Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Heart 1-0 Wellington: Match Analysis

This match was an open and exciting encounter between two clubs with very contrasting styles; Heart, with their 'total voetball' sensibilities  and Wellington, with a counter-attacking brief that emphasises speed and power. The first half was dominated by the hosts, who were able to create a handful of outright chances, without closing the deal. The Nix fought back in the second period, with renewed energy and aggressive substitutions. Credit to both managers for a game that served as a laudable example of and to Australian football. 

Heart's System:
Van't Schip deployed Heart in a 4-1-2-3 shape. After so many exotic tactical features such as 3-4-3 formations, wingbacks, false nines, and inverted wingers, this was probably one of van't Schip's most 'vanilla' line-ups.
Bolton was custodian, Madaschi and Hamill were paired in central defence, with Behich and Marrone advanced at left and right fullback. Germano, Thompson and Fred were set-out in the archetypal destroyer/passer/creator midfield trio. Young target-man Babalj was fielded as the No 9, Worm stretched the play as an orthodox winger on the left, with Dugandzic inverted on the right.
Wellington's System:
Herbert deployed a near full-strength Phoenix line-up in their 4-4-1-1 default, with the wide players dropping back to form two banks of four. Warner continued in place of Paston between the sticks, Durante and Sigmund were partnered in central defence, with Lockhead and Muscat at left and right fullback. Lia and Brown were paired in a conservative double pivot. Bertos and Ward were at left and right wing, Ifill played the trequartista role, with target-man Greenacre as the No 9. 
Strikers to the fore:
As noted above, in general terms, both clubs pursue very different playing styles. The hosts very consciously preferring a possession based approach that relies on technical quality. Ricki Herbert meanwhile favours a counter-attacking style, relying on pace and power in transition and defensive solidity to triumph over more-fancied opponents. 
Yet in this match, Heart and the Phoenix were both utilising imposing target man, Eli Babalj and Chris Greenacre, to lead their attacks. How did this affect the match? The differences in utilisation of the two strikers reflected the general approaches of both teams.

Greenacre operated as a traditional target-man, an 'English' No 9, what Glanville characterised as 'the brainless bull at the gates'. Greenacre essentially had two jobs; to meet the crosses of Bertos and Ifill and the more direct balls from Lia or Durante, providing an aerial threat. His role was very similar to that of Chelsea's Didier Drogba. 
Eli Babalj's role however was very different, and centred around facilitating the creativity of his team mates through hold-up play and creating space. In effect, Babalj operated as an advanced fulcrum; Fred, Worm and Dugandzic were able to use Babalj to retain possession under pressure in advanced areas. Once they had laid the ball off to Babalj, they were then free to make runs into space, secure in the knowledge Babalj would be able to hold-off challenges and then return possession. Therefore, Babalj himself did not present a realistic goal-threat in open play. 

In doing so, Babalj's role bore marked similarities to the roles of Emile Heskey and Fernando Torres, for England and Spain respectively. Long derided by the public for their admittedly meagre goal returns in international football, in recent times their selfless contributions in enabling the attacking play of Wayne Rooney and David Villa, by creating space, has garnered wider acknowledgement. Javi Venta, the Villareal defender remarked that "When Torres plays, Villa plays better. He has more freedom and greater mobility." Victor Munoz defined Torres' contribution by saying that "Fernando makes the pitch longer". Torres has never seemed to fit into the archetype of the Spanish footballer; at the height of his powers, Torres' style was based around power and pace, not patient passing or flair. So for Spain, Torres was used to facilitate the passing patterns of the 'Barcelona' midfield, by stretching the opposition defence with his explosive runs. For Heart, Babalj's hold-up play was used to enable the movement of the creative players. And it is a very effective strategy.

On a wider note, we are again privy to van't Schip's remarkable managerial acumen, in accumulating tactical variance in his squad. As PM has noted previously, Heart are the only club in the league to operate with a genuine squad rotation system. Even Brisbane, for all their strength in depth, do not have access to van't Schip's carefully cultivated tactical variation, which was an issue that contributed to the end of their unbeaten streak. So in regards to the central striker role, van't Schip can deploy Babalj as a target man, Maycon as a quick man or Alex Terra as a false nine. 
The central winger:
Paul Ifill, the creative right winger and Wellington legend, started this match as the central attacker of the Phoenix trident, behind Greenacre. It's a role Ifill is not unaccustomed to, but his interpretation of the role is very different to that of a traditional trequartista, such as Dani Sanchez, who was substituted on in the second half of this match. Instead of looking for space between the lines, the traditional domain of the trequartista, Ifill tended to roam laterally, moving to the flanks.

Zonal Marking dubbed this phenomenon, of the deployment of creative wide men in the central attacking midfield role, as the 'central winger'. Now for Wellington the situation is a little different; in the past Ifill has pretty much been the only creative presence in the Pheonix line-up, and was deployed in the No 10 role as a matter of necessity. But the central winger phenomenon sheds light on why Ifill has been effective as an attacking midfielder. 

For a variety of reasons, the classic No 10 or trequartista, in the mould of Zidane or Riquelme, has waned in the past decade. This can be variously attributed to the proliferation of holding midfielders in the 'Makele' mould who occupied the space between the lines trequartistas originally thrived in, the increased prevalence of counter-attacking football that discouraged creativity and emphasised speed of movement over speed of thought, and the popularity of the 4-3-3 formation, that had no space for a central playmaker. 

But the liberalisation of the offside rule that stretched the active playing area, the increased proliferation of possession football that emphasised technical quality, and the advent of the 4-2-3-1 formation as the universal default have contributed to the re-emergence of the playmaker, as the central attacker in the trident. For some clubs, this has simply resulted in the re-deployment of players used on the wing to their 'natural position' as the No 10. Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart are both players who were used on the wing at Real Madrid, but were moved back to the No 10 position, at Inter Milan and Tottenham respectively. Similarly, Wayne Rooney spent his early years at United on the wing, but has been moved to a central playmaker role. 

But there has also been a recent trend for players who spent their formative years on the wing, to be re-deployed as that central playmaker in the trident. Examples include Ashley Young at Aston Villa, Mesut Ozil at Werder Bremen and Real Madrid, David Silva at Manchester City and Juan Mata at Chelsea. These were all players who regularly shone as left wingers, but have found themselves starring as the new No 10's. Naturally their interpretation of the central playmaker role is very different to that of traditional trequartistas. Traditional trequartistas thrived between the rigid lines of defence and midfield against conventional 4-4-2's, whereas the central winger drifts laterally, from flank to flank, in effect returning to their 'natural' domain. Whereas Silva, Mata and Ozil thrived cutting-inside from left at Valencia and Werder Bremen, now they are dominating matches drifting wide from central for Manchester City, Chelsea and Real Madrid. The reason for this, is that when two 4-2-3-1's meet, where the wingers pick up the fullbacks, the only space left is the pockets either side of the holding midfielders. 
Heart ascendant:
The Red and Whites were able to dominate the first half by monopolising possession. The fullbacks Behich and Marrone were instrumental to this dominance, by pushing back the Wellington wide men, Ward and Bertos. Fred grew into the game, playing in Dugandzic and Worm.

Their 40' goal was achieved through a spot of gamesmanship, rather than outright tactics. Fred took a quick free kick on the edge of the centre circle, catching out Lia and Brown. Thompson received the ball on the run, laid off to Worm on the left. At this point it was 3v3. Worm unleashed a low drive that clipped the post and was bundled in by Dugandzic. This was Mate's third such goal this season, having arrived late at the far post to score twice against Newcastle in Round 1. 

Phoenix rising:
After the break, the visitors were able to get back into the contest. Herbert increased the tempo of their play and pushed the wide players Ward and Bertos further up the field to restrict Behich and Marrone. Credit to Herbert for some very aggressive substitutions that further increased the pressure on Heart. He exchanged Ward for Pavlovic on 60', moved Ifill out to right wing and switched to a 4-4-2 formation. Wellington were now playing with two very tricky wingers on both flanks, looking to take on their fullbacks, and swing crosses in for Greenacre and Pavlovic. 

On 65', Herbert exchanged Greenacre, who had faded, for Spanish trequartista Dani Sanchez, and switched to an aggressive 4-2-3-1 formation, with Pavlovic as the No 9, Bertos on the left and Ifill on the right. Sanchez was very effective as the trequartista, and Ifill clearly enjoyed sharing the creative burden; he revelled in latching onto Sanchez's through balls. 

It must be said though that Wellington were only allowed a route back into the game, by van't Schip's aggression. I don't think the man knows how to play for a draw. Against Adelaide, with the score tied at one-all, Colosimo red carded and with 10 minutes to go, van't Schip switched to an aggressive 3-3-3 formation and ordered his men to attack. 

He could have chosen to close out this game by telling his players to form back into two banks of four, but you can see by his substitutions he only had eyes for goals. Van't Schip brought on two more strikers, Hoffman and Maycon, on 65' and 80', only exchanging Madaschi for central defender Good on 88', and this switch was injury enforced. As noted above, credit to both managers for a match that can serve as a laudable example of and to Australian football. 

The best little Spaniard we know:
PM was heart broken in January, with the news of Mikel Arteta's deadline day departure to Arsenal. But perhaps there's another Spaniard who can fill the No 10 shaped void. Dani Sanchez has encountered slight injury problems this season, but has been extremely impressive as the trequartista. His creative vision 'complete' the Phoenix line-up, complimenting the brawn of Greenacre, the speed of Bertos and the trickey of Ifill. 

It's amazing to consider that Sanchez is the only Spaniard to yet ply their trade in the A-League, considering the modern trend for clubs to build teams around Spanish playmakers, such as the aforementioned Silva and Mata. 

And having a soft spot for the Nix, PM would like nothing more than to see Sanchez wear the Yellow and Black Number 10 on his back. The Phoenix have never really had a proper playmaker; now they have a man worthy to the task. Watching Sanchez on the ball just makes you think, "Marco who?". It would also lend a rather pleasing symmetry to the Wellington line-up; they'd have No 7 Bertos on the left, No 8 Ifill on the right, No 9 Greenacre up-front and No 10 Sanchez in the hole. 
New isn't always better:
This past off-season, Gold Coast, Adelaide and Perth went to great expense to completely renovate their squads, and find themselves in severe trouble. Herbert on the other hand, while he has been financially handicapped, has relied on the tried and tested. The Phoenix back-line and double pivot of Durante, Sigmund, Muscat, Lockhead, Lia and Brown have been together for the past two seasons, and that familiar relationship makes the Phoenix incredible hard to break down. 

This was an exhilarating match between two managers with very different philosophies yet identical commitments to attacking football. On the balance of play, perhaps a draw would have been a fairer result, and Wellington paid the price for failing to capitalise on a few golden opportunities. 

Player Rankings:
Heart | Wellington
10) Madaschi | Sigmund
9) Hamill | Muscat
8) Marrone | Durante
7) Germano | Lockhead
6) Behich | Ward
5) Thompson | Lia
4) Worm, Maycon | Brown
3) Babalj | Bertos
2) Dugandzic, Hoffman | Greenacre, Pavlovic
1) Fred | Ifill, Sanchez

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