Football tactics can almost simply be boiled down to two ends of a spectrum - proactive and reactive, attack and defence. Tony Popovic has swung quite wildly between these two spectrums in the past two months.
The Asian Champions League victory was achieved via a series of inspired defensive displays. In the knockout stages, Western Sydney Wanderers conceded just once at home, and kept Al Hilal scoreless across two legs in the final.
It was indicative of Popovic's conservative approach, where he asked his side to sit quite deep, instructing the front four to drop back rather than press as they do in the A-League.
Mark Bridge and Tomi Juric created the first line of defence by occupying opposition midfielders and making the side compact from back to front, while the midfield duo of Mateo Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca protected the back four and reduced the space between the lines.
It worked to great success against not only Al Hilal, but FC Seoul and Guangzhou Evergrande, with the Wanderers winning the ball in deep positions and then breaking forward quickly. At times, they simply rode their luck, with very few attacking opportunities but being incredibly clinical when they came. Over the two legs of the final, for example, Al Hilal had 15 shots on target compared to four - yet the Wanderers won 1-0.
It's a different story in the A-League, where the Wanderers sit bottom of the table (although, it must be noted, with an extra game to play on Wednesday night which could potentially take them into sixth).
They've conceded 12 times in seven games. By Popovic's standards it's poor, especially when considering it took them 15 rounds to concede the same number of goals last season.
In their debut season the Wanderers conceded 21 goals, but if they continue at the same rate this season they'll concede 46, which is more than Melbourne Victory last season, a teams criticised so heavily for their openness.
What's going wrong? Tactically, the Wanderers play more proactively in Australia than they do in Asia. They press higher up the pitch, with the front four closing down high up on the opposition back four. The midfield two, rather than sitting deep, have to move forward if the press of the front four is beaten, to prevent opponents from having time and space. It's in this zone the Wanderers have consistently looked vulnerable this season.
Guilherme Finkler and Kosta Barbarouses combined to exploit it in the opening match of the season, while Alex Brosque found space between the lines when switched to a central role in the first Sydney Derby. Even Newcastle last week got Marcos Flores in dangerous positions behind Mateo Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca, a position from which he looked consistently dangerous.
While there have been issues with the positioning of Poljak and La Rocca, the real heart of the problem lies higher up, where the Wanderers haven't pressed anywhere near as effectively as they did in their first two seasons.
There are two easily identifiable reasons for this. Firstly, the front four is comprised almost entirely of new players - in that Newcastle game, for example, the three behind Tomi Juric (Nikita Rukavytsya, Vitor Saba and Romeo Castelen) are all new to the club. Pressing is about working as a unit and if new faces haven't come to grips with the system, it's too easy for it to fail.
Secondly, there's the issue of fatigue. This has already been an incredibly demanding season for the Wanderers. They played Asian Champions League matches over the off-season, had four matches of the semi-final and the final intertwined in the first five rounds of the start of the A-League season, and have Club World Cup commitments along with the start of the next Champions League season to contend with in the coming weeks. It's why Popovic has rotated the squad so heavily, memorably making nine changes for the match against Perth, and then another nine for the match against Central Coast Mariners four days later. He wants to keep his exhausted players fresh, and with stories emerging that players were almost dead on the feet after the Jets game, it's not hard to see why.
However, with the benefit of a full week off - which, importantly, also meant a full week on the training ground - there were encouraging signs of the return of the press against Sydney FC. Juric closed down the two centre-backs with support from Bridge in behind, who blocked off passes into midfield. The two wingers occupied Sydney's full-backs, and particularly in the first half, they successfully forced Sydney to go long or concede possession.
An area of concern, however, is the narrowness of Castelen defensively. He is eager to come inside and close down on the opposition left-sided centre-back, which can leave the left-back free. In the second half, this was especially noticeable as Alex Gersbach received 18 passes, the most of any Sydney player.
However, it is still encouraging that the Wanderers were able to, by and large, prevent Sydney from creating chances in open play, with Bernie Ibini's goal coming from a one man counter-attack off a Wanderers corner. This improved defensive performance, combined with the excellent attacking combinations that really should have given Popovic's side a bigger lead, means despite their current poor results and league position, things are looking promising for the Wanderers.
Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.comcomments