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Sport: The Australian Disease -

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

December 18th 2011 04:35
Grand final win over Central Coast
Brisbane Roar's superior system led them to a win over the Central Coast Mariners in last season's grand final. Photo: Geoff Auckland.

Now is not the time to panic for the Brisbane Roar.

Their record 36-game unbeaten run has given way to a losing streak that currently stands at four.

Thankfully, coach Ange Postecoglou is no Corporal Jones and is refusing to panic.

The key to Brisbane’s success in the last two seasons has been the system Postecoglou has created. It has made average players look good and good players look great. In other words, it has made the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

His system demands hard work, discipline, intelligence and teamwork – on and off the field.

During games, players are expected to create space, make runs and look for teammates. That means movement, movement, movement.

The philosophy is exemplified by the way defensive midfielder Erik Paartalu drops back to start attacks, fullbacks Ivan Franjic and Shane Stefanutto surge down the wings, midfielder Mitch Nichols buzzes around the hole and striker Besart Berisha darts between his markers.

And that’s just when Brisbane have the ball. When they don’t, the players quickly harry the opposition to win it back.

To learn and perfect the system required countless training sessions, because it meant unlearning old habits and painstakingly acquiring new ones.

Postecoglou deserves enormous credit for having had the foresight and courage to implement a system unique to Australian football.

He understood he had to go backwards before he could go forwards. That’s why he kicked out Brisbane’s core of recalcitrant veterans after replacing Frank Farina halfway through the 2009-10 season.

Few coaches would have had the nerve to dump Craig Moore, Danny Tiatto, Charlie Miller and Liam Reddy. Dumping the stars didn’t guarantee success; all it guaranteed was that the club would go backwards, at least in the short term, and put enormous pressure on Postecoglou. Coaching positions are difficult to attain yet he was prepared to risk his in pursuit of his vision.

The players that remained also deserve praise for being willing to open their minds and work hard, even when the results initially went against them.

Foresight and toil off the field produced scintillating and successful football on it. In just over a year, Postecoglou and co won the double, bagged a spot in the Asian Champions League and set an Australian professional sporting record that may never be broken.

All credit to the system.

Brisbane’s current losing streak doesn’t mean the system has broken. It is mainly due to some clever thinking from opposition coaches. It also owes something to Brisbane’s bad luck, loss of confidence and loss of form.

It would be tempting to say it was the Mariners that first made the Roar look fallible during several tough encounters late last season. However, that would only be half-right. They showed Brisbane were vulnerable against strong defending, thoughtful passing and incisive attacking – that is, quality football. But every team is. And no A-League side other than Brisbane is currently capable of playing that sort of football.

It was actually Gold Coast that really exposed Brisbane’s vulnerability – paradoxically, during a 3-0 loss in round three. To continue the paradox, Gold Coast coach Miron Bleiberg had the shrewdness to recognise that Brisbane’s irresistible attacking could be traced to the passing and movement of their defence. So to counter Roar’s attack from the back, he instructed his team to defend from the front.

Gold Coast pushed five strikers and midfielders forward to press Paartalu and the back four. Their energy and pressure made the Roar looked more vulnerable in possession than at any time during their unbeaten streak. But Brisbane’s composure proved telling. Recognising that they had an extra man in goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos, they were able to methodically – if riskily – pass their way out of trouble. Once Paartalu scored against the run of play in the 13th minute, confidence and energy drained from the Gold Coast, and the match was as good as over.

But where Bleiberg failed, Sydney FC coach Vitezslav Lavicka succeeded. He used the same pressing tactics to mastermind a 2-0 win and end the Roar’s unbeaten streak. Unlike Bleiberg, Lavicka had the luck go his way. Firstly, Dimitri Petratos’ goal in the opening minute gave Sydney confidence. Secondly, there was no Brisbane goal to drain their belief. Thirdly, the cool weather allowed them to keep pressing. Fourthly, the windy conditions affected the normally slick Roar passing.

Thanks to Bleiberg and Lavicka, A-League coaches now realise the way to beat Brisbane is to defend high up the pitch. They will pass and run you to death if given the chance; so better not to.

But that doesn’t mean Brisbane have suddenly become impotent. Even in their losses they have dominated possession. They still have an excellent system. It just needs refining.

Postecoglou made the first move. It took over a season for his rivals to respond. It is now Postecoglou’s move again. What he needs to do is not move away from his system but to further embrace it.

Enhanced pressure is making it harder and more time-consuming for Brisbane to play out of defence. However, long balls are not the answer. That will only lead to turnovers. Instead, Brisbane need to adopt even more short passing and running. Opposition teams can’t press high up the park without leaving space in midfield. So if Brisbane can eventually play their way into the middle of the park, they will find themselves with more openings than when teams parked the bus. Increased risks will produce increased rewards.

Brisbane may again have to go backwards to go forwards. If they continue trying to play out from the back in the face of ever increasing opposition pressure, they may go through a period during which they reguarly concede possession in dangerous areas, and subsequently cheap goals.

But the more they work on it – in training and during games – the better they will get at it. That will then spell even more danger for opposition teams than before, as they will have fewer defenders to combat Brisbane’s dynamic attack.

Don’t panic, Postecoglou. The system works and could make you the first coach to win consecutive A-League titles. That would be no more than you and your team deserve.

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4 Comments. [ Add A Comment ]

Comment by Buck

December 18th 2011 08:18
You are quite right. And it appears as though the while league is improving thanks to postecoglou's vision.

Comment by Nick Bendel

December 18th 2011 10:09
You make a good point, Buck.

Coaches like Postecoglou are encouraging other coaches to play passing footbal and improving the A-League as a result.

Although Adelaide obviously didn't get the message when it decided to go back to the future and hire the buffoon, John Kosmina.

Comment by The Dogboy

January 4th 2012 00:34
Nice article Nick. Good analysis, I agree fully.

Although your comment on Kosmina is a bit bit harsh . . . . on other buffoons. Better description would be a knucklehead!

Comment by Nick Bendel

January 4th 2012 05:31
Yes, I was a bit harsh on buffoons, Dogboy.

Kossie has the top job until the end of the season. I'll be curious to see whether or not he is then handed permanent control.

For the sake of Adelaide, and the A-League, I hope not.

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