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Arnie's Saitama Slip-up

This one is down to the coach. A litany of tactical and selection errors hamstrung the Sky Blues, rendering them impotent for a large part of its Asian Champions League opener – a contest that, in hindsight, was winnable against an opponent that was out of season and, for all its midfield superiority, hardly impressed going forward.

No matter what happens the remainder of the season, which threatens to be a long one, Graham Arnold has been a breath of fresh air and has laid the foundation for future excellence. He must be allowed to complete the job next season, and perhaps beyond if he merits it.

But Sydney’s loss in Saitama is something for which the coach needs to put his hand up.

Error number one:

The Sky Blues made Urawa Red Diamonds appear good by lining up in a ridiculous formation that failed to suit the visitors. Playing a back five can work, provided that the team can cope with a high press and play their way out. Instead, playing too many square balls with little purpose and, under siege from the pressing Japanese, the Sky Blues surrendered possession time and again, placing their defence under pressure all too often.

Error number two:

Pitting a player who has not kicked a football in anger for nearly twelve months against a Japanese side that was sharp, nimble and mentally ahead of their opponents in the early stages of the match. Zac Anderson’s blunder in not clearing the ball in his own penalty area was due entirely to being asleep at the wheel, the hallmark of a player who is mentally off the pace. If Anderson was going to be a vital part of the ACL campaign, surely a prior run in the A-League would have made sense?

Sydney got back into the contest in the last 15 minutes of the first half, winning a number of free kicks in dangerous positions. But the delivery had to be seen to be believed.

Is there anyone at Sydney FC who can take a decent set piece? Sydney FC squandered one free kick opportunity after another, letting the tiring Red Diamonds off the hook time and again.

After the break, the hosts played the ball around their own half, looking to draw out the defensively set up visitors before hitting them with rapier-like through balls. Urawa tactics were largely working, leaving the Sky Blues to chase shadows, producing little on the ball and appearing vulnerable to Urawa through-balls.

Ten minutes after the break, Arnie needed to ring the changes. Hoole, on a yellow and charging into players like a man who has watched one AFL game too many, was trying the referee’s patience, while the system that forced the Sky Blues to sit so deep was patently not working.

Instead, Arnie dithered – Error number 3 – and Sydney FC paid the price.

While Anderson’s howler was unforgiveable, mitigated by his lack of playing time of course, Seb Ryall’s skewed clearance was sheer bad luck, but one that could have been avoided had Sydney not invited Urawa onto them time and again. Vedran Janjetovic mistimed his dive for the ball and the penalty was a fair one. Some goalkeepers have received their marching orders for similar offences so the Sydney custodian can count himself a touch lucky.

At 2-0 down and the game all but gone, the Sydney coach finally decided to make his substitutions. Something about shutting the door after the horse had bolted springs to mind.

A formation change is all it took to make the Sky Blues appear a football side again. With Sydney now playing a back four, the extra man in midfield made all the difference and suddenly the visitors began to cause their tiring opponents no end of problems. It certainly helped having Milos Ninkovic and Alex Brosque on the park but the new formation allowed the Sky Blues to have a red hot, though ultimately fruitless, go at their opponents.

This isn’t an argument about style over substance, one that has been wrongly laid at Arnie’s feet this season. Instead, it is an argument for a good formation over a bad one, effective tactics over ineffective ones, timely substitutions over ones that came too late.

In a game where the Sydney players had to overcome their own tactics as well as those of the opposition, Rhyan Grant and Matthew Jurman were the pick of the bunch while Shane Smeltz worked ever so hard and Milos Dimitrijevic showed his quality once the shackles of the 5-4-1 were removed in the final twenty minutes of play.

It would be fair to say that the club had one eye on its vital clash with fellow ACL participants Melbourne Victory on Saturday night. For that reason alone, the coach must be allowed latitude to omit players from the squad or the starting lineup. This column has no beef with Arnie’s decision to leave Ninkovic and Brosque on the bench or, indeed, keep David Carney, Brandon O’Neill and Matt Simon back home to train alongside ACL non-participants Jacques Faty and Filip Holosko.

It’s a juggling act.

But keeping one eye on Saturday night’s Big Blue would also have meant applying tactics to the ACL contest that would not leave the players exhausted after an hour of chasing shadows. While Victory played positive, attacking football against Shanghai to record an unlikely 2-1 win, Sydney’s defensive tactics yielded a deserved loss in Saitama. Yes, Melbourne were lucky to be awarded a penalty for a foul on Kosta Barbarouses that took place outside the box while Sydney should have had a first half penalty for handball following Hoole’s shot.

But fortune favours the brave.

And so, while Victory celebrate their maiden ACL win and enjoy bragging rights over the Sky Blues, Sydney FC have a job on their hands to prepare for the much-anticipated clash with their traditional rivals at Docklands Stadium on Saturday night.

Can Arnie turn Sydney’s leaky boat around in time?