Tuesday night's FFA Cup Final will be contested by two teams that have enjoyed excellent upward trajectories this season, though for somewhat different reasons.
The acclaim for Josep Gombau's side stems from an acknowledgement of his long-term project to give Adelaide a clear identity, a job few could argue has not been achieved. Everyone now knows Adelaide will dominate possession, play short, neat passing football and attack down the flanks - it's 'Barca-lite', but it also has a distinctively Adelaide feel to it. They sit third in the ladder, but in terms of the praise from both media and fans, they're top of the league.
The real league leaders, though, are Perth, who haven't undergone as much of a stylistic revolution as simply an attitude overhaul. Kenny Lowe's mantra throughout pre-season was about signing "blue collar players," ones that will "work hard and give their all for the shirt". It sounded somewhat cliche, but it seems to have worked. Perth have been defeated only once so far this season - that, as fate would have it, was against Adelaide.
Perth v Adelaide is a fascinating tactical battle because both sides are very good all-round sides capable of multiple types of football. For example, Adelaide aren't as patient as last season, and are capable of quick, ruthless counter-attacking, breaking forward from one end of the pitch to the other in two or three passes.
Perth, too, can play direct or methodical football. They're not afraid of hitting long passes into Andy Keogh, but in equal measure, distribute the ball from the back and work it forward calmly into advanced positions. In these situations, Rostyn Griffiths is key - he varies his position vertically in holding midfield, sometimes dropping in between the centre-backs to allow the full-backs to push higher up.
Therefore, while Adelaide will inevitably control the majority of possession, it's actually difficult to ascertain where this final could be won. In the previous fixture between these two sides, Lowe made the mistake of fielding Jamie MacLaren and Andy Keogh upfront together in a 4-4-2. As a result, Isaias went free because Adelaide had a 3v2 advantage in midfield, and the Spaniard dominated the game, knocking penetrative forward passes and providing a fine assist for the opening goal.
Lowe learnt his mistake from that game and hasn't played a 4-4-2 since, instead now preferring a 4-1-4-1 formation where the four behind Keogh have great freedom to roam. The narrowness of Daniel De Silva and Richard Garcia on the wings means there's often lots of space for the full-backs to get forward into, and one of Perth's great strengths is simply how many numbers they sometimes push forward into attack. Can Adelaide cope with that?
One key area for both sides will be pressing. Both have very deliberate structures to try and win the ball high up the pitch. Perth, for example, position Keogh between the two centre-backs so he's in a position to counter-attack if they win the ball high up, while the midfielders stick tight to their direct opponents. That could cause problems against an Adelaide side that are sometimes shaky when playing out; then again, sometimes Adelaide are devastatingly effective in tight situations, and could be able to get out past Perth's press.
Gombau, meanwhile, instructs Djite to arc his run when closing down so that the centre-back in possession cannot pass across to his partner. The winger on the side closest to the ball pushes up to prevent the pass to a full-back, while in midfield, Gombau is a fan of man-marking - doing it against Melbourne Victory, Melbourne City and Brisbane Roar - all sides that use three central midfielders together, as Perth now do with Griffiths, Nebojsa Marinkovic and Mitch Nichols.
Therefore, if the Perth midfielders are to find space, they may have to drift away from their direct opponents. This benefits Nichols, who often floated out towards the right-wing against Newcastle, helping create overloads that allowed Perth to repeatedly attack down their right-hand side. If the same pattern is repeated again, Adelaide left-back Tarek Elrich could be vulnerable to the forward running of Josh Risdon, who gets forward purposefully and whips in dangerous crosses.
There are so many issues to consider here, and multiple reasons why either side could win it, which is why this final is so promisingly unpredictable.
Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.comcomments