of his passes tend to the right, as does the majority of his side’s attacking play – their bias towards that flank was a feature of last season’s success, but has been especially prominent in 2013. Last week against the Wellington Phoenix, Jerome Polenz frequently exposed Kenny Cunningham’s lax tracking to become the most dangerous attacker in the opening 30 minutes: he provided a stream of crosses into the middle, and his goal, although unorthodox, was befitting of his influence.
Here, he was one of three players to exaggerate Western Sydney’s superiority down the right. He naturally got forward from full-back to provide overlapping support, while Shinji Ono also drifted towards the right-hand channel to link up with Youssouf Hersi. Most important, though, was probably the latter’s willingness to dribble directly at Marc Warren – he dropped off his marker to receive the ball in deep positions, before driving both down the inside and outside of Warren.
It took just two minutes for Hersi to provide a flitting cross across the face of goal, and inevitably, the goal came from a set piece down the right-hand side, after Tomi Juric decided to wander across to that side to see what all the fuss was about, winning a foul in a dangerous position.
The fuss, to be exact, was Marc Warren, an, for want of greater subtlety, his awful performance. Not only was he overwhelmed defensively by Western Sydney’s attacking forays – and not helped by the constant positional switching ahead of him by Richard Garcia and Mitch Mallia – but in possession he was torrid, with one of his crosses in space near the byline ending up somewhere near the back of the Red and Black Bloc. The graphical representation in StatsZone is slightly kinder.
You could even indirectly link Western Sydney’s second goal to Warren’s troubles, seeing as it was his awfully timed missed interception that lead to the move preceding Ono’s splendid individual invention. More accurately, though, you can link Warren's dismal performance to Sydney’s overall disjointedness: they struggled to build momentum at key moments, and simply failed at the simple things.
In truth, this was not a great Western Sydney performance either, but their approach and strategy was predictable, and their defensive shape assuredly compact when they defended for long stretches of play in the second half. By contrast, Sydney felt oddly disjointed, and particularly unsure of their approach in the final third. Del Piero’s absence shouldn’t be an excuse – it was expected, and although it makes sense on paper, it was odd to see Carle moved into a number ten position after training for most of pre-season in a very deep-lying midfield role.
It’s especially odd when contrasted with Western Sydney’s consistency of selection. This was their expected starting XI, and in essence, the expected performance. When you observe the two sides in direct conflict, the contrast was even starker.