Frank Farina’s formation changes this season can, to a large part, be simply explained by Alessandro Del Piero. In short, Sydney FC’s shape has been determined by the availability, and best possible deployment, of their star player.
The Italian’s sharp decline - relative to his outstanding form in his debut A-League season last year - has caused significant problems. Even at the age of 39, Del Piero was always going to be the league’s best player when he arrived in Australia, because he’s primarily a ‘technical’ player - he wasn’t reliant on physical attributes like pace or strength.
Still, at the age of 40, his inevitable physical decline remained an issue, and it’s become particularly noticeable this year that he no longer has the speed and fitness necessary for top level football. Tactically, he’s difficult to fit into a side, because he’s effectively a passenger without the ball - but where in 2013 that was made up for by his incredible attacking output, Sydney are now shackled to his weaknesses.
Whether he is central in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 diamond, or on the left or centre high up the pitch in a 4-3-3, Del Piero effectively makes Sydney play with 10 men without the ball - and in recent weeks, that’s caused real problems in whatever zone he’s deployed in. The Sydney Derby a few weeks back is an excellent example. In his starting position on the left, Iacopo La Rocca became a ‘free’ player whenever the Wanderers had the ball, because Sydney didn’t have the numbers to make up for Del Piero’s missing legs.
When Farina switched him over to the right for the second half, Adam D’Apuzzo became free - and promptly swung in two dangerous crosses, the first leading to a goal and the second to a penalty. D’Apuzzo’s not a particularly great player, but it shows how negligible Del Piero’s impact was in the defensive phase that the left-back was able to impact the match so decisively. Rather damningly, once Del Piero was hooked for Corey Gameiro on the hour mark, Sydney became much stronger collectively.
The trend has been obvious in nearly all of Sydney’s matches. Josh Risdon, for example, was free to get forward down Perth’s right when the Glory came to Allianz Stadium back in February, while Friday two weeks ago, against Adelaide, Tarek Elrich and Jon McKain were free to hit dangerous balls towards Fabio Ferriera because Del Piero allowed them to do so. Unsurprisingly, Adelaide’s most promising attacks all stemmed from that side.
Then, against the Victory last Saturday, where Del Piero was used as a false No. 9, both Mark Milligan and James Jeggo had lots of freedom on the ball because of Del Piero’s lack of impact, and promptly finished as easily the game’s highest passers.
Farina’s solution, in fairness, has been sensible, given he’s practically forced to play Del Piero whenever the Italian’s fit because of his profile (and price). In the 4-3-3, he’s used versatile midfielder Ali Abbas to the left of the midfield trio, in a demanding role that requires him to go both around the outside of Del Piero to provide width (when he drifts inside on the ball), as well as track back in defence to protect the left-back and maintain Sydney’s balance. Abbas is perfect for the role. Originally a left-sided player when he first emerged at the Newcastle Jets, and hugely energetic, he is fit enough to withstand the tremendous amount of ground he has to cover.
Furthermore, Abbas repeatedly speaks of Del Piero as a ‘friend, one of the boys’ - a relationship that extends to the pitch, where he and the Italian share a terrific understanding, linking up nicely to become Sydney’s most promising route of attack.
Indeed, it was Abbas driving around the outside that proved decisive against Perth, as well as against Melbourne Victory on the weekend where he darted forward into space to fire in a low shot parried away by Victory keeper Lawrence Thomas, with Joel Chianese tapping in the rebound.
There’s a fair (if unexpected) comparison to be made with Real Madrid star Angel Di Maria, who plays the same position as Abbas for the Spanish giants - and indeed, has a similar profile as a dynamic, pacy winger-turned-midfielder (with a chasm in actual ability, obviously). They’re both the ‘facilitator’ for their team’s star player - Cristiano Ronaldo is Di Maria’s Del PIero, in effect, and the Argentine is required to go around the outside of the forward when Madrid are on the attack, as well as slide out towards the flank to cover him when they’re on the defensive.
Like Abbas, Di Maria benefits from the fact it’s not exactly clear what opposition player should mark him. The opposing midfielder doesn’t want to be dragged deep, the right-back is concerned with the star player moving inside - and in fact, Di Maria provided two assists (and teed up what should have Karim Benzema’s third) from an advanced, left-sided position in Madrid’s recent defeat to Barcelona.
The concept of overloading the sides, at a basic level, isn’t particularly innovative, though. In the A-League, Brisbane, for example, overload the flanks by pushing their full-backs high up the pitch - with the triangle created by Shane Stefanutto, Matt McKay and Thomas Broich particularly incisive, while Adelaide’s Marcelo Carrusca, a central playmaker, drifts out to the sides to link up with the wide players.
However, Farina’s use of Abbas is of particular interest because of how it accommodates the clear problems associated with Del Piero and his dip in form - a problem that’s become alarmingly apparent in recent weeks. Del Piero hasn’t scored in six games, and was largely ineffective against the Victory. In fact, his last real stand-out performance came in the last fixture against the same side, back in January. What’s of greater concern is that even when Del Piero’s playing well, Sydney still encounter problems defensively and, long-term, it’s not really a sustainable way to play for a side with title aspirations.
He would never say it out loud, but as the possibility becomes far closer to reality, Farina might privately be looking forward to a Del Piero-less future.
Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com