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?



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Review: Sydney's Pulsating Derby Draw

​What a great game of football.

The 1-1 draw suits the Wanderers more than it does Sydney FC but, at times, one should simply stand back and admire the spectacle. This was one such occasion and the Sydney Derby produced a pulsating game of football.

The “F” word – flares – made no appearance at Allianz Stadium in the third Sydney Derby of the season. It begs the question:

Did the morons who behaved so disgracefully at Docklands a fortnight ago restrain themselves due to the suspended three point sentence?

Or was the RBB entirely aware of the identity of the flare throwers the entire time and managed to weed them out in the ensuing fortnight? It is food for thought – perhaps fear of losing their team a vital three points is all the deterrence idiots need after all.

To matters onfield and Fox Sports’s decision to give its Player of the Match award to Matt Jurman was justified. However, this column cannot split Milos Ninkovic, again outstanding, and Matt Simon for top honours.

Still on Fox and what gives with its decision not to replay linesmen’s offside decisions throughout the telecast that went to homes Australia-wide?

The Wanderers’ early goal failed to deflate the hosts but one must pause to admire Mark Bridge’s pinpoint cross and Dario Vidosic’s perfectly directed glancing header. Some will recall a similar header at the SFS by Argentina striker Abel Balbo off a Diego Maradona cross in 1993, beating the despairing dive of Socceroo great Mark Bosnich in a World Cup qualifier that had also ended 1-1 that night 23 years ago.

Chances continued end to end and David Carney, creative throughout the night, should have equalized following his one on one with new WSW number one, Liam Reddy.

Twenty minutes in, the balance of the game had begun to shift. Minutes after Reddy’s save off Carney, Matt Simon unleashed a curling drive from outside the penalty area, hitting the crossbar.

Sydney was now laying siege to the visitors’ goal. And as Jurman attempted to prize the ball off Reddy for another in a series of corners, the classless former Sydney keeper threw the ball into the face of the Sydney defender. The yellow card was much deserved for a keeper whose attitude has cost him a number of professional contracts throughout his career.

Sydney’s equalizer came courtesy of an excellent Sky Blue move. Ryall’s through ball for Holosko was perfectly weighted, the Slovak’s low cross beat everyone before Brosque’s flick off Carney’s delivery deflected off Scott Jamieson to trickle in past a wrongfooted Reddy.

Halftime and with Simon engaged in a verbal battle as both sets of players were walking off the pitch, many failed to spot Mitch Nichols run up from behind and elbow the striker in the back before scurrying off the field in a cowardly fashion. If the measure of the man is how he acts when he believes his actions are invisible, Nichols certainly revealed his character with a classless act of his own.

If the first half was, overall, more Wanderers than Sydney FC, the second presented an entirely different picture. Perhaps inspired by Simon’s chase of a lost cause in the first minute after the break, the Sky Blues had by far the better of the chances and while both sides chased victory, it was the hosts who looked more likely to take all three points.

Simon was everywhere and should have put Sydney in front. Five minutes into the second half, the former Mariner needed to take advantage of his skipper’s cross but just failed to hit the target and a minute later, his long-range lob cleared the crossbar by centimetres, with Reddy backpedalling.

Not long after, Rhyan Grant’s perfectly delivered left footed delivery found a rising Simon, whose downward header was saved by Reddy. As for Grant himself, the fullback began tentatively but gave a terrific account of himself to return to form following an atrocious 45 minutes against Perth Glory last weekend. Arnold’s show of faith in the Sydney stalwart certainly paid off. 

If somebody had told a rusted-on Sydney fan that Matt Simon, of all people, would, one day, receive a standing ovation at Allianz Stadium, medical help would have been suggested. But the big man had clearly won the crowd over with his endeavour and enterprise and the Sky Blue faithful showed Simon their appreciation as he left the field with a half hour to play.

The last twenty minutes became a war of attrition as both sets of players succumbed to fatigue following their end-to-end battle but there was still time for Carney to sky a difficult chance in the 86th minute and three minutes into injury time, substitute Andrew Hoole should have crowned a glorious Sydney counterattack but, as ever, froze under pressure to place his curling effort just wide.

In all, 1-1 was a fair result, though Sydney had the better of the chances, Janjetovic’s two wonder saves - one in each half off Vidosic - notwithstanding. The draw keeps Sydney in the Top 6 by a mere point following Glory’s 6-3 win against Brisbane Roar late on Saturday night.

In all, Sydney’s was a very good team performance, bouncing back from the Perth disaster last weekend. From the back to the front, every player put in a terrific shift and, as has been the case this entire season, it was only the finishing that let the hosts down in key moments.

The Sky Blues fly out to Japan to prepare for their Asian Champions League opener against Urawa Red Diamonds on Wednesday night. Derby fatigue won’t help, though Arnold will freshen up his squad by bringing in Mikael Tavares, Milos Dimitrijevic, Ali Abbas, Shane Smeltz and perhaps even Andrew Hoole for a contest in which Sydney are likely to have no more than 40% of the ball.

The Sky Blues go into the game as underdogs but if they keep their discipline and concentration, they could not only walk away from Saitama with a point but perhaps pinch all three.

And wouldn’t that be a story.


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