A-League Grand Final: One last shape shift

I have covered Brisbane v Central Coast more than any other fixture with the precious few updates I’ve managed on this site this year, so most of what can be said about the Grand Final tactics is already on here somewhere. Even the two coaches say they ‘already know everything about each other’ by now. But that’s not totally true.

The Major Semi-Final, particularly the second leg, showed that Roar and the Mariners are still tweaking their existing shapes to best suit this opposition. Specifically, the way Brisbane play out of the back has been a particular focus. Given the fact Brisbane will almost certainly dominate possession and field position again, the way the match is played out from the ‘reset’ position (Roar have the ball at the back while the Mariners drop into their half to defend) will go a long way to determining who is crowned champions.

We know that Graham Arnold likes his strikers to split wide in the defensive phase, trying to cover Roar’s fullbacks as well as their centre backs. As the attacking midfielder (usually Perez, but in the Grand Final it will likely be Amini) pushes onto Erik Paartalu at the base of Brisbane’s midfield, the Mariners shift into a flattish 4-3-3 defensively. So, what’s new?

The semi at Suncorp a fortnight ago saw Paartalu dropping deeper than in any match this season. This was partly to escape Perez’s attentions but also to affect the positioning of his back four. With Paartalu sitting central between Susak and Smith, the two centre backs pulled wider and the two fullbacks, Stefanutto and Franjic, pushed on and became pure wingbacks. Roar’s shape approached 3-4-3 more consistently than in other matches. Have a read of zonalmarking.net’s piece on how and why Sergio Busquets dropped into a back three, like Paartalu, for Barcelona earlier this season – here. Consider that the Mariners, like Atletico Madrid in that case, use a two-striker system.

It appears as though Ange Postecoglou is trying to expose the main weakness of that 4-3-3 set up the Mariners have adopted, which should be the fact that the Mariners’ two strikers try to defend against four players. Central Coast are one of the only sides with strikers who work hard enough to do this. It leaves Roar outnumbered further up the pitch and makes playing out of the back particularly hard for Brisbane. If Matt McKay drops out of midfield to pick up the ball and start the play, the Mariners do not track him and that simply leaves one less target up the pitch for Brisbane to hit.

Paartalu drops deeper to avoid Amini and Brisbane's fullbacks push higher to get away from Central Coast's strikers

So Postecoglou seems to have tried to solve two problems at once by dropping Paartalu deeper away from his marker and using the extra security of a ‘third’ centre back to push his wingbacks forward beyond the reach of Central Coast’s strikers (see diagram).

Fewer times could Kwasnik or McBreen actually engage Franjic or Stefanutto – the Mariners midfielders had to come out and deal with them.

So why didn’t that work? Firstly, let’s agree that it didn’t quite work – Brisbane did not have the better of the chances in that 2-2 draw at Suncorp.

They dominated possession as the Mariners waited patiently in their half for Roar to force their attacks, but the ball was turned over more easily than usual and the Mariners are a strong threat on the counter.

Next, let’s have a look at the second phase of Brisbane’s attack. Once Paartalu had dropped back into something of a back three with Smith and Susak, the most obvious ‘out’ ball became a simple pass to the wingbacks. In central midfield, Central Coast had a nominal 3v2 advantage. Franjic and Stefanutto, however, were usually free out wide. Roll diagram!

Starting from the above diagram, Brisbane's wingback gets the ball and the Mariners slide to that side of the pitch, cutting down his options

Brisbane’s attack became too predictable. The Mariners’ wide midfielders (Bozanic or McGlinchey) would push onto the fullback who received possession and the rest of the team would adjust as illustrated. The man on the ball suddenly had few options – Brisbane’s free man was the wingback on the other side of the pitch but he was hard to find with a direct pass.

This strategy might still work but Brisbane need to vary their attacks. They would certainly need to direct more attacks through the middle. Members of their front three will need to drop into the midfield to help rectify the numerical shortfall. Paartalu could occasionally push forward again, passing-and-moving through the centre once the defence has been stretched wide. From the first time Brisbane get the ball at the back, my eyes will be drawn to the positioning of Paartalu and the fullbacks/wingbacks to see whether Roar are persisting with this adjustment or reverting to their more traditional 4-3-3 with Paartalu in more of a triangle with the centre backs.

This may seem elaborate – all of 800 words and two diagrams to describe what is really quite a subtle tweaking of shape. Realistically, each team’s best chance to score remains on the counter – quickly hitting areas exposed when the other team pushes forward out of the above shapes. But this fixture more than any other this season has been defined by these ‘set plays’ (not the free kicks/corners kind) and if Brisbane score by breaking down the Mariners from a standing start, Postecoglou can claim even more of an individual influence on his team’s fortunes.

diagrams from this11.com

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Central Coast v Brisbane preview

The first thing you should do if you haven’t already is read my recent post: How to beat Brisbane Roar. It focused a great deal on the 3-3 match between these two sides at Bluetongue. A lot of that will be kind of assumed knowledge for this preview.

As I said in my Soccernet A-League finals preview, one of the best things about having a finals series is getting to see the league’s two best teams face off at full strength at the end. Other than the fact Luke DeVere has left the Roar, both teams should be pretty close to their best XIs. In the 3-3 game, Matt McKay wasn’t there, and he is a key player. There’s no argument Brisbane have been the best team across the league but the Mariners have caught up since the turn of the year, and now we’re going to see by how much.

Welcome headaches for Arnie

Central CoastGraham Arnold has rested certain players to make sure they are available for the finals, but the result has been that new players have come in and impressed so much they are pressing for a spot. Rostyn Griffiths has been one yellow card from suspension, so he has been left out recently, and John Hutchinson has looked worthy of his place in the past two matches. Matt Simon and Adam Kwasnik were Arnie’s first-choice strike pair this season (and they played and both scored in the 3-3) but bringing them back in from injury will mean in-form Daniel McBreen, Bernie Ibini-Isei and Mustafa Amini will all be benched. The rest of the team is fit and in-form and there’s no doubt Arnie will use his 4-4-2 diamond formation. Josh Rose has scored or assisted in the Mariners’ last four games so his wingback role is their key attacking outlet at the moment. I think Griffiths will come back in, the hard-working Simon will be needed to make the system work (more on that later) and McBreen will retain his place after some strong performances recently.

Settled Brisbane ready to Roar

Brisbane RoarBrisbane are the most predictable team, tactically, in the A-League. That doesn’t mean they are easy to stop. One of the beauties of Postecoglou’s side has been the way new players have been able to come in and perform straight away. He hasn’t just coached a philosophy, or just a formation, he has coached a system. All players in the squad understand their roles and how they relate to their team-mates’. So as he has had to deal with injuries and suspensions, the team has rolled on playing the same football all season. Now they arrive at finals with all their key players ready (besides DeVere). It will be that same Barcelona-style 4-3-3 system with Jean Carlos Solorzano likely coming in up front, although he might return from injury on the bench. If he is out, we could see Kosta Barbarouses at the tip, Mitch Nichols on the right and Massimo Murdocca in midfield as the only likely variation from my predicted line-up.

The Gameplan

The 3-3 match should be seen as the template for this Major Semi-Final first leg. Roar will play near-enough to the same way regardless of the circumstances, while Arnie was quite happy with their performance in that match. The Mariners will sit quite deep in their own half when Brisbane have the ball, the Mariners strikers splitting wide to form a defensive front three with Perez in the centre. This requires hard work from the strikers, who have to try to cover the Roar fullbacks as well as the centre backs, while Perez sits on Paartalu. Simon’s lack of match fitness and McBreen’s relative lack of a work ethic compared to the selfless Kwasnik could be a factor in this system. The rest of the Mariners team defend zonally in their own half.

Roar struggled to get the ball moving out of defence in that match, but McKay was away with the Socceroos. With him back to link defence to attack, Roar should find it easier to get the play started. Since the Mariners don’t have natural wingers with their diamond shape, the Roar fullbacks can be dangerous when they get clear of the strikers trying to mark them. However their desire to push high and wide could prove costly if Brisbane lose possession, because the Mariners will usually have a 2v2 up front with lots of space to use (as per Kwasnik’s goal in the 3-3 match). It’s a delicate balancing act where Brisbane look to push on and attack with numbers, but any cheap turnover of the ball could prove extremely costly. Execution is key.

Pressing and passing

Another key element to watch for is what Central Coast do once they do win the ball. If they win it high because Brisbane mess up while playing out of the back, the Mariners will look to break quickly while Roar’s players are out of position. But it’s when Roar’s moves break down around Central Coast’s box that the Mariners will be tested. Roar look to immediately press in numbers to win the ball straight back, or at least to force a hopeful clearance to starve their opponents of possession. But the Mariners, with their nimble midfielders Bozanic, Perez and McGlinchey and their attacking fullbacks, are good at moving the ball quickly and passing out of trouble. Look for the Mariners to put together one-touch passing triangles in tight areas to release the ball to the other side of the pitch where Roar will be short of numbers. Again, it’s a matter of execution. If Central Coast play it ‘safe’ by merely clearing the danger, Brisbane will have all the ball. In this case, safe is danger. And the ‘risky’ strategy of passing out of trouble is actually the only way to stand a chance.

Individuals

Brisbane have threats all over and shutting down one might simply mean handing more space to another. That’s why the zonal defence makes the most sense against them – apart from Perez’s job of keeping Paartalu from dictating play. But the Mariners have some key players that need special attention. Solorzano must always focus his defensive work on Patrick Zwaanswijk. The Dutch defender can land a pass on nearly any blade of grass on the pitch, so he can’t be given time to get his head up. Brisbane can let Alex Wilkinson have the ball as his passing ability is half of his partner’s.

Central Coast’s two game-breaking players are Perez and Rose. Paartalu should match up well on Perez but Rose, which his runs in behind from deep, is the player who can create openings when all other plans fail, as he did for the winner against Newcastle last week (and many times this season). Barbarouses likes to drift into central striking positions from the right, and Franjic is a very attack-minded fullback himself on Roar’s right flank, so that side of the pitch could be a decisive area.

Conclusions

With the way things are poised tactically, it should be a matter of which team executes better on the day – which is exactly how it should be. Being the first of two legs, it will be interesting to see how positive Brisbane try to be. Barcelona are another side that is built to attack and dominate and nothing else; they got an early lead against Arsenal at the Emirates in their Champions League tie and then seemed to drop off after half time, knowing they have a home leg to fall back on. That let Arsenal back into the match. There’s a lesson there for Postecoglou – forget the scoreboard, forget the home leg, because playing for a result won’t work if your team is only set up to control the match and score.

The Mariners will be desperate to win this match though. They arguably have more firepower on the bench, with Amini able to turn a match as he did by playing the crucial pass to Rose that set up Perez’s winner last week. With a big home crowd behind them, I expect them to finish off the stronger, particularly if they are not in front.

Arnie said after the 3-3 that he was happy for his side to make silly errors to let in cheap goals at the time, so long as they were out of the system for the finals. Brisbane, too, need to be flawless with their passing out of the back so as not to invite trouble. This will be two teams pushing their football to the limits while trying desperately to stay mistake-free.

diagrams from this11.com

Adelaide v Wellington preview

All three of this week’s A-League finals have some interesting history to them. For the 3rd v 6th elimination final between Adelaide and Wellington, it’s the 1-0 victory Phoenix were able to earn at Hindmarsh on Feb 5 that we look back to. Wellington generally can’t win on Australian soil and would have been given no hope of a result on Friday night if they hadn’t beaten the same opponents at the same venue this very month.

Adelaide have this whole behind-the-scenes squad unrest going on, which came to the surface this week with Paul Reid’s he-said-she-said with the club. With the Feb 5 result and now this, all of a sudden Wellington seem like a good bet. But personally, I wouldn’t read too much into the Reid situation. Contractual disputes happen all the time in clubs – just because this one has become public, there’s no need to get too excited. There’s no doubt part of Brisbane’s and Central Coast’s success has been the united, settled nature of their dressing rooms but Adelaide should still be hot favourites for this match.

Coolen’s selection dilemma

Adelaide UnitedReid won’t play, and most of Adelaide’s team in easy to predict. Rini Coolen will use his 4-2-3-1 formation. He has experimented with a Christmas tree shape but the availability of all his attacking weapons means he shouldn’t defer from his favoured shape. The real uncertainty is which wingers he will use. Dodd, Leckie, Ramsay and Slory need to fit into just two spots. Dodd and Leckie would probably be the first choices but they both prefer to play on the right, meaning he will either play one on the left or leave one on the bench. I have predicted that Leckie will go to the left but that’s without much confidence – any of the four could play.

Will Herbert roll the dice?

Wellington PhoenixRicki Herbert also has a tough choice to make with regards to his flanks. Paul Ifill, the club’s best player, has been injured long term but he is available for this match. Herbert could keep him on the bench to protect the player and also save some firepower for later in the match but this is the finals – I think he’ll get his best players out there if he can. Marco Rojas has emerged has Wellington’s wildcard since Ifill has been out, and Dylan Macallister has also found some golden form leading the line ahead of Chris Greenacre recently. If Ifill comes in as per my diagram, it will be a very attacking line-up. Therefore Herbert could also drop Greenacre and instead use Nick Ward or Vince Lia in midfield as some extra insurance. This XI might be more likely for later in the match if Phoenix is chasing a goal.

The Gameplan

I expect a classic attack v counter-attack pattern in this match. Wellington have two wins and two draws on the road this season – in three of those matches they kept a clean sheet. They also lack creativity and really more on speed and trickery to create chances, which is better done after drawing Adelaide out of their half. So ‘defence first’ really is their best policy here. Adelaide have so many threats, including the league’s most dangerous player in Flores, that if Wellington don’t try to play deep and compact, they will be in trouble. Whoever Coolen selects, Flores will have two speedy wingers to pick from with his pin-point passes.

Another point of interest will be how Wellington look to handle Flores. Adrian Leijer did a sterling man-marking job on him last week and Manny Muscat could be asked to do the same. If Wellington as a team play deep and compact, a specific man-marking shouldn’t be necessary. Either way, stopping Flores is tough, but restricting his options might be easier. His great strength is bringing his team-mates into play. Don’t let the wingers get in behind your full-backs by playing a deep line, and Adelaide’s threat is lessened considerably.

If Wellington do play defensively, they will still have to be particularly careful when they have the odd attack. They tend to leave big gaps between their lines. They are particularly slow at regaining their shape on the defensive transition – when they lose the ball high up the pitch, they are susceptible to quick breaks. They will need to drop and close up space much quicker when they lose the ball or Flores will drift between their defence and midfield and hurt them with his killer passes.

For Adelaide, their approach depends on what their opponents do. If Wellington play an open game, United can focus on keeping things tight at the back while waiting for the individual brilliance of Flores, Van Dijk and Leckie to do the damage up front. If Phoenix sit back, however, Adelaide will need Cassio to get involved in the attack down the left, and Hughes to make his unchecked runs from very deep through the middle. Rojas v Cassio will be a key indicator as to how the match is panning out.

Late news and conclusions

It seems that Adelaide has been drowned with rain today so we can expect a soggy Hindmarsh – that should help Phoenix as it disrupts Adelaide’s passing game. It could also hinder the likes of Ifill – so could affect Herbert’s selection.

I haven’t touched on many of the potential match-winners on each team, the likes of Tim ‘Cahill’ Brown with his goals from midfield or each team’s goalkeeper. Each team has its weaknesses too, Usucar hasn’t settled into the A-League yet and Wellington’s back four has been chopped and changed far too many times in recent weeks. Adelaide are a better team man for man and Hindmarsh has been a fortress for them this season. But let’s just hope it goes to penalties so we can see whether Danny Vukovic can recreate his goal from the spot last week when it really counts.

Diagrams from this11.com

How to beat Brisbane Roar

OK, so I don’t propose to have the answer to the question posed in the headline and one of the beauties of the near-unbeatable Brisbane Roar side to grace the A-League this season is their ability to overcome almost any set of tactics used to try counter them.

But here are a collection of observations on particular strategies that have worked well against them in recent weeks. In particular, Central Coast went close to halting the ladder leaders’ progress at Bluetongue Stadium, when Roar were visibly weakened by the loss of key men Matt McKay and Ivan Franjic – in particular the roles those two play in helping Roar build from the back. Graham Arnold has learned from his two previous heavy losses to Brisbane and his Mariners now look to be a genuine threat to Brisbane come finals time.

Formations

Brisbane have used the same 4-3-3 in every match this season. If you are looking to simply contain a team playing that formation, the best shape to use, on paper, would be a 4-2-3-1. It matches up naturally against Brisbane’s shape, and in particular, you have wingers who can look to push back Brisbane’s fullbacks, who are key to providing Roar’s width when they overlap. Your #10 can also do a man-marking job on Erik Paartalu, who is critical to Roar’s ability to build out of the back and switch the play.

Adelaide predominately use a 4-2-3-1 (although Rini Coolen has tried out a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree in recent matches) and they have tested Roar in their matches without beating them. Arnold has only changed his shape once this season, when he adopted a 4-2-3-1 for the 5-1 belting Roar dished out to his team at Gosford earlier in the season. So that shape has had at best mixed success against Roar.

But what we have seen in some recent matches is that a 4-4-2 formation, particularly in its diamond variation, has caused Roar more trouble. In the 5-1 loss, Central Coast’s 4-2-3-1 did not provide enough threat to Brisbane’s defence so although they theoretically had men in the right positions to negate Roar, the visitors were free to make attacking runs and string passing moves together without much of a worry about what would happen if they lost the ball. The Mariners, not being used to playing that shape, did not track runs or cover for each other effectively in the defensive structure.

In the most recent edition of what is currently the top-two encounter, the 3-3 draw at Bluetongue, Arnie went back to his usual diamond 4-4-2, came up with a new defensive system and reaped the benefits of an increased attacking threat when his side won the ball. Roar also ran into trouble when they played Perth at Suncorp a few weeks back, as Ian Ferguson’s 4-4-2 also caused problems.

formations

Two up front

The main benefit of the 4-4-2 against Roar is the role the two strikers play in the attacking transition. Because Roar commit so many men to attack, the best time to hurt them is when they first lose the ball. Teams with one up front have found it hard to keep the ball once they win it. Both of Brisbane’s centre backs, Matt Smith and Luke DeVere, love to come towards the ball to make interceptions and aggressive challenges, and against one striker, one of them can get away with such positive defending if the other defender is free to cover. When there are two strikers, at least one of them will find himself with a bit of space to exploit.

Look at Mile Sterjovski’s goal at Suncorp to see how simple but effective the two-striker system worked when Roar turned over the ball cheaply.

Smith-Error

Beating the press

It’s no secret that Brisbane immediately swarm in numbers to win the ball back once they lose it. The temptation for teams is to clear the ball upfield so as not to risk Brisbane getting the ball straight back in a dangerous position. That usually gives possession right back to the Roar. The best way to hurt Brisbane is to consistently beat their press with quick passing. Aggressive pressing high up the pitch as Roar do is an effective but risky tactic, because flooding the area around the ball will inevitably leave space in another area of the pitch. Melbourne Victory and to a lesser extent, Adelaide and the Mariners, have best exploited the space Roar leaves elsewhere by playing their way out of trouble, rather than simply clearing the ball. To pass out of the press requires quick, accurate one- or two-touch passing in a tight area. Victory, more than any other team, have the players and confidence to do this, as shown by their good results v Roar (3-0 win, 2-1 loss, 3-3 draw).

And unfortunately I don’t have the images to illustrate it but one of Adelaide’s best chances in the recent 1-0 Roar win at Hindmarsh came when an Iain Ramsay cross just evaded Sergio van Dijk midway through the first half. Crucially, the move started in Adelaide’s right-back position. Instead of clearing the ball up the line, United strung together three or four first-time passes to beat the press and release Ramsay in the acres of space Roar left unattended.

Instead, here is an example of the Mariners at work in Gosford.

Mariners v Roar

Capitalising on errors

Postecoglou has told his young team not to worry about making mistakes as they try to play the ball out of the back. He says he would rather see them lose games playing that way than revert to some form of low-risk ‘percentage’ football. Their possession game has been at the heart of their stunning success but they have, at times, paid the price for trying to build out of the back like Barcelona without possessing players of the highest quality. In particular, their 3-0 loss to Victory – their only defeat of the season – came purely through basic errors when trying to play out of the back. Every team makes errors but what exacerbates them for Roar is the way they spread the field to enable their style of football. In particular, the full-backs push wide and up the touchline so are caught well out of position if the centre-backs or Paartalu make a mistake.

Let’s have another look at Brisbane getting themselves into trouble against Perth by turning the ball over cheaply. Again, see the two strikers. When Roar do make a bad error – and they will make at least one or two per game – you need to have men in place to capitalise.

DeVere-error

Central Coast 3-3 Brisbane: The Blueprint

Arnold combined all of the above elements in last Wednesday’s A-League thriller. His ultra-mobile quintent of Rose, Bozanic, Perez, McGlinchey and Bojic looked to pass-and-move their way out of tight areas rather than cheaply giving the ball back to Brisbane. The had a front two to capitalise on Brisbane’s errors, particularly for Adam Kwasnik’s goal, when Brisbane left-back Shane Stefanutto struggled to get back into position in time once the ball had been turned over.

Here’s a quick look at a chance to Matt Simon that links our previous points about the two strikers and the attacking transition, like in the Perth game.

Defensive lapses were to blame for the three goals the Mariners conceded. Arnold said afterwards that he was happy to get those out of the system now rather than in the finals. His general satisfaction was justified as his modified zonal defence worked well in the most part in containing the Roar threat.

When the Mariners had time to get set, Arnold’s two hard-working strikers split wide and dropped as deep as Perez at the point of the diamond, creating a flat 4-3-3 shape that behaved zonally. It meant that even when the likes of Massimo Murdocca dropped out of midfield to help start Roar’s attacking moves, the Mariners weren’t dragged out of position. The absence of McKay and Franjic didn’t help, but for the most part, Roar could not find a way through the first two lines of defence.

Central Coast waited patiently for the right moment to pressure the ball, then struck. Unlike in the 5-1 loss, Brisbane had to be wary of both Kwasnik and Simon lurking if they lost the ball. Thus full-backs Stefanutto and Milan Susak, although they pushed wide and high, were a little reluctant to make runs and overlap. Not in defensive position, but not contributing to the attack either. To an extent, Roar’s system was broken.

Kwasnik goal

Conclusions

  • Positive formation: Don’t just park the bus deep in your own half, that will play into Brisbane’s hands. Have attacking players in positions ready to capitalise on Brisbane errors.
  • Be brave with the ball: Whenever possible, keep the ball and play out of Brisbane’s press – don’t just clear the ball it back to them. It’s risky, but it’s the only way.
  • Defend zonally: Brisbane’s system is designed to keep possession with midfielders making diagonal runs back to the ball while others push beyond them. Those runs are near impossible to track, and you’ll leave gaps if you try. Stay in shape and let Brisbane come to you.

It’s one thing figuring out how to beat Brisbane, but it’s clearly another thing doing so. Most of what will work well against them are the very things they are good at. Trying to get in their faces or kicking them off the park will not work. Their conquerors will need to copy their best elements by playing their way out of trouble and committing men to attack. But the only thing about trying to ‘out-Brisbane’ Brisbane is the little problem that Brisbane do it better.

I hope that if Roar are stopped in the finals that it is by a team who out-plays them. I wouldn’t like to see them play so well all season only to be beaten by the sheer luck and circumstance that can so easily provide ‘undeserving’ winners in one-off football matches. Judging by the fact that even an understrength Roar, playing at ‘fortress’ Bluetongue against a full-strength Central Coast team executing a sound gameplan against them, still found a way not to lose, Brisbane Roar 2010-11 are good enough to ensure their fate remains in their own hands.

Mathew Leckie ‘What Ifs’

A nation is in uproar after one of its brightest talents was dealt a cruel injury setback on Friday night. Mathew Leckie is out for around two months with a serious knee injury after being cut down by Surat Sukha early in Adelaide’s loss to Melbourne, and half of Australia is out for justice.

Craig Foster tweeted that he wanted the Match Review Panel to ban Sukha for one match and Michael Roucek over at The Football Sack reckons the FFA and referees need to protect certain types of players. Yes, it is truly disappointing that a potential Socceroo’s development has been put on hold because of injury, and that injury was definitely caused by an illegal tackle. But I believe the emotion of that disappointment is clouding people’s logic. The seriousness of injuries caused by fouls certainly shouldn’t dictate the punishment for the tackler. And we definitely can’t enter territory, as Roucek has essentially suggested, where there are certain rules for one set of players and another for others. The referees and the MRP can only be expected to follow the laws of the game.

In my opinion, Sukha was going for the ball, which was bouncing along at knee height. Leckie’s pace deceived the Thai, allowing him to get an extra touch in before the tackle arrived. But Leckie also made the contact worse by pushing his body across the line of the incoming tackle to protect the ball. This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, but that’s an argument for another day. The unfortunate timing of the impact, where Leckie’s left leg was carrying his full weight as Sukha took it out, caused the injury. Leckie induced the foul and paid the price. He certainly isn’t to blame – it was just one of those things in football. Sukha should have received a yellow card – the referee certainly made an error there.

If you disagree with any of the above paragraph, that’s fine, and everything is up for debate. But what I don’t like is that people are irrationally calling for retrospective punishment and generally making a big fuss about what was just another dodgy A-League tackle simply because they’re pissed off about the resultant injury. So, I have devised the following hypothetical scenarios to argue that all this hype is out of order.

Role reversal: Consider what the reaction would have been like if it had been Leckie injuring Sukha. It’s hard to imagine many people making a scapegoat out of our precious future Socceroo if it had just been a low-impact import out for a couple of months. Consider the non-existant coverage of Kevin Muscat’s cheeky trip on Henrique, which led the Brazilian’s broken arm, to further prove that point. To flip it again, if Muscat had done that to Leckie, the challenge would have had been hyper-analysed as the Sukha one has and it would have been Muscat’s head people wanted.

Sliding doors: Minutes before Leckie was injured, he put in a late, meaty challenge on Robbie Kruse which sent the Victory striker rolling on the ground. Unlike Sukha’s tackle, a foul was given. But what if Kruse had been seriously injured from this, and Leckie hadn’t been later? What if then the MRP banned Leckie for a week? Foster would be at the front of the queue of outraged fans and pundits blaming the FFA for sidelining a future Socceroo over a mere foul.

Knee-jerk reaction: What if Leckie’s knee had been stronger? The question hasn’t been asked as to whether he should have even been playing since his taped-up knee was clearly still recovering form its previous injury, but let’s not go there right now. Let’s just imagine that Sukha had performed exactly the same foul and Leckie had been able to get up, play on, and maybe even score a cracker. The foul wouldn’t have been afterthought. If pundits were to then seriously come out and claim that Sukha should be banned for a match, they would be laughed out of town. The reaction to that would be: if the MRP bans Sukha for that, they are going to be busy rubbing out half the players from every team every single week.

Clearly, the level of damage to Leckie’s knee, and the fact that it was Leckie being tackled, and the fact it was the dispensable Sukha doing the tackling, has thrown a different perception on what was really just a run-of-the-mill foul, the likes of which you see half a dozen in any football match. In my opinion, the amount of focus that has been put on this shows a certain level of immaturity in the level of debate in Australian football .

I am all for stamping out foul play and I’m all for the Australian football mission, which dictates that the A-League should exist to develop the Leckies of the world, not see them cut down. But let’s not let our collective desire to see that mission fulfilled cloud our judgment. There’s no need for retroactive punishment or some FFA directive. This was just bad luck.

Melbourne Derby preview

GENERAL SHAPE

Both sides will adopt 4-3-3 shapes that approach the 4-2-3-1: One of the central midfielders pushes ahead of the other two with two wingers pushing high to support a central striker. For Heart, Gerald Sibon is the man who pushes on. For Victory, Carlos Hernandez. Both teams only tend to leave one midfielder sitting in front of the back four when they attack, and for both, that man rotates during the match so expect to see Leigh Broxham and Billy Celeski take turns sitting deeper for Victory, and Josip Skoko and Wayne Srhoj doing so for Heart.

Heart’s defence

Heart only have half of their first choice back four available, with Matt Thompson dropping in for injured Simon Colosimo and Aziz Behich covering Dean Heffernan at left back. In Heart’s last match against Brisbane Roar, their defence fell apart, particularly when Colosimo went off. But Beauchamp is back and his organisational skills will be vital. Thompson’s decision-making was poor in that unfamiliar role against Roar and he will have to pick his moments to close down Hernandez or cut off his passing options. If Thompson plays as left stopper next to Behich, that side could be a weakness for Victory to exploit through Tom Pondeljak and Ricardinho.

The middle third

Heart were literally overrun in midfield against Roar. The trio of Skoko, Srhoj and Sibon aren’t particularly mobile and John van’t Schip should really use Nick Kalmar in there to provide better balance. But Roar’s midfield like to do the work with their feet, whereas Victory like to make the ball do the work. So Heart stand a far better chance tonight of keeping some level of control there, and also keeping the ball easier without the likes of Matt McKay and Massimo Murdocca snapping at their heels. Victory’s main problem has been creating chances this season, so the performance of Hernandez is crucial. He will look to play early through balls for Pondeljak, Ricardinho and Robbie Kruse when Heart’s makeshift defence don’t get their line right.

KEVIN MUSCAT

Down Victory’s end of the pitch, they have been in fantastic defensive form since Kevin Muscat got injured. The combination of Roddy Vargas and Adrian Leijer with regulation fullbacks either side has a nicer balance to it than a defence involving Muscat. But in a sell-out first-ever Melbourne derby, the influence of Muscat will be crucial and he had to be selected. Leijer will try to do a job at right back but more play will start through Muscat in the centre than through the fullbacks as in recent weeks. The sheer presence of Muscat will surely have a say on the outcome of the match, such is his unrivalled ability to influence football games and referees.

PREDICTION

Identical shapes, similar benches, this is an evenly matched affair and both sides will have their moments. But that understrength Heart defence and the Kevin-Muscat factor should see Victory edge it in a close one, probably through a Muscat penalty.

Don’t hate the bid

How did it get to this?

A couple of short months ago Australia’s 2022 World Cup bid was a source of excitement and hope for the future of our code. Now it seems the bid is the evil nemesis of the A-League, a vehicle for the growing frustration towards the FFA among the Australian fanbase.

The perception of the bid has been transformed. We’ve heard the bid blamed for the A-League’s struggles by club owners and others. We’ve seen the FFA criticised for taking their eye off the ball by focusing too much on the bid at the expense of everything else. And now, in places such as the comments section of this bid story on FourFourTwo, there is evidence that many fans are convinced that Bid=Bad.

The purpose of this post isn’t to be an FFA apologist, because I’m not one, but I do hope to bring some perspective to the situation. Because it’s now less than two months until the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups are announced and we should all be freaking excited. December 2, 2010 has the potential to go down in Australian football history as an even bigger landmark than November 16, 2005. People shouldn’t lose sight of that for the sake of FFA hate.

In my opinion, if the FFA had to prioritise one of its key tasks this year, it was totally right to put the bid first. Again, that’s not to say the FFA hasn’t erred when it comes to the management of the A-League – clearly it has to a lesser or greater extent. But it’s natural that a focus on the bid would be to the detriment of the domestic game. Any minute Frank Lowy, Ben Buckley and co are spending on the bid is a minute not spent dealing with A-League, grassroots and other issues. The bid campaign is a temporary yet critical function of the FFA, so while some of the workload can be delegated to contractors paid for out of the Federal Government bid grant, it’s logical that the FFA would be stretched thin during the campaign process before returning to normality afterwards.

You only have to read John O’Neill’s autobiography to understand the influence of Frank Lowy over the FFA and particularly the CEO. Lowy is a smart man who doesn’t tolerate second best. I don’t think Buckley is as incompetent as some like to believe, or else he wouldn’t have lasted. If Lowy is waiting until December 2 to make that judgment, so be it. But, how do I put this, I tend to think that some A-League neglect has been budgeted. Maybe Lowy and Buckley were willing to cop a hit on the A-League for the sake of giving the bid their full attention, and so the same goes for the FFA’s budget that apparently isn’t being spent on marketing the local game. That ‘hit’ has come in the form of losing Con Constantine and seeing him replaced as Newcastle Jets owner by Nathan Tinkler (an outcome the FFA would probably see as desirable anyway), a drop in crowds and a raft of negative publicity created by disgruntled owners and clubs in financial strife.

If that’s as bad as it gets, perhaps the FFA might say ‘so be it’? For the sake of putting all its eggs in the World Cup basket, to attempt to take this opportunity of a lifetime in the most literal sense of that term, a couple of minor crises on the domestic front might be worth it.

Because, let’s not forget, this IS an opportunity worth making sacrifices for. Let’s imagine Australia’s name gets called on December 2. Every challenge the FFA is facing will suddenly become easier. Companies will be eyeing long-term partnerships with football with a view to piggy-backing off the World Cup fever when it hits in a decade’s time. The most important example will be the free-to-air networks when it comes time to negotiate the new TV deal. Youth participation and development will have a tangible focus. In a wider sense, knowing that the World Cup was on its way to these shores would bring with it Australia’s arrival as a credible football nation, or rather football’s arrival as a credible, relevant, mainstream sport in Australia.

But so what if Australia’s name doesn’t get called on December 2? The FFA could turn its attention back to the A-League, pouring the time, energy and resources that have been missing back where they are desperately needed. We’ve endured a rough patch, for sure, but for the potential pay-off I’ve outlined above (in reality I didn’t scratch the surface) it has surely been worth the risk. We’d have stagnated for three years in the pursuit of a free pass to take the game forward thirty years in the space of ten.

It’s not so easy to tell passionate fans that their beloved clubs have to grin and bear it while the FFA’s attentions are elsewhere – maybe that’s why we see so little of Buckley. But the bigger neglect for the A-League, and Australian football on the whole, would be to leave a stone unturned in the cutthroat race for FIFA ExCo votes.

So as we approach D-Day, I say let every one of Buckley’s secret trips to China be welcomed, let every dollar the FFA wrings out of the government be celebrated, and let the lack of marketing spend on the A-League be tolerated, in the hope that it’s all for the greater good of our game.