Zlatan Ibrahimovic won’t fix Perth Glory’s biggest problem

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For the past week, Perth has been abuzz with talk about the prospect of Zlatan Ibrahimović jetting in to sign with the Glory.

It made headlines in the state’s major newspaper, caught the eye of the Eurosnobs and had the Glory faithful giddy with excitement, even though the signing is still a long shot.

However, the club were promptly brought back to earth with a 2-1 loss at home to Central Coast, a game in which the Mariners played the more purposeful football and Perth looked devoid of ideas. Tony Popovic’s tried and tested 3-4-3, with its emphasis on width and wing-backs, looked suspect.

If Perth pulled off a coup and snared Zlatan, he would put backsides on seats, score a few goals, troll the media, bring some great publicity to the league and keep the admins at A-League Memes busy. But is he really what they need?

The Glory happen to have three very good players occupying their forward spots in Diego Castro, Bruno Fornaroli and Chris Ikonomidis. On paper, it’s the most feared front three in the competition, but the trio had little impact against the Mariners, in part due to a disconnect from the midfield.

One of Perth’s biggest issues lies with the central midfield pairing of Neil Kilkenny and Juande. The pair are like-minded, happy to sit back and dictate from deep. But under Popovic’s system, they are encouraged to farm the ball out wide to the overlapping full-backs.

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Last season, this worked a treat and Kilkenny in particular excelled at quickly getting the ball out to the rampaging wing-backs, Ivan Franjic and Jason Davidson. The latter became Perth’s most important attacking outlet outside of Castro as his runs on the left-hand side caused dominoes to fall and created chances.

His departure in the off-season stung Perth and his replacement, Kim Soo-beom has not had the same impact. Despite Davidson’s absence, Kilkenny and Juande continue to look outside as their primary option.

Too many times, Perth’s transition from defence into attack has been sluggish, which has allowed opponents to get behind the ball and cut off passing lanes. All too often, the attack stalls in half-pitch situations as the opposition sits deep and encourages balls out wide, where this is less space, making it easier for defences to deal with.

Brisbane Roar dropped men behind the ball quickly against Perth Glory in Round One.

All too often this season, the Glory’s midfield has not zipped the ball around with the speed to make defences uncomfortable, which has resulted in attacks fizzling out wide as the wing back is either forced to hit a hopeful ball in behind the defence, or play back to the centre backs to restart the phase.

The quickest route to goal is straight up the guts, and Perth, to their detriment, often overlook this. They have fallen so in love with width, that they are overlooking the middle corridor’s importance. This pass map from the Central Coast game illustrates how the midfield wants to play the ball out wide more than directly to the striker’s feet.

The spaces between defence and midfield and midfield and attack are vital to victory. Kilkenny and Juande often receive the ball too deep to have any impact on the attacking phase.

There are holes for Perth to exploit, especially with defences sitting so deep. But neither of the current central midfielders have shown a willingness to push up further and receive the balls in advanced positions. This could be because Popovic wants them to shield the defence, but even so, there is quite often space for them to roam into which would not compromise their defensive duties.

Perth’s midfielders failed to exploit the space in between lines against Central Coast.

If Kilkenny and Juande aren’t pushing up that does leave holes for the forwards to drop into, but for the most part Fornaroli and Ikomomides have stayed high up the pitch, looking for the ball in behind.

Perth need an injection of forward thinking and energy in the heart of midfield. The answer could be Jake Brimmer, the former Liverpool youngster who Popovic has used sparingly. In limited game time, he has shown glimpses of a player he might help arrest the issues, but given he has not been granted an extended run, it’s impossible to anoint him the savoir.

Playing Castro as a trequartista as a 3-4-1-2 seems like a possible solution, but given he already has something of a free role, would it make much of a difference. Against the Mariners, his average position against the Mariners was in the hole and it allowed the visitors to collapse onto him (see below…and worth looking at the space between the midfield and the attack).

Perth Glory’s (light blue) average player position against the Central Coast Mariners. Credit: The Hyundai A-League website.

What Perth Glory really need is someone who can control the midfield, advance the ball up the middle, exploit the space and link midfield with attack, draw defenders in a create openings for others.

Zlatan Ibrahimović? Perth Glory need Andrés Iniesta.

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