17/04/2024
Max Burgess celebrates his goal over the Wanderers during last season's derby. Photo credit: Joshua Davis

Max Burgess celebrates his goal over the Wanderers during last season's derby. Photo credit: Joshua Davis

Sydney FC headed across town to the Wanderers last Saturday, with a secret weapon at their disposal: the Leipzig press.

The Sky Blues were relentless out of possession, pressing the Wanderers in their own half with a lot of intensity.

This gameplan, aptly described by commentator Simon Hill as the “Leipzig press”, proved far too much for Western Sydney, who struggled to do much more than turn the ball over in the first half.

So, why was this press so effective? How did Sydney adjust the system? And why were the Wanderers left all at sea?

What is the ‘Leipzig press’?

RB Leipzig, under the stewardship of Ralph Rangnick, and later the now-German national team coach Julian Nagelsmann, adopted a highly aggressive style of play.

The logic is simple – make your opposition turn the ball over as close to the box as possible.

To enable this, Leipzig used a very high line – with even the deepest defender set up in the opposition’s half – which keeps the shape high but compact.

Accompanying the high line is a three- or four-man press, meaning that when the ball is turned over, there are enough bodies around the ball to be able to keep possession and create a chance.

This scheme has cemented Leipzig’s place as one of Germany’s top clubs, and they are the current holders of the DFB-Pokal trophy after back-to-back winning cup campaigns.

What did Sydney FC do?

While Sydney FC has been one of the most effective pressing teams in the league this season, forcing more high turnovers than any other club, the press they used in the Sydney Derby took things to another level.

The Sky Blues have been aided by the signing of David Zdrilic as an assistant coach in late 2023.

Zdrilic spent four years in the Leipzig system from 2017 to 2020 as the club’s under 17 and under 19 assistant coach, and was pivotal in helping implement the “Leipzig press” throughout the RB Leipzig system.

Clearly using Zdrilic’s knowledge of this system, Sydney FC took the fight to the Wanderers straight from kick off.

Because of the heavy press initiated by a front four of Burgess, Mak, Gomes and Lolley, Sydney found themselves in a 4-2-4 defensive structure.

Much like Leipzig, the Sky Blues held a very high line, meaning that had the Wanderers managed to bypass the press, they would have been met with a wall of Sydney defenders.

On the other hand, if the Wanderers tried to play over the top, it was likely they would be offside – as indeed they were seven times during the match.

The press itself operated in a pinching manner, encouraging the Wanderers to play the ball towards the sideline or corner, boxing them in. It looked something like this:

Diagram showing Sydney FC’s take on the “Leipzig press”. Design by Jacob Stevens.

One difference you’ll notice to the Leipzig press is that Sydney didn’t have four players around the ball, opting instead for two or three.

This could have been for a number of reasons. Firstly, it may have been a deliberate approach to not concede a massive amount of space in the midfield.

It could also have been down to the calibre of players Sydney have, and backing them to fashion chances for themselves rather than with quick interplay.

Whatever the reason, it was too much for Western Sydney to handle.

Why did the Wanderers struggle so much?

The Wanderers were set up and executed their gameplan in a way that did themselves no favours.

In fact, Marko Rudan, on his return to the touchline after serving a ban, took full responsibility for his side’s poor performance.

Interestingly, Rudan also praised David Zdrilic, rather than head coach Ufuk Talay, post-game for the way he set up the Sydney FC press.

Rudan must have known then, that Sydney FC posed a threat with their press, but as he acknowledged, he failed to set his team up to counter that.

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Western Sydney played far too passively in possession, with their lateral passes across the backline serving as encouragement to the Sky Blues to continue their intense press.

Additionally, key player Brandon Borrello had poor positional play. Opting to play as a lone striker, he couldn’t offer an attacking option because Sydney’s high line kept things compact.

However, he didn’t adjust his play to accommodate a deeper role – he stuck to his guns and failed to involve himself in a meaningful way.

The Wanderers players also couldn’t dribble through the press, with Sydney more than happy to concede a foul (which they did 18 times) and stop the move before it could amount to anything.

Western Sydney’s full backs were also too aggressive, at times leaving just two defenders to handle the Sydney onslaught, as was the case for Mak’s goal.

These issues compounded on the night to put the game to bed before the Wanderers even got a sniff of goal.

The result sees Sydney go two points clear of the Wanderers to hold fifth spot, while Western Sydney fall even closer to the pack chasing that precious last finals spot.

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