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Tactical Analysis : Phoenix 2-0 Sydney FC

In the first round of the new A-League season, Wellington got a deserved two nil win over a poor Sydney FC side, who don’t yet seem to be used to the new style under Ian Crook. From a Sydney perspective, too many turnovers allowed Wellington to threaten on the counter attack, scoring both of their goals in such fashion.

Credit to Wellington

Firstly, before I get into the problems Sydney FC faced, credit must be given to Wellington. They are a fit and well structured side and disciplined with their defensive shape, and also were quick to pounce on Sydney’s errors and counter attack.

Youngster Louis Fenton was particularly impressive, as he was a constant threat and also tracked back well. Also, debutant Stein Huysegems was exciting and dangerous with his movement and worked hard in tandem with Jeremy Brockie in pressing the Sydney defence.

Sydney FC’s Problems

  • Player Positioning When Playing out from the Back

Whilst many may say the major reason for turning the ball over when playing, or attempting to play out from the back is poor passing, I will argue that the major issue was player positioning. It was clear that the back four and midfield (you could also include the goalkeeper, but Sydney did not play back to Necevski frequently) did not understand, or anticipate, where they should move in order to either receive a pass or open up space. This is a huge problem in Australian football, with many players not having developed an awareness of one of the most important aspects of possession based football – SPACE and MOVEMENT.

The first example of many (but importantly not all, because it would be near impossible to highlight all the positional errors) occurred in the 3rd minute and was a common feature in Sydney’s play throughout the game. It involved the positioning of the fullbacks, most notably Brett Emerton (although Fabio wasn’t exempt).

In this example, Sydney FC had won the ball back and Antonis had passed to McFlynn. McFlynn then opened his body when receiving to open up the pitch and passes to Emerton. The notable issue with this is that Emerton’s movement/positioning when McFlynn was receiving the ball was to jog backward and slightly to his right. He then received the ball roughly in line with the centre circle.

The reason this was an issue was that it allowed Fenton to shuffle sideways, as well as the Wellington midfield four, because Emerton was not a danger which needed closing down. So in this situation, Emerton then passes to Mallia, who was already watched by Lochhead, and as the ball was travelling, Fenton was able to run and close down Mallia, meaning he was outnumbered 2 to 1.

This is what should have occurred:

As Antonis played the ball to McFlynn, Emerton should have sprinted high and wide to receive the ball from McFlynn. In other words, he should have attacked the space available (and it should have been automatic). What this would have done is make Emerton an immediate threat, which would require Fenton to close him down, rather than shuffle across.

Emerton, from there, would have had the option to run at Fenton (1v1), or pass to Mallia, who was also now 1v1 with Lochhead, as Fenton would not be able to shuffle across.


The next example occurred when Lovrek dropped deep, with his back to goal and passed to Adam Griffiths. As the pass was moving, Emerton sprinted over half way, beyond Mitchell Mallia. What this meant was, when Griffiths received the ball he turned out and had no option to his right to pass (i.e. where Emerton should have been). He was then required to, under pressure, play the ball back inside to McFlynn. McFlynn, who was also under pressure (and again with no option on the right), then attempted a flick pass to Antonis, which was intercepted by Smith.


Another example involved a long switch by Del Piero trickling out of play. Lovrek dropped the ball off to Del Piero, who when looking for options saw the space on the right. Emerton, who had called for the ball then moved backwards, whilst Del Piero played a 40m pass to where Emerton should have been.

As I said, these were just three examples of something that occurred throughout the match, on both flanks. What also should be noted is that on multiple occasions McFlynn’s body positioning when receiving the ball was poor, meaning he couldn’t turn out and switch play or see if defenders were closing from behind.

  • Player Movement in the Final Third

Another major issue in this match was the movement and understanding in the final third of the pitch. On the occasions when Sydney was able to attack with intent, too frequently the play would be too narrow, or the forward movement would be non-existent or too slow to create space (i.e. fast movement takes away defenders, even if only a step, whilst jogging means a defender can readjust their positioning without leaving gaps.)

The first example occurred in the third minute. It was a promising Sydney FC counter attack which came to nothing. (It occurred in three phases)

Phase One

McFlynn gained possession and Sydney could counter attack. He passed to Lovrek who, when closed down by Fenton passed to Emerton (note that the pass was poor and required Emerton to slow to almost a stop in order to control the ball).

Emerton then, without great acceleration, moved forward with the ball.

Phase Two

The next movement from the Sydney FC players was poor. Both Mallia and Chianese jogged inside, making the pitch narrow.

Emerton, without a forward passing option dribbled inside and passed to Lovrek, before continuing his run infield.

Phase Three

Also with a lack of movement, Lovrek had no width and attempted a pass through the crowd to Del Piero, who had come inside too. Del Piero dummied for Chianese, however the referee blew for a foul.

As can be seen in this graphic, the positioning of the Sydney FC players is much too narrow, with seven players inside the relative width of the 18 yard box. What this allows Wellington to do is compress the space, with their two lines of four (midfield and defence) able to become compact. Therefore, when the ball was passed towards Del Piero, five Wellington players moved to close down the space – an impossible scenario to score from.

What should have occurred was the following:

When Lovrek received the ball, he should have passed the ball in front of the onrushing Emerton, allowing him to maintain his momentum.

When running at pace, Emerton would have drawn defenders towards him. These defenders (along with midfielders tracking back) would have opened space for other attackers, assuming their movement was more intelligent.

The first potential scenario would be to pass to Mallia. Firstly, Mallia should have maintained his width. With Emerton running with pace Lochhead would have needed to close him down, leaving space for Mallia out wide.

The second option for Emerton would have been Chianese. With Lochhead closing down Emerton, Durante would have had to step across to cover, which would have allowed space in behind for Chianese to burst into.

And the final, most difficult option, would have been to play a diagonal to Del Piero, who had intelligently drifted into the gap left when Leo Bertos went forward.


Another example of poor movement occurred late in the match when Sydney was already two goals behind.

Del Piero received the ball and beat Smith, moving inside, with Emerton moving outside. Del Piero then got his head up and had no option on the right, with no-one creating width (e.g. Ryall not moving forward, or Yau starting centrally rather than from wide).

This meant Del Piero had to cut back inside Smith, beating him for the second time in quick succession and look forward. As he did this, both Mallia and Yau jogged and did not show for the ball, whilst Emerton was static on the left. Del Piero then passed to Emerton, only for Wellington to smartly step up, leaving him offside.

  • Turning the ball over before Conceding both goals

The final issue was turning over possession prior to conceding both goals.

Goal One

This graphic is what occurred moments before Antonis lost the ball, allowing Phoenix to counter attack.

Here, Emerton’s positioning was again an issue. As Del Piero dropped deep, with his back to goal, Huysegems closed down McFlynn. This allowed Del Piero to play a delicate lofted pass to Griffiths. However, Emerton again moved inside into midfield and then checked to show for the pass from Griffiths. This meant Griffiths had no option on the right and had to go back down the middle.

Emerton then passed back to Del Piero, who moved the ball back to the left. Moments later Sydney lost the ball.

The reason this movement was such an issue was that it didn’t even required Wellington to slide across. Instead the ball was immediately played back inside where the defenders were, allowing Wellington to squeeze the play and win the ball.

Goal Two

The second goal was more focused down the left hand side.

Terry McFlynn had dropped off to receive the pass from Adam Griffiths. He then attempted an outside of the foot flick to Del Piero who was not a legitimate option, as he was being tracked and moving into a congested area of the pitch (i.e. midfield).

What also is important is the positioning of Fabio, who was much to high up the field, meaning he was not an option to receive the ball.

After McFlynn played the pass, he then moved forward, and when Muscat won the ball, he was able to run into acres of space before crossing to Fenton, without any defensive pressure.


There were many worrying signs in this performance from Sydney and it is clear they are underdone going into the season. Work needs to be done on player positioning and movement. The players don’t yet seem to grasp the philosophy of Ian Crook, who seems very keen on playing attractive football, which inevitably requires playing out from the back.

All of these issues can be fixed, but they will take time. One thing is for sure, Sydney can only get better, and it was always a difficult first game, playing away against the ever-difficult Wellington.

Wellington fully deserved their win, and looks like a fit and well-oiled machine. Whether Sydney can do the same, time is required.