With both teams winning convincingly in their semi-final matches, it was down to Sydney FC and Melbourne City to battle it out for A-League champions. Whilst Sydney has sat comfortably on top of the ladder for the majority of the season, the last time these sides clashed, Melbourne came out as winners with a 2-0 victory. Looking at their previous five meetings, however, Sydney has got the better of Melbourne three out of five times, so this match was set to be a close contest.
Sydney FC lined up in their 4-2-2-2 formation, which has been consistent throughout the season. Rhyan Grant, Ryan McGowan, Alex Wilkinson and Joel King made up the back four, however, both full-backs are given licences to go forward and attack. Paulo Retre and Luke Brattan made up the holding midfielders whilst Miloš Ninković and Anthony Caceras started as the wider midfielders. This left golden boot runner up, Adam Le Fondre who played in his career already over 180 games in the EFL Championship and Kosta Barbarouses as the two strikers up front.
To counter this, Melbourne City lined up in a 4-3-3 which became famous especially due to Ajax Amsterdam and FC Barcelona. Nathaniel Atkinson, Curtis Good, Richard Windbichler and Harrison Delbridge formed the back 4. Joshua Brillante sat deeper as the holding midfielder with Florin Berenguer and Adrián Luna pushing up as the attacking midfielders. Craig Noone and Lachlan Wales on the wing with golden boot winner Jamie Maclaren as the central striker.
Melbourne’s build-up against Sydney’s defensive structure
Melbourne built up with a 4-3-3 (above), having Delbridge and Atkinson push out wide to fix Sydney’s wide midfielders whilst both Melbourne’s attacking midfielders pinned Sydney’s holding midfielders higher up the pitch. Because Sydney’s far side striker would only drop and cover the space as the closest striker pressed the CB, Brillante became the free man and was able to receive in behind Le Fondre and Barbarouses. If during the build-up Brillante was positioned in front of the strikers, then one of the attacking midfielders would drop in behind the strikers to receive.
Having almost conceded through a turnover in possession which left Melbourne in a 3v2 situation with Sydney’s strikers on their centre backs and a driving midfielder, Melbourne occasionally dropped Brillante forming a back three with Good and Windbichler. Both Atkinson and Delbridge remained high in wider positions. With the attacking midfielders splitting the field, this left an open passing lane between Maclaren and Brillante, however, Melbourne looked to shift the ball wide first before looking to find Wales 1vs1 with King or Maclaren in behind. One of the variations to this back three included Delbridge, Windbichler and Good with Atkinson as the highest full-back and Wales dropping deeper to receive the ball on the other side. This left Brillante as the free man behind the Strikers again.
Sydney’s defensive organisation
Having lined up in a 4-4-2 block, Sydneys strikers were tasked with marking the two centre-backs, wide midfielders Ninković and Caceras on the full-backs, holding midfielders Retre and Brattan on attacking midfielders, leaving the back four against Melbourne’s front three. Within the first half, however, Sydney at times struggled to prevent Melbourne’s build-up due to the large distances between units as seen below.
The reason for this came from the goal-scoring opportunities created by the runs in behind from both Maclaren and Wales. In order to prevent them from winning the space in behind, Sydney’s backline would drop earlier. This left a dilemma for Sydney’s holding mids Brattan and Retre. If they stayed with Melbourne’s attacking midfielders, then there would be space for Brillante and if one decided to press Brillante then they would leave an attacking midfielder unmarked. To combat this, Sydney’s strikers would look to position themselves in line with Brillante and shift as the ball travelled from one central defender to the other. This allowed Brattan and Retre to cover Luna and Berenguer higher up.
Depending on the positioning of Noone and Wales, Sydney would alter their marking. If they dropped deeper than it was up to Ninković and Caceras to mark them. If they stayed high than Grant and King would pick them up. Knowing that Ninković isn’t as good of a defender as he is offensive player, Melbourne looked to get Wales in behind. In order to do so, they used Luna to pin King which then would create the space in behind for Wales to attack.
This was done more so on the right-hand side as the matchup of Wales and King/Ninković was better than Noone against Grant/Caceras who have more experience than the young full-back.
Sydney’s offensive structure
In general possession, Sydney formed their 4-2-2-2 shape with both full-backs Grant and King pushing higher. If Sydney were in a build-up phase (as above), Grant and King would drop and connect with their centre-backs Wilkinson and McGowan. Then both Ninković and Caceras would push out wider to support the full-backs when they were on the ball. Higher up the pitch, Sydney would look to create 2vs1 situations out wide when their full-backs provided the width. As seen below, on the travel of the pass to an attacking full-back, Melbourne’s full-back shifts out to engage.
As this happens, it will free up the ball-side striker to win the space behind. If the full-back stays and covers the striker, then King and Grant can look to cross the ball in. The way Sydney looked to attack centrally was to find the feet of both Barbarouses and Le Fondre so they could go 1vs1 with their direct centre-back. This led to a first-half penalty shout when Le Fondre received the ball in the box and was able to turn his defender for a chance on goal, however it appeared that the defender had bought him down as he turned in.
Because of the positioning of their full-backs, Sydney was vulnerable to counter-attacking as large distances between their centre-backs and ful-lbacks developed. As they were tucked in during the defensive phase, this allowed Wales and Noone to exploit the space as the ball gets turned over. We can see below that as King is on the ball, the distance between him and Wilkinson is very large. As a result, when he plays the ball to find the striker, the ball gets intercepted and played quickly into space where Wales runs into, leading to a goal-scoring opportunity.
In order to manage this space and prevent those threatening counter-attacking situations, one of the holding midfielders, Brattan, would usually be the one to drop between McGowan and Wilkinson. If the ball was to be turned over with King and Grant being caught high, then McGowan would cover Noone and Wilkinson could cover Wales.
Another tactical variation would be when the full-backs are on the ball, it would usually be Brattan who would drop in next to Grant and McGowan to provide support and cover if Sydney turned the ball over.
As both sides were on about the same level as we saw in this tactical analysis, the game ended after 90 minutes of play with 0-0 and it came down to extra time. Sydney’s experience in drawn-out Grand Final’s came to fruition with Grant netting home the winner in the 100th minute sealing the clubs back to back A-League Grand Final win.