Sydney FC will be pushing for their fourth win on the trot as they face Brisbane Roar at Jubilee Stadium for the second time in four days on Saturday night.
Ever since their 2-0 loss against the Central Coast Mariners, Sydney have reverted to a slightly more direct style, looking to capitalise on the creativity of their wide attacking midfielders rather than their deeper playmakers.
Luke Brattan’s Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury hit the sky blues hard, especially when considering the crucial role the 31-year-old has in Sydney’s play in possession.
Against Macarthur FC immediately after Brattan’s injury, it appeared that Rhyan Grant had taken up some sort of playmaking responsibility with the more direct Elvis Kamsoba as an attacking midfielder in front of him.
He looked to bend passes behind the Macarthur defence to Kamsoba and the two strikers with the inside of his right boot in classic Brattan style while remaining in his wide role on the right.
However it failed and over the course of the game, Sydney looked stagnant and unexciting, with a 17th minute Lachlan Rose goal giving Macarthur a 1-0 win.
Sydney then made amends for that early concession as they went two goals up in the 30th minute against Newcastle Jets a week later.
The sky blues looked to be finally sailing to their first win of the A-League Men campaign, but a quickfire double from Valentino Yuel saw the points ultimately split.
After a dull 2-0 win in the cup, Sydney was slow out of the blocks against the Central Coast Mariners, again conceding two goals in a short space of time.
They finally broke the duck with their first win of the season coming at home to Wellington Phoenix.
Young destructive midfielder Patrick Yazbek started alongside Paulo Retre in the defensive roles, with Anthony Caceres and Max Burgess playing as the two attacking midfielders.
This left key playmaker Milos Ninković on the bench – the Serbian superstar came on in the 65th minute for Burgess.
The win against Wellington kicked off a winning streak, with Sydney winning their next two games to make it three in a row.
The midfield quartet who started against Wellington remained the same over the triad of victories, with Ninković coming off the bench.
However, head coach Steve Corica has refused to label Ninković as a ‘super-sub’, putting down his lack of starts to a knee injury.
“He’s had a little bit of a problem with his knee and there’s been some swelling”, he said.
“That’s the reason why he’s been starting on the bench.
“He’s feeling better now, I think he had a bit of a break with COVID as well and he’s come back better for it.
“I’m sure at some stage he’ll be back starting again.”
However, it is interesting to look at Sydney’s success without Ninković in the side.
In Max Burgess, Sydney has a more direct attacking midfielder, someone who looks to carry possession forwards when possible, take on players in 1v1 situations and reach the byline for cutbacks, which suits the trademark runs Sydney attacking midfielders make to get in behind through channels.
Meanwhile, Anthony Caceres was described as a ‘cheat code’ in 4v4 training sessions by teammate Adam Le Fondre, with Corica echoing the Englishmen’s praises.
“I think the strength of Caceres is that not only is he defensively very good in that position, but he’s techincally very good”, he said.
“He loves to dribble with the ball and in tight areas he’s amazing.
“He’s obviously creative goals for us – we want him to score more goals and I think that’s what he needs to improve on in his game.
“I think he’s been exceptional this season so far.”
Ninković is an all-round player in possession- he is highly capable of retaining and progressing the ball from build-up while also when in attacking transitions.
He is fantastic at picking the perfect moment to play the incisive pass and often does it out of his usual running stride, making it near impossible for defenders to read.
Joel King has also looked less comfortable without Ninković in the side – Burgess is more of an individualistic attacker, whereas Ninković’s aim is always to make space for others with passes and carries.
Both options have worked well at different points of the season, but are vastly different and that shows in King’s game when playing behind Ninković or Burgess.
“Caceres and Burgess have been doing a fantastic job – obviously we’ve had three wins in a row and they’ve played all three games”, said Corica.
“Ninković is a great option whether he starts or is off the bench.”
A key facet of Sydney’s attacking play was Ninković’s ability to hold possession, draw in the opposition right-back and then slide in King, who had space and time to pick out a cross.
This was where a high volume of King’s chance creation came from, and Ninković’s absence could help explain his drop off in form so far this campaign.
Without Ninković, Sydney has looked a more direct and athletic side.
Caceres and Burgess have looked fantastic individually, and both bring different traits to the table, as well as athleticism in defence, which has faded from Ninković’s game as the years go by.
However, Ninković covers both Caceres’ and Burgess’ positive characteristics in possession in his quality and vision both on and off the ball, and whilst he may be dimming defensively, his ability to improve the players around him and his familiarity with Sydney’s system makes him near impossible to drop – simply put, he’s Milos Ninković!
Corica consistently spoke of the vast amount of games coming up for Sydney, which will see the midfield four changed consistently over the next month, meaning the positives and negatives of having Ninković in the side will become clearer as he racks up more minutes.
But the positive for Sydney is that, previously, the sky blues have looked lost and abundantly worse with Ninković out of the side.
Now, they finally have a solution – and a possible transition plan – as Milos Ninković grows older.