Western Sydney Wanderers’ FFA cup match against Broadmeadow Magic spelled a significant tactical change, with Carl Robinson moving from a three-man defence, which was present throughout the previous campaign, to a back four.
The Wanderers, on paper, played a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid, which was tantalisingly shown through a few training pictures during the preseason.
However, a more subtle, yet important tactical tweak was also present.
Robinson played with a back four, but the right-back, Thomas Aquilina (replaced by Tate Russell in the 73rd minute), played inverted, in a more inside role.
Playing with an inverted fullback allows for an overload in midfield, to try and exploit opponents through numerical superiority in central areas, making it easier to both retain and progress the ball.
It allows more creative midfielders to move higher up the field, essentially meaning for a more free-flowing, attacking side.
It allows winger(s) to hold wider positions, consequently leading to more chance of 1v1s out wide. If the winger wins the duel, they can overload on quick attacks with the advancing winger running at the retreating defence.
It also means the side in possession can control the deeper part of a halfspace, and be well set-up structurally to counter-press and stop counter-attacks from their opposition.
It’s a progressive, modern tactic, and last season was consistently deployed by Melbourne City, who went on to win the A-League men’s double.
City utilised their inverted fullbacks to great effect against a deep-lying South Melbourne side in the FFA Cup Round of 32.
Against Broadmeadow, the Wanderers played with Ramy Najjarine wide-right and looked to progress the ball via Aquilina to find the young winger in a 1v1.
When Russell came on, he played a similar role, but provided a bit more energy with underlapping and overlapping runs forward, to support Najjarine on the right – Aquilina sat deeper and held his position.
While it was mainly the right side, Adama Traore, playing as the left-back, did drop deeper on occasion to help bolster the build-up, particularly in the second half when the Wanderers saw the game out by controlling possession.
Interestingly, Traore appeared more comfortable inside – he has a more natural tendency to carry the ball inside and through the lines of midfield and is better at progressing the ball in between the lines.
Last season in the A-League men, Traore was in the 70th percentile for progressive runs, the 72nd for ball retention and the 78th for progressive passes, when compared to other left-backs across the league.
While Aquilina bettered Traore for progressive runs and ball retention (81st percent and 87th percent respectively), he was in just the 28th percentile for progressive passes.
On a number of occasions, Aquilina had the chance to progress the ball through a pass or dribble, but hesitated, and instead opted for a backwards option.
When compared to Nathaniel Atkinson or Scott Galloway, who both played as right-backs for City, the two Melbourne players are not just more comfortable progressing possession statistically, but also aesthetically – player posture can be a key insight into their confidence in their role and actions.
Aquilina’s steep drop off in progressive passes is the most problematic stat, because in more high tempo, level games, his ability to bypass lines of opposition with a pass becomes increasingly important, otherwise all pressing traps will gear towards other deep creators, like Steven Ugarkovic, halting the Wanderers’ ball progression.
Interestingly, fellow right-back Tate Russell has a progressive passing rate in the 74th percentile when compared to players in his position.
Russell could play instead of Aquilina as an inverted right-back, but that’s not to say that this tactic will continue through the A-League men’s season.
A-League Men clubs have utilised some unique strategies from the top-tier clubs when playing against NPL opposition – Macarthur opted to play a 1-3-1-5 in build up in their FFA cup match against Newcastle Olympic, which most likely won’t be present during the season.
There are clear positives and negatives to inverting a fullback against Sydney FC, in the Wanderers’ first game of the season.
When pressing with a higher line of engagement, Sydney look to move one of their double pivot to come and press the deep playmaker of their opposition.
They also look to focus their pressing towards the deepest midfielder, blocking passing angles inwards, with Kosta Barbarouses sometimes man-marking the deep-lying playmaker in build-up stages.
The Wanderers could invert their right-back to help deal with the press, but perhaps a more sensible option would be to keep Terry Antonis deeper in the midfield two.
There are clear ways for Sydney to block ball progression from the Wanderers should they invert their right-back, with Milos Ninkovic aggressively pressing the fullback to stop passes out wide.
However, inverting a fullback would allow for Terry Antonis to get forwards, and more importantly for their right-winger to isolate Joel King in a 1v1 on the wing.
Ramy Najjarine could excite, but the more tantalising option is the energetic new signing Keijiro Ogawa.
Ogawa’s close control and pace could prosper against Joel King, who isn’t the fastest in straight-line races.
Ogawa came on on the left for the Wanderers, but has played 134 games out of 324 (41.46%) on the right-side of midfield, and would thrive holding his width on the right-side of the Wanderers’ attack.
Perhaps the most sensible option is finding a compromise of inverting – in the first stages of build-up, Aquilina or Russell could remain wide, but once Sydney reverts into their low block, the fullback could come inside to try and create those 1v1 situations against Joel King on the right.
It’s clear that Carl Robinson is looking to diversify the Wanderers’ tactical approach, and inverting fullbacks is a progressive, modern approach to which could add to the new formation and style of play.
However, it remains to be seen whether the tactic could be successful against a higher quality opponent, and the derby would spell a big test for the likes of Aquilina and Russell.