Regulation as their win on Monday evening might have been, Western United coach Mark Rudan’s deployment of a brand new defensive front against the Newcastle Jets has added a new dimension to the A-League side's run to the finals.
Rudan has deployed a five-player defensive front - three centre-backs flanked by two wing-backs - almost exclusively throughout his tenure at United; the formation helping the club reach a semi-final in their first year of existence in 2019-20.
The Western gaffer had seriously toyed with the idea of deploying the altered defensive front during the following pre-season but, with the disjointed and chaotic nature of the 2020-21 fixture list looming, opted to dance with the one that brought him once the campaign began.
That was, at least, until Monday evening; as Western downed the Jets 2-0 in a manner that indicated change was afoot.
Connor Pain, Andrew Durante, Tomoki Imai, and Josh Risdon took up positions in front of goalkeeper Ryan Scott as Western’s second-last line of defence when their side lost possession, with nominal wing-back Dylan Pierias moving to the right of a midfield three alongside Steven Lustica and Victor Sanchez.
It was a tactical decision that paid off, with Western easing to the win - the first time they had recorded points in three straight games this campaign - and largely minimising the impact of Newcastle midfielders Steven Ugarkovic, Luka Prso, and Angus Thurgate.
Though not as flashy in his play as fellow Europeans Alessandro Diamanti and Besart Berisha, Sanchez played an important and anchoring role throughout the evening, while Olyroo hopeful Pierias added yet another string to his bow as he pushes for Tokyo selection.
“The opposition, us, there’s always different things that I base the decision on,” Rudan said when quizzed on the formational switch.
“But the back four worked well. We’ve spoken about it and worked on it at times throughout the season. We obviously did a lot more work on it on Sunday.
“It’s about giving clear, simple instructions with the ball and without the ball [and] I thought it worked really well.
“Newcastle are a team who historically against us, within two passes they break our lines and put us under pressure. So I thought I’d switch that around and put a bit more pressure on the ball, have an extra player higher up the park and I thought it worked extremely well.
“And that’s credit to all the players for taking all the information and, more importantly, executing. I thought it worked extremely well, they were very disciplined in their shape and moved the ball around really well.
“It comes down to the professionalism of the players to be able to execute knowing that we hadn’t worked on it too much for this game.”
The three points earned at AAMI Park on Monday evening moved Western United into the top-six, with the green and black side sitting just four points back from second-placed Central Coast Mariners and possessing at least a game in hand over all of their nearest rivals.
While their upcoming four-game road trip - a Contiki tour, as Rudan puts it - against Adelaide United, Brisbane Roar, Western Sydney Wanderers, and Perth Glory represents a significant test of their finals bonafides, the sophomore team is seemingly well-placed to play finals football.
With turnarounds short and training preparation thus limited, the ability of Western to seamlessly switch between a back five and back four could loom large as the season winds down: offering a level of flexibility and unpredictability in approach for encounters where both belligerents are seeking any little advantage they can get.
“It does give you a bit of assurance, knowing that you can always switch it up when you need to,” Rudan said. “I like to switch things and tweak things.
“Maybe it’s a shock factor too. Sometimes in the league when you play each other three times it’s easy to prepare yourself.
“For us to be able to switch to a back four as seamlessly as we did tonight I think will pose more questions for opposition teams and, more importantly, give us a lot more confidence knowing that we can do that at the drop of a hat against any team as well.”