“Balance, clearly, is part of it, but there must also be intelligence: endlessly repeating the same trick may have attacking intent, but the effect is tedium,” Jonathan Wilson wrote in 2016, on Louis van Gaal’s struggles with Manchester United.
“Attacking is, like so much in football, nebulous and is largely dependent on context.”
Though football has always been a fluid game, the line between what constitutes attacking and defensive football has become increasingly blurred. Conceptually, the modern game is more a matter of the active and reactive.
With more compressed lines further facilitating the ability to counter, attacking intent without the ball has largely muddled ideas on collective functionality in possession.
If not all, the majority of teams in the A-League live in this vast mass of grey. With their energy and little else in a 1-1 draw at home to Melbourne City on Friday, Adelaide United underlined their status as the Most A-League Team in the A-League.
This season under Marco Kurz has consisted of highly fluctuating but not particularly confusing results – salvaging a draw with 10 men at home to Central Coast Mariners followed by losses to Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory in the past month – with this in context.
Though much has been said of the fact the Reds rank first in total shots in the A-League this season (328) but only eighth in total goals (25), it has less to do with profligacy than the type of shots they are generating.
Their strongest attribute is their pace. With explosive speed out wide via the likes of Nikola Mileusnic, Ryans Kitto and Strain, along with Ben Garuccio, they have enough to effectively counter and exploit the opposition in space.
While it can be deemed logical to use the speed they have from overlapping full-backs in Strain, Garuccio and to a lesser extent Michael Marrone, Adelaide’s possession with the opposition defence embedded borders on the one-dimensional and tedious.
When the onus is on Adelaide to be active over the course of a match, as opposed to reactive, they struggle to penetrate and apply pressure. At the heart of it lies their movement in central midfield.
Either due to their own spatial awareness or direction from coaches, central midfielders in the A-League aren’t generally inclined to receive the ball in positions that make defenders face their own goal. Isaías is the standard bearer, if one can call it that.
Before this round, the Spaniard led the team in passes per 90 minutes at 57.1. While assists don’t tell the whole story in weighing up a midfielder’s performance, for someone who has that big an influence on a team’s phases of possession to have a solitary assist in a season – a long ball in transition to Mileusnic at home to Perth – is concerning.
Added to that, Isaías holds roughly the same figure in key passes per 90 (1.72) as left-back Garuccio (1.65). Daniel Adlung and the Adelaide captain rarely take possession between the defensive and midfield lines, contributing to their first and second rank in the team for possessions per 90 at 62.1 and 59.9 respectively.
As a result, the team has little option but to shift the ball out wide, mostly leading to low-percentage outcomes that come from crosses. Adelaide lead the league in crosses per 90 at 17.87, with a total of 411 for the season – a mammoth 136 more than the next highest total within the current top six.
The pattern continued on Friday night despite Johan Absalonsen’s return to the starting line-up, with the Reds putting in 17 crosses at an accuracy of 17.6%, at only 44.6% possession.
Outside of transitional phases, this is how the bulk of Adelaide’s shot attempts are generated and unless the cross is in early, defences should be able to put enough pressure on the primary attempt or spill to minimise exposure to the goalkeeper.
Though Nathan Konstandopoulos’ clever run opened up play for Absalonsen’s opener, Mileusnic’s ability to pick that pass when isolated out wide has been sporadic to this point.
It is why, as Wilson noted, balance is key. The capability to act as well as react, and in this instance playing through the defence, as well as around it, needs advanced movement without the ball from midfield to create a sustainable threat.
Otherwise, if they make the post-season, Adelaide’s potential for success will ultimately depend on the opposition.