Perth Glory 2018/19 Season Analysis

(Photo source: Perth Glory Football Club)

The greatest season in Perth Glory’s time in the A-League was without a doubt the 2018/19 Premiership winning season.

The Glory finished the season on top of the ladder, 8 points ahead of Sydney FC in second. Perth played an entertaining yet structured brand of football that saw them top the charts in goals scored (56) but also goals conceded (23).

Therefore as an average, Perth would score 2.07 goals per game and concede 0.85.

This balance between their offensive and defensive outputs saw Glory win 18 games, draw 6 and lose just 3.

Despite not winning the Grand Final in Perth against Sydney FC in 2019, the season would be analysed with great pride and success as the Glory were consistent at a high level for large periods of the season.

So how did the Glory become a success in the 2018/19 season?

Identifying and Fixing Major Issues

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

I think it’s more than fair to say that Popa was the architect to Glory’s success during the season. It was a masterstroke from Glory owner, Tony Sage to bring in Tony Popovic at the time.

Prior to the appointment, Perth under Kenny Lowe were a flamboyant and exciting offensively oriented side. Goals were the norm under the Englishman, where during his four full seasons in charge, the Glory scored 183 goals (an average of roughly 46 goals per season).

Compared to Popovic’s Western Sydney Wanderers from the 2014/15 season to the end of the 2016/17 season (2017/18 season can’t be used as Popa left before then), the Wanderers scored 108 goals, which is an average of 36 goals per season.

So what was abundantly clear was that the Glory were an offensively oriented side.

But, the clear issue was the defence. Under Lowe, Perth didn’t finish as high as they would’ve wanted to due to their woeful defensive record.

During the time period used prior, Kenny Lowe’s Perth Glory conceded 180 goals across the four seasons, which is an average of 45 goals conceded per season.

Now, this would give Glory little wiggle room when it came to where they would finish during a season as the final placings would come down to position on the ladder rather than goal difference, as Perth would usually have a small margin given how even both stats were.

So what Popovic identified, was that the Glory needed to improve their defensive structure and he had success with that during his time with Western Sydney, with the Wanderers conceding 112 goals across his last 3 seasons with the club (which is an average of just under 38 goals conceded per season).

He made it his intention for Perth to be balanced, as the Glory were offensively brilliant but just lacked that structure to make them more solid at the back. He alluded to this in his first press conference as Perth manager.

“They’re a team who is always hard to beat in Perth — whether that’s been consistent or not is another issue.

“That’s something we want to do — make it difficult for teams to come here and take points.”

Now as I mentioned in my preamble, statistically he achieved both with Glory having the best defensive and offensive record in the competition.

He achieved this through a few methods.

One was changing the tactical setup.

During Lowe’s era, Perth would mostly line up in a 4–4–2 system. This was mostly done with the intention of playing both Andy Keogh and Adam Taggart together, while allowing Diego Castro to roam on the left and Chris Harold to provide a quicker and more direct option on the right.

Going forward, this sort of system worked a treat, but defensively it was pretty poor.

Something that Glory lacked and an area that Popovic identified, was that the Glory wouldn’t necessarily win games of football by controlling them, whether that’s dominating possession or managing it in a professional manner.

Often where Perth would be successful was when the Glory would be a bit more frenetic and direct. Now this worked on numerous occasions but looking long term against more disciplined sides, particularly away from home, this method wouldn’t really work.

(Photo by Daniel Carson/Getty Images)

This would also see Glory exposed in transition or lacking defensive cover in dangerous areas.

So what Tony Popovic did was sign players whose behaviours and qualities would suit a 3–4–3 system.

Now this system has had great success with managers who understand why this system can be so effective.

A great example was Antonio Conte’s 2016/17 season with Chelsea.

The Italian deployed the 3–4–3 system following the 3–0 defeat to Arsenal in late September in 2016. The reason being was that despite Chelsea winning their first three games, Conte felt that the team was missing something.

He was concerned with the amount of chances his side was giving away. The move to the 3–4–3 system was an attempt to find balance.

What he found 32 games later was Chelsea on top of the ladder, scoring the second most goals in the Premier League (85) and conceding the second least amount of goals (33).

That balance saw Chelsea win the league and now also with the Glory during the 2018/19 season.

Now Popa identified that there were a few players that were already at the club that could be apart of the starting lineup, with Liam Reddy, Shane Lowry, Neil Kilkenny, Diego Castro and Andy Keogh all becoming integral members of the team.

But it was clear that the Glory were in need of some quality, so another method Popovic utilised to bring success to the Glory was bringing in top players.

In the pre-season, he drew up a shortlist and Tony Sage as well as Tony Pignata and Jacob Burns delivered.

During that season, Popa signed 9 players in Ivan Franjic, Tomislav Mrcela, Brendon Santalab, Matthew Spiranovic, Tando Velaphi, Fábio Ferreria, Jason Davidson, Juande and Chris Ikonomidis.

Now those players were absolutely essential to the Glory’s success, as Franjic and Davidson would be deployed as wingbacks, Spiranovic and Mrcela would make up the back three, along with Shane Lowry, Juande would sit next to Neil Kilkenny, anchoring the midfield, while Ikonomidis and at times, Ferreria, would provide the explosive speed and quality up front.

This was the balance that the Glory required to be a top team.

Popovic’s Tactical Masterplan

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Preceding the 2018/19 season, successful implementations of the 3–4–3 or a variant of a three at the back system had been rare in the A-League so when Popovic introduced it, many teams struggled to find a solution to counter it.

In the build up phase, what would usually be seen is the three centrebacks occupying deep positions where they would look to engage the opposition’s first line of pressure and bypass that by either;

  • Finding the wingback
  • Finding Andy Keogh
  • Playing into the feet of a winger
  • Penetrating the line to find Neil Kilkenny or Juande
Perth’s back three in possession
Spiranovic finding Neil Kilkenny in between the lines

More or less, the build up play would be completed at a slow and patient tempo, looking to draw in the opposition or circulate until a passing lane opens up.

The issue for teams playing against the Glory, was if they chose to press high, there was always the risk of leaving space in behind.

If Popovic decided to tweak the front three by deploying Castro as a 10, with two wide forwards ahead of him, it could mean trouble for opposing sides.

An example where this was used to deadly effect was seen in the Glory’s 5–0 thumping of the Wellington Phoenix.

Diego Castro received the ball in space. A lot of space.

Castro receiving the ball

Chris Ikonomidis made an expertly timed run in behind.

Ikonomidis making his run

Castro found him and made an exquisite pass in behind, to which Ikonomidis rifled the ball into the back of the net.

Ikonomidis scoring his goal

Neil Kilkenny is a relatively press-resistent midfielder, meaning he can receive under pressure. Another issue for the opposition is Kilkenny’s ball playing ability from deep areas, as he has the vision to pick out passes.

Kilkenny turns and receives in space

It wouldn’t be uncommon to see Kilkenny play a long ball over the top towards the advantage of a player like Chris Ikonomidis or Joel Chianese, as those two possessed wicked speed.

Take Chianese’s second goal against Sydney FC in the 3–1 win in Round 12.

Kilkenny was able to receive the ball in a good central position in his own half. He saw Joel Chianese making the run and played a beautiful pass over the top for him, to which the forward scored from.

Kilkenny in possession
Chianese controlling the ball
Chianese scoring

Now the Glory weren’t limited to balls over the top, although it was a highly effective strategy particularly when Popovic deployed two strikers or if the opposition had a static back four, whilst the rest of the team was pressing.

The wingbacks, Jason Davidson in particular, was a crucial element in possession for the Glory. The former Socceroo was a key asset due to his endurance and end product in the final third when going forward.

Often, he would hold his width on the touchline, looking to stretch the pitch horizontally, giving more space for the creative players in Kilkenny, Castro and Ikonomidis to operate in.

His athletic ability, as I spoke about before was his best quality in my view.

He wasn’t limited to just making overlapping runs, at times he made some clever inverted runs into the half-spaces, which caused a lot of chaos for opposition defenders.

Take Andy Keogh’s second goal against Wellington in the 5–0 win.

Below is Chris Ikonomidis intelligently delaying the play to give Davidson time to make the run.

Ikonomidis holding the ball up

This allowed for Davidson to exploit space, occupy the attention of Steven Taylor which then had the knock on effect of Diego Castro being able to receive in space in the opposition’s box.

Davidson finding Castro

Now while nothing immediately happened from that move, the fact that Davidson was still in the box allowed for him to cross the ball to Andy Keogh, who was prolific with his head that season.

Davidson chipping the ball for Andy Keogh

Possibly the most important aspect of the Glory’s play in possession was Diego Castro. El Maestro was at his brilliant best during the 2018/19 season, where his creativity and football intelligence was on full display.

Castro had an elite ability when it came to creating play. Often he could just drift into positions and the opposition would be bamboozeled as to how he even ended up there. His awareness in games was incredible.

Take his assist for Andy Keogh’s goal in the 2–0 win against the Newcastle Jets in late January.

Castro saw the space and exploited it knowing that Neil Kilkenny could pick him out.

Castro making the run in behind

He then expertly controlled the ball. That touch is just something you can’t teach, it’s pure genius from the Spaniard.

Castro’s touch

His awareness then allowed him to find Andy Keogh who instinctively made the run in behind to simply tap the ball home.

Keogh scoring the goal

One of the best constructed goals I’ve ever seen the Glory produce saw Castro as the conductor, and this occurred against Brisbane in the 4–0 win in mid February.

Spiranovic played the ball to Castro who had dropped off from his marker. The Spaniard then intelligently flicked the ball to Andy Keogh first time.

Castro flicking the ball to Keogh
Keogh receiving and passing first time to Davidson

Jason Davidson then had time and space to drive with the ball.

Davidson on the ball

Diego Castro then very shrewdly dropped back. This meant he could then receive in space, unmarked.

Castro subsequently scoring from the cross

Diego Castro, despite being 36 that season, was incredible. He was a core factor in the Glory’s success during the 2018/19 season.

Defensively, the Glory were rock solid.

Dependent on the geographic location on the pitch the players were would constitute varying responses in terms of following actions taken.

If the ball was located in advanced areas of the pitch and the team was organised, then the Glory would look to press high.

The objective would be to force the ball into wide areas, cut out the immediate short passing options and force the ball long as the Glory had full confidence in the aerial ability with their three centrebacks.

Keogh pressing high

If the ball was in the Glory’s half, then the objective would be to defend in a low block, with the intention of making space exploitation in central areas as difficult as possible.

Glory defending in a low block

Tony Popovic wears the Magic Hat

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

“When you sign a coach with a clear plan to win a championship, you believe them.

“I was very optimistic at the beginning of the year. The plan was to finish top four and get to a grand final.

“Well, we finished top one and Tony has got us to a grand final.

“That was the overriding aim of the year. That and to get that Asian Champions League spot as well.

“So, am I surprised we’ve accomplished all that? If you meet Tony Popovic one-on-one then you’d have to say I’m not surprised at all.”

Those were the words of Glory owner Tony Sage ahead of the Grand Final against Sydney FC.

Tony Popovic came into the Glory with a clear plan as Sage mentioned. He made it clear at the start of the season as well what his plans were.

“I feel [Perth Glory] has always had the potential,” Popovic said.

“As an opposing coach, looking at Perth in the back of my mind, [I’ve been] thinking there is a lot of potential here. This could could one day be something special.

“Hopefully we can get it on the right path to be not only successful in one-off season but be a club that is challenging regularly for honours.”

Having a clear plan was one thing, but following that plan by having an incredibly intense attention to detail is another as former Glory defenders, Dino Djlubic and Matthew Spiranovic detailed.

“We spend a lot of time watching videos and analysing our training or our games, and just the details of where we need to be,” Djulbic said.

“The boss is not happy if we are one metre off — he wants us to be exactly where we need to be. It’s about improving us as a player.”

“It’s like everyone wants to follow him. It’s great. You can tell — we don’t make many mistakes, especially in the back.” Former Socceroo defender Matthew Spiranovic spent two seasons under Popovic at the Wanderers, and jumped at the chance to rejoin his mentor in Perth.

Spiranovic said players thrived under Popovic’s set-up. “He demands high standards. Without a doubt you could say he’s going to be harsh at times, but very fair,” Spiranovic said. “He always requires the utmost in terms of professionalism.

“As much as there’s pressure in football, he wants us to enjoy it, to embrace the challenges and it really is a pleasure going into training.”

Popovic shared this view when interviewed by Fox Sports.

“I always enjoy seeing players improve.

“That’s something you take great satisfaction out of as coaches.

“And also seeing them evolve and improve as people. When you see that, the human side as well, it’s very satisfying.

“You have to have standards, you have to have a good environment, and we strive for excellence every day.

“It’s about wanting to be the best you can be every day.

“If we all want to do that, then we can make really special things possible.”

And he was right.

Tony Popovic delivered the Glory their first piece of silverware in the A-League and the first Grand Final in Perth in 16 years.

Despite Perth not going on to win the Championship against the Sky Blues, there were so many great moments during that season.

Every single Glory fan looked very fondly on that season.

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