Newcastle Jets were the victim of some outrageous scheduling to to start the season.
Four consecutive away matches, requiring them to travel to Melbourne, Perth and even across to New Zealand, all before they stepped foot on their home turf at Hunter Stadium.
It was a gruelling fixture list for an A-League side that underwent the biggest overhaul of any club in the off-season, with 12 players coming in to offset the nine departures.
We’ve seen these sorts of revolutions at Newcastle before.
Gary van Egmond made sweeping changes to the profile of the squad in his first season as coach in 2012, building on his time at the Australian Institute of Sport by making it his mandate to lower the overall age and emphasising the recruitment of young, mobile players.
The ambitious goal was undermined by inconsistency, which Van Egmond seemed to blame on the immaturity of his players. Gradually, he brought in a more experienced core, but was unable to improve results significantly.
Phil Stubbins’ appointment was meant to be a fresh start, with Van Egmond’s successor Clayton Zane returning to his previous role as an assistant coach, and Stubbins given full licence to revamp the squad as he saw fit. The official word was that the new signings were to bring ‘pride’ back to Newcastle, but in pure footballing terms, there didn’t really seem to be a theme to the raft of new arrivals.
Coupled with an injury crisis during pre-season, it was very difficult to determine exactly how Newcastle would line up and play in this campaign. That remains the case after five rounds, for Stubbins has tinkered with his selection and varied his approach to try and find the right balance.
Broadly speaking, the favoured formation has been 4-2-3-1 and at first, the emphasis seemed to be on pressing high up the pitch. Against Central Coast Mariners in the opening round, for example, Edson Montano and Joel Griffiths pressed high up on the Mariners back four, with Johnny Steele and James Virgili, the wingers, joining in support.
Yet in recent weeks the emphasis has switched towards the other end of the spectrum - towards a more cautious, defensive approach. Against Perth Glory, Newcastle sat quite deep, rarely pressuring Perth’s defenders. It feels like Stubbins doesn’t exactly know how he wants his side to play.
However, signs of promise began to emerge on Saturday afternoon against Melbourne Victory.
Here, Stubbins changed formation by flipping the format of his midfield triangle, going from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. This meant Ben Kantarovski sat as a holding midfielder behind Zenon Caravella and Allan Welsh, but all three had the same responsibilities - to man-mark their direct opponent in the Victory midfield. Caravella was on Carl Valeri, Welsh on Mark Milligan and Kantarovski on the #10, Guilherme Finkler.
The latter was the toughest assignment, for Finkler varies his position intelligently and has demonstrated against Melbourne City and Western Sydney Wanderers the clever ability to find pockets of space between the lines. Kantarovski stuck very tight, sometimes leaving the zone in front of his centre-backs unoccupied when he moved wide to track Finkler. However, because Caravella and Welsh were doing a good job blocking off Valeri and Milligan, this space was rarely exposed.
Therefore, the Victory were forced to attack predominantly down the flanks. Last week’s Breakdown column illustrated the increasing popularity of man-marking in midfield during this A-League season, with sides often employing it against the Victory to prevent Kevin Muscat’s men from building up play through this area of the pitch.
Instead, like against Melbourne City and Adelaide United, the onus falls on the wide players to provide creativity - something Kosta Barbarouses has done well in previous matches, and again here where he provided the key pass to play Berisha in behind during the lead-up to Victory’s first goal, Fahid Ben Khalfallah’s tap-in.’
Then, Barbarouses again played the pass when Berisha hit the post just before the break. Later, Khalfallah turned provider with a fine pass in behind for Berisha, who scored to make it 2-2 just after half-time. The Jets man-marking in midfield prevented Finkler from getting significant time on the ball, but left them vulnerable to attacks from out wide.
Therefore, Stubbins still has work to do to find the right balance, but this still was an encouraging improvement on previous weeks.
Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com.comments