It is difficult to describe the Western Sydney Wanderers 2020-21 season as anything other than a monumental disappointment.
The players and manager alike were clear in their ambitions to end the club’s long finals drought and compete for silverware. However, after a wildly inconsistent season, the Wanderers finished in 8th place, four points off the final’s places.
Despite criticism towards manager Carl Robinson mounting as the season went on, the Wanderers hierarchy have kept their faith in the Welshman and have allowed him to undertake a significant revamp of the squad.
Out went the likes of Graham Dorrans, Nicolai Muller, Dylan McGowan, and Bruce Kamau; and in their place came a wealth of players with A-League pedigree.
Rhys Williams, John Koutroumbis and Adama Traore have been bought in to strengthen a leaky defence, Terry Antonis looks set to partner Steven Ugarkovic in midfield, and Ramy Najjarine, Tomer Hemed and Dimitri Petratos are hoping to be the difference makers in attack.
Western Sydney’s recruitment has generated much excitement and has led many to predict that the Wanderers could be one of the most improved teams in the upcoming season.
Kick360 will look at how Carl Robinson likes to set up the Wanderers, where the new signings may fit in, and areas where the Wanderers may wish to bolster before the season starts.
How they lined up last season:
More often than not, Carl Robinson chose to employ a three-at-the back formation with marauding wing backs. There were multiple variations of how the midfield and forward line was set up, but the most common shaped adopted last season was the 3-4-1-2.
The idea behind this set up was for the ball to be won in midfield, where the midfield pairing would then distribute the ball to either the overlapping fullbacks or the number 10, who would then be in prime positions to provide premium service to the two strikers.
While this – and the other variations of three-at-the-back formations – resulted in the Wanderers scoring the second most goals last season (43 in total), it left them extremely vulnerable to counter attacks.
Often the ball was lost in the midfield due to a numerical disadvantage; this led to teams overwhelming the Wanderers’ midfield and exploiting the space left behind the wing backs. This would drag the centre backs out of position, leading to acres of space for opposition attackers.
These defensive deficiencies were compounded by the struggles of new signings James Troisi and Bernie Ibini; they were bought in by Robinson specifically to make this system work, yet their inconsistency severely hampered the Wanderers.
Kamau picked up some of the slack chipping in with nine goals and an assist, it wasn’t enough to help build over the cracks.
Robinson would occasionally deviate from this set up and employ a back four, most notably in the home Sydney Derby.
The back four and two defensive midfielders allowed for a solid low block that successfully stifled Sydney FC’s star-studded attack, whilst having the wingers start in a higher position up the pitch limited the influence of their fullbacks.
It also provided Western Sydney’s front four the opportunity to fully expose the spaces in behind the Sydney midfield and defence. And they duly obliged, putting on a counter-attacking masterclass to shock their eternal rivals and win 3-2.
How they might line up this season:
Despite some Wanderers fans growing frustrated with Robinson’s persistence with the three-at-the-back, it is highly likely that the Wanderers will continue with this set up at least at the start of the season. And the signings seem to support this.
The experienced Rhys Williams will most likely slot straight into the starting 11, accompanying Ziggy Gordon and one of Tass Mourdoukoutas, Mark Natta and fellow new signing Koutroumbis.
Adama Traore, despite not having his best season at eventual wooden spooner’s Melbourne Victory, is versatile in being able to play as a conventional full-back as well as a more adventurous wing-back that Robinson prefers.
His 1.29 progressive runs per game is in the upper tier of full-backs, meaning he can offer both defensive solidity and attacking impetus. He can also act as a mentor for the likes of Thomas Aquilina, Tate Russell and Daniel Wilmering as they continue their development.
Further up the field, the duo of Ramy Najjarine and Tomer Hemed look to be direct replacements for Bruce Kamau and Mitch Duke respectively. Najjarine’s numbers in ball retention (5.05 per 90 minutes) and progressive runs (3.03 per 90 minutes) is well above the league and positional average. Hemed meanwhile finished the season strongly last year, with six goals in his last five games, with his overall goal tally finishing at 11.
Perhaps the most exciting signing, however, is the loan signing of Dimitri Petratos from the Saudi Arabian side Al Wehda.
With 48 goals in 198 A-League games, he has the ability to play across the front four and has the quality and attacking spark to win a game all by himself.
With all of this in mind, here are some ways the Wanderers could be lining up come the commencement of the campaign.
This is one example of a 3-4-2-1 formation that is suitable for the Wanderers’ additions. The defence and midfield are largely the same as last season, however in this case, Najjarine and Petratos would play just in behind and wide of the lone striker Hemed.
Najjarine would play down the left hand side, where he can take on defenders with his pace, whilst putting Petratos on the right would allow for him to cut in onto his stronger left foot and utilise his ability to test the keeper from distance and giving more space for the electric Russell to gallop down the field.
And whilst there is still a numerical disadvantage in midfield, the experience and greater physicality of Ugarkovic and Antonis compared to Keanu Baccus would make this problem less common.
If Robinson opts for a more conservative gameplan, for example against the likes of Melbourne City or Sydney FC where their quality in attack could expose the open spaces in behind the Wanderers’ midfield and defence, he can also reintroduce the 4-2-3-1.
Here, Ziggy Gordon shifts to right back to offer more defensive stability, whilst Troisi is introduced as the number 10.
If Antonis and Ugarkovic are able to get Troisi early ball, then the attacking midfielder’s ability to put quick through balls past a retreating defence could allow for Najjarine and Petratos to cause havoc on the counter.
Both of these formations do have their drawbacks, however. In addition to the defensive issues seen with the 3-at-the-back formations, the 4-2-3-1 may be less effective when the Wanderers want to play on the front foot or are chasing a game.
A potential compromise could see Robinson try something new and adopt a 4-3-3.
Here, one of Antonis or Ugarkovic would act as a defensive midfielder in front of the back four, whilst the latter would play as a deeper lying playmaker alongside Keanu Baccus, whose energy would allow him to function as a box-to-box midfielder and to connect with the front three.
This formation could see Gordon return to centre back, allowing the more offensive Tate Russell to bomb forward, with the knowledge that he has adequate defensive cover behind him.
On paper, this could be the most balanced formation of the three. It allows for the Wanderers to still play quality attacking football whilst bringing defensive rigidity with three men in midfield and conventional full-backs.
Western Sydney also have a starting quality player for each position, meaning Robinson will not need to bring in new signings to make it work straight away.
Where the Wanderers need to strengthen:
Despite signing a raft of new players, the Wanderers manager has voiced that he still plans on bringing in one or two reinforcements. In an interview with Joey Lynch for ESPN, Robinson stated that he was aiming for “one or two more attacking players.”
It is sensible to assume that a wide attacker will be of priority for the Wanderers, as there is a noticeable lack of depth outside Najjarine and Petratos. Bernie Ibini and Kwame Yeboah have played that role previously, however there are doubts over their ability to have an impact on a consistent basis.
The Wanderers failed pursuit of Chris Ikonomidis shows that Robinson may share these concerns.
If Robinson chooses to go for two strikers up top, he may opt to bring in another striker for similar reasons.
Another area of concern is centre midfield. They are already light in that area of the pitch, and with rumours that Keanu Baccus could be set for a move overseas, the Wanderers are just an injury away from a crisis in the centre of the park.
It may be wise to go for a naturally defensive midfielder. They have not possessed a gritty, workhorse midfielder since Pirmin Schwegler departed at the end of the 2019-20 season, and having a player with those qualities to come off the bench in tight games where they need to grind out a result could be a difference maker if they are to challenge at the top It could also help their ball retention issues when playing the three-at-the-back formations.
It is interesting to note that the Wanderers still have three foreign spots open, as well as being able to benefit from the new designated player rule introduced last week. So Wanderers fans could be in for more excitement yet.
Whilst Wanderers fans have been burnt before, there is certainly reason to have optimism going into this season, even if it’s got more than a hint of caution.
Rhys Williams has won A-League titles and promises to offer more leadership and stability than Ryan McGowan. And the Wanderers have a genuinely gamebreaking player in Dimitri Petratos, who can win them points on his own.
They are not the finished article; they are still thin in certain areas outlined above, and depending on what shape Robinson employs they could experience similar defensive issues to last season.
However, there is no doubt that the squad has significantly improved from last season. More importantly, the bulk of the squad has had a full pre-season to train together and get to know each other.
There can be no excuses in Wanderland this season for the players and manager. The promises must be turned into results.