By Jack George (@JackGeorge0004)
Sydney FC’s 3-1 win over Western United was an important early marker for Steve Corica’s side and displayed a mixed view of their new system.
While their play in the final third impressed, the first half was poor from Sydney’s point of view, particularly in the first 30 minutes, where they struggled to progress in their build-up structure behind Western United’s press.
Western United played a 4-4-2 midblock with a 4-2-4 high press at times, which stifled Sydney’s ability to move the ball forwards.
Luke Brattan was an isolated figure in midfield with the two advanced ‘eights’ ahead and suffered as a result.
To analyse what went wrong with Sydney’s build-up play, it is best to look at how Western United played through Sydney’s press on the other end of the field.
Western United played with an extra man in their build-up structure, accompanying a 4-2-1-3 or 2-4-1-3 structure depending on the movement of the two full-backs, with James Troisi as the free ‘1’ moving between the lines.
Sydney pressed in the same way as Western United and struggled with Western United’s fluent movements and overloads.
The double pivot of Steven Lustica and Neil Kilkenny worked well with one often dropping off Sydney’s front two press and combining with the other.
They also sometimes both held their line as a two, which forced one of Sydney’s double pivot to advance to cover and, therefore, opened up space in the half-spaces or central space in the advanced midfield line, where the two wingers moved into to exploit the absence of one of the sky blue midfielders.
Sydney, meanwhile, played into Western United’s hands.
The two fullbacks, acting as deep-lying playmakers to connect passes, were combatted by the two wide midfielders to block passes and further runs off the ball, while Brattan was marshalled well by the front two of Troisi and Dylan Wenzel-Halls.
The major difference between Western United and Sydney’s build-up was the spacings.
Western United’s were much shorter, which established clear connections, which in turn allowed midfielders to play one-twos to move through Sydney’s press.
It also meant the ball speed was quicker, which resulted in sharper movements to break into the attacking half.
Sydney’s 4-1 was simply too far apart and meant that they couldn’t establish connections to generate higher ball speed to allow shorter passing to take place to break through the lines of Western United. This is why long ball links, such as the combination between left-back Diego Caballo and Anthony Caceres were present.
Caballo played 16 forward passes to Caceres against Western United, by far the most of any duo.
Caballo also had a hand in the second-highest link, which was himself to Robert Mak, showing the importance of his deep lying playmaking and long passes in moving the ball forwards.
These links do work well as a diverse way to break free of the press, but there is no diversity when things of this substance become the only option.
Brattan had the most difficulty with the longer spacings – he was unable to combine with the full-backs due to the pressure of the wide midfielders or find the two advanced midfielders due to the double pivot.
The midfielder is a passer, not a carrier, and suffered as a result of the positioning of his teammates.
It didn’t help that Sydney had their two best ball-playing center-backs out in Jack Rodwell and Alex Wilkinson, the latter of which has increased his enterprise and will to move the ball forwards significantly in this system – but it was more an issue with the system rather than individuals.
Essentially, Western United could play through Sydney’s press with ease because of their double pivot and shorter spacings, while Sydney couldn’t due to not having an extra man in deep central midfield.
In the second half, Corica looked to amend that by inverting right-back Rhyan Grant at times when in comfortable possession.
It worked well to break through the press. In this example, Grant turned with space and found Brattan, who released Patrick Yazbek before playing a diagonal out to Max Burgess which instantly moved the ball into the final third.
It was highly effective when Grant inverted, but the 4-1 structure was still present and inefficient when used.
To have countered Western United’s midblock, Sydney could have either moved to a 3-2 or 2-3 build-up structure.
The 2-3 build-up structure would provide a good counter to Western United’s press, and would likely be doable considering Grant and Caballo, the two fullbacks, are becoming increasingly prominent in wide areas.
The 2-3 would narrow the press from Western United, allowing direct, easy passes to find the two wingers to progress the ball forwards.
Joe Lolley especially is always a threat when picking up the ball deep with space to run, and is capable of playing first time passes onto the onrushing Yazbek to progress possession if Ben Garrucio was to move in tightly on him.
Alternatively, if Connor Pain goes to cover the pass to Lolley, the fullbacks can be found inside and can turn in the midfield line.
It also would also lead to increased ease to counterpress when losing the ball, due to the closer spacings of the players, which would also allow more direct combinations between players with an increased ball speed.
A 3-2 structure would result in similar circumstances, with one of Caballo or Grant instead in the defensive line.
It would be an alternative route to the 2-3, to keep safer possession rather than progress the ball forwards quickly.
On the occasions where Grant did invert, he often found himself with time and space in the line ahead to move the ball forwards, which is a demonstration of how this system could work.
Overall, Sydney’s build-up issue wasn’t due to the placement of the midfield, but rather the positions of the full-backs in the system.
And despite the issues with the build-up structure, multiple Sydney players still impressed.
Lolley’s eagerness to dribble forwards, combined with his fantastic shooting and passing techniques has been a key outlet and chance creator for Sydney, while the rotations between Mak, Caceres and Caballo have been at times a joy to watch.
Patrick Yazbek has also been performing excellently as an advanced eight, combining well with Lolley on the right.
On multiple occasions, Yazbek did well to get free of his marker and make a run to the byline, such as in this clip where he plays a one-two with Lolley.
He’s also able to turn quickly and fizz out passes to Lolley with his good technique, which aids Sydney in being able to get their English winger one on one in dangerous positions with the full-back.
The combination between Yazbek and Lolley was Sydney FC’s fifth most prominent forward passing combination, and was a crucial method of chance creation for the sky blues, with the midfielder finding Lolley for the third goal.
Yazbek and Lolley are two players who have been performing well within Sydney’s new system, which has had mixed results so far this campaign.
The final third play has been fluid and enjoyable to watch, with Lolley’s carrying and creativity and Mak’s decisiveness impressive but the build-up remains an issue.
While Caballo is a good deep-lying playmaker from left-back, his long passing ability is being overstretched from the left, which comes as a product of the longer passing distances in build-up not allowing Sydney to play flowing football, with Brattan suffering as a result.
A switch to accompany more inverted full-backs could lead to an improvement in all stages of build-up – in keeping the ball, progressing it in between the lines and out wide and counter-pressing after losing possession.
Image credit: Kelly Delfina/Getty Images