After just five rounds of the 2021/22 A-League Men season, Western Sydney Wanderers are at a crossroads.
Despite having signed an array of proven quality footballers in Australia’s top tier, the former Asian Champions League winners sit in eighth place, after recording just one win in their opening five matches.
Many frustrated fans understandably point towards Welsh manager Carl Robinson as the root cause of the team’s current plight given his inability to accurately effectuate a functional playing style that gets the best out of talents such as Terry Antonis, Dimi Petratos and Tomer Hemed.
Others point towards a systematic cultural issue that permeates the club’s footballing department, particularly after an array of former players and coaches recently landed jabs at the club’s backroom operations.
While this piece will focus on the Wanderers’ troubles from a specifically footballing lens, it is worth, at least, mentioning that the club’s troubles extend beyond the remit of the football field and indeed, off-field issues with the club’s backroom play a part in the side’s struggles on-field.
From a football perspective, one of the main criticisms of Robinson has been his struggles to inculcate a specific identity within the side.
When quizzed on his team’s identity and playing style after a 2-0 loss to the Central Coast Mariners on the weekend, Robinson made clear that he wants his side to play proactively and to dominate the ball.
“I want to play with the ball, I told you that from day one and we will play with the ball and we do play with the ball…you’ve got to decide what team you want to be. Whether it’s a counter-attacking team, a low-block team, a mid-block team, a possession-orientated team, we want to have the ball,” he said.
“I challenge my team every day to have the ball, what we need do to need to do is we can’t have 60, 70 per cent of the ball most weeks and then have no actions.”
It is difficult to disagree with Robinson here.
When compared to other teams in the A-League Men, Western Sydney can certainly be described as one of the most possession-orientated given that they rank fourth in the league for average possession with 55.6% of the ball per game.
Additionally, the Wanderers have had more of the ball in four of their five A-League Men fixtures thus far with the match against the league’s top possession side Newcastle Jets being the only match where they had less of the ball.
The match against Newcastle where they had less of the ball was the match which yielded their most shots in a game this season (31) with their next best coming against Macarthur (19).
The Wanderers also recorded more expected goals – a statistic which measures the quality of a team’s shots – against Newcastle (2.53) than in any other match this season.
This is concerning because, clearly, Robinson’s attempts to instil a possession-based style of play is not translating into shots in the final third. These struggles to create chances combined with the fact that only one team has scored less goals than the Wanderers this season suggests that the side is largely ineffective in the final third.
Given that the aim of any attacking style of football should be to maximise chances on goal in the final third, it can be deduced that a possession game style is not yielding the best results at the Wanderers and that it does not suit the squad that Robinson has composed.
WHY IS THE POSSESSION-BASED STYLE NOT WORKING?
Put simply, the composition of the Wanderers squad is not conducive to playing a style of football which places ball possession at the forefront.
Specifically, the Wanderers way of playing possession football often results in the side failing to break down teams who sit in a compact defensive shape behind the ball. Often, the Wanderers will monotonously circulate the ball from side to side in front of the opposition’s defensive shape with little creative influence to penetrate.
This low intensity and low octane style of football does not seem to suit young full-back Thomas Aquilina who, despite impressing at times last season, ranked in the 28th percentile among A-League defenders for progressive passes per 90.
Most concerning, however, is the fact that the Wanderers’ possession-based style of play does not suit the side’s attacking talent, aside from Tomer Hemed who has been impressive for the Wanderers in a role which requires him to be more of a positional reference point as a centre-forward rather than the poacher role that yielded many goals for the Israeli last season at the Wellington Phoenix.
Bernie Ibini has started all five of the Wanderers games but struggles to retain the ball in tight spaces and prefers to use his pace and power to make offensive runs in transition. Additionally, Ibini is not a creative player who likes to make passes in the final third given that he ranked in the 5th percentile for penetrative passes per 90 last season.
Under Robinson, Dimi Petratos is often required to assume central positions between the lines in an attempt to retain the ball when placed under pressure. This does not suit Petratos’ skillset which primarily revolves around being relieved of defensive duties and creating moments of magic in 1v1 situations with defenders when cutting in from the left hand-side of the pitch.
With this in mind, it is no surprise that both Petratos and Ibini have largely struggled to showcase their individual skillsets this season.
Instead, it feels as if Carl Robinson has attempted to ingrain this style of play for the purpose of playing to the strengths of Terry Antonis and Steven Ugarković who are both comfortable at progressing the ball from deep areas.
While Ugarković has been characteristically superb at times for the Wanderers this season, the way that Antonis is being used is perplexing given the team’s creative struggles.
Antonis enjoyed perhaps the best season of his career while playing on the left of a 4-4-2 diamond under Kevin Muscat at Melbourne Victory. This role allowed Antonis to largely mask his defensive deficiencies and primarily focus on playing inside the left half-space with the aim of generating chances in the final third but also supporting build-up when required.
Under Robinson, Antonis appears shackled and is not performing to the standard that fans have come to expect from the mercurial midfield talent. Not only is Antonis averaging less chances created per game this season than during his time in Melbourne but he has also failed to record a goal or an assist while playing alongside Ugarković in midfield.
Additionally, the fact that Antonis is losing possession seven less times per game at the Wanderers than during the 2018/19 season at Melbourne Victory suggests that he is being asked to play more conservative passes and merely supply the team’s attackers as they shoulder the creative responsibility.
From a defensive perspective, the Wanderers lack any semblance of intensity and desire without the ball, particularly from their attacking players. Although Robinson’s tactical plan can and should be questioned, the players also deserve criticism for an often lacklustre work-rate.
The first goal that they conceded against the Mariners on the weekend was a painful example of how easily it is to get punished when individual players rely on their teammates to work hard when out of possession.
Here, Nisbet receives the ball on the half-turn and easily dribbles past Antonis who fails to put in a tackle because he doesn’t want to.
Nisbet identifies the large space to run into behind Antonis and makes a progressive run which is unchecked by any Wanderers player. Ugarković merely stares at Nisbet and points to his teammates, expecting them to do his running for him and stop Nisbet from creating a chance in the final third.
Just seconds later, Nisbet is facing forward and bearing down on the Wanderers’ last line. He eventually plays a through ball to overlapping full-back Lewis Miller who easily crosses the ball to an unmarked Cy Goddard at the back post to break the deadlock.
Although this is just one example of the Wanderers lacking desire and work-rate, it is a microcosm of the issues that have plagued the team without possession so far this season.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
Perhaps the biggest problem facing Carl Robinson at the Wanderers is that there is no concrete solution to their problems.
The volume of chances created against Newcastle while playing a slightly more reactive style of football suggests that the team could possibly benefit from a more transition-based approach.
However, it is more likely that this match represents a mere outlier of this success because the way that Newcastle plays often allows large spaces in behind their sluggish centre-half pairing of Matt Jûrman and Jordan Elsey. While the Wanderers took advantage of this weakness during that particular match, it seems unlikely that their team is composed in a way which is conducive to transitions being a valid way of consistently scoring goals.
Although Hemed is a sound reference point both on the ground and in the air, the likes of Najjarine, Ogawa, Petratos and Troisi are not best used out wide in a team that likes to play on the counter-attack given that they each lack explosive speed.
Indeed, when placing the Wanderers’ squad under a microscope, it becomes increasingly clear that whoever was tasked with composing the squad merely sought to recruit players on the basis of their individual skill rather than their capacity to complement the already existent assets within the squad.
This is perhaps the reason why the Wanderers often seem to lack cohesion and synergy in their play – the skillsets of the players brought together in the XI merely do not complement each other, particularly for the possession-based style that Robinson wishes to enforce.
While the pressure will undoubtedly mount on Robinson as poor results become more ever-present for the Wanderers, it is clear that the issues pervading the team’s performances run deeper than the coach himself.
Should the Wanderers decide to sack Robinson, such a decision should also be accompanied by wholesale changes to the playing squad to ensure that a change of manager does not merely paper over the burgeoning cracks that have emerged within the composition of a squad of individuals who do not complement each others skillsets on the pitch.