Kate Cohen casts her eye over the Wanderers’ start to the seasonIt was fate that Western Sydney Wanderers got their first Hyundai A-League win of the season a year to the day since they won the AFC Champions League. A lot has changed at Western Sydney since that success – not least to the playing squad and new backroom staff – and those changes didn’t immediately result in an upturn in results. But the Perth game, games before and games since, showcase the work that has been done to evolve the Wanderers’ playing style.
Tony Popovic, in an open letter to the fans, said the club “made the decision … to take the next step in our evolution (… which) includes our playing style,” and was also quick to stress they will “maintain the core values that are so important to this Club – the discipline, hard work, hunger and winning mentality.”
With a good chunk of games already played, we are better able to assess what has changed and what characteristics remain.
THE POST-ACL WOES
There was hardly worse preparation for the two-legged ACL final. Two weeks prior to hosting Al Hilal, the Wanderers were decimated by a rampant Melbourne Victory. A loss in the Sydney Derby followed. In total, seven goals were conceded in the first two rounds of A-League 2014-15.
It’s hard to address the progress made without bringing up where it’s being made from. Having been so used to seeing a compact, tough to beat Western Sydney, suddenly Sydney and Victory were able to draw forward the Wanderers’ midfield duo before playing in behind them and isolating the fullback areas with devastating effect.
It was the culmination of an off-season of taking on the best teams in Asia. There, Popovic’s men sat back and soaked up pressure. Suddenly when the players attempted to apply pressure higher up the pitch in the Hyundai A-League, as they had done so with great success in seasons prior, they were disjointed and picked off.
Subsequent fixture pileups, dips in confidence and fatigue took its toll and defensive lapses became a far too common sight.
This is one clear area of change to start the current season. While errors against Brisbane Roar brought back a familiar bad feeling, the Wanderers have since conceded just three times (an own goal, an offside goal and a late derby winner) in four games. The compact 4-4-2 block which hunts in packs and forces turnovers in dangerous areas is back. The haunting record of no clean sheet in 16 Hyundai A-League games has been broken and the return of this defensive stinginess has taken pressure off the attackers.
THE SPANISH EVOLUTION
But the main focus of change hasn’t been on the defensive front, rather the changes that made to the build-up and going forward. This isn’t exactly a radical change. To use some overseas analogies, they haven’t exactly gone from Tony Pulis’ Stoke to present day Bayern Munich in one off-season.
Instead, what we’ve seen so far is the next step of steady progression. Even last season during the difficult periods, it was evident Western Sydney looked to be more patient in possession with wingers Nikita Rukavytsya and Romeo Castelen dropping between the lines to create overloads in midfield. Now the Spaniards – Alberto, Dimas and Andreu – as well as Aussie duo Mitch Nichols and Dario Vidosic have helped the progression further.
From the back it’s noticeable the centre backs are under instruction to try and play out wherever possible – even taking up positions closer to the by-line rather than the corners of the penalty box to receive from the goalkeeper.
But Western Sydney are by no means robotic in their possession.
Instead the centre backs, and the central midfielder dropping deep, look to face and play forward at all times. Vidosic (or Castelen when fit) on the right still comes inside to look for possession from the back. If the opposition’s midfield stays narrow to prevent this pass, the easy option out to the advanced right back, Scott Neville, is on who then often looks to bounce a one-two with Vidosic to get in behind.
On the left, if Nichols takes a similar position to Vidosic to receive off the centre back, left winger Jaushua Sotirio looks to move high up the pitch and run in behind. If Sotirio comes short, Nichols breaks forward into space.
SAME OLD QUESTIONS OF CONCERN
It’s impossible to exclusively wax lyrical about the evolution of the Wanderers – results have been mixed and the changes are still being bedded in – but there are clear signs of change and progression. One point that will continue to frustrate fans and manager is the ongoing trend of failing to take chances. This is a problem that has been constant during their short existence.
Even with improved defensive stability and new verve going forward, Western Sydney have to take their chances if they want to get back to what Popovic wants, even from day one: “internally the ambition was to always challenge for honours.”
W-League & A-League double header: Sundays live from 2pm EDT. Australia’s best male and female footballers will be on show every week with up to three LIVE matches including a blockbuster Westfield W-League and Hyundai A-League double-header across seven hours of LIVE action.
You can watch the next stage of the revolution this Saturday 21 November when the Wanderers take on high-flying Wellington Phoenix at Pirtek Stadium. Kick-off is 5:15pm and tickets are available here.