Familiar Sydney but what are Wanderers in 2021/22?

The Sydney derby might have ended goalless but there was much to debate about the two teams, writes Tom Smithies.

In the end, the pyrotechnics and the crackle all came off the pitch. On it, the Sydney derby started and finished in stalemate, with the evening drizzle seeming to extinguish any hopes of late fireworks.

A 0-0 draw was not the explosive encounter the schedulers had hoped for, but at the start of the season coaches take comfort in not losing. Beyond that initial satisfaction, though, some fascinating questions were raised about two teams with title aspirations, and which only time will answer.

Successful teams usually have a recognisable style, a game plan that is inherently theirs even as formations are tweaked and personnel have to change. Coaches can talk grandly about philosophies and ideals, but the instinct and rhythm of their teams reveals far more about their identity.

As Carl Robinson begins his third season in the A-League, it’s hard to define exactly what the DNA of his Wanderers team is, or will be. While it’s true that a team’s style is hothoused in the combat of competitive games, the roots are implanted in pre-season and in training, or should be.

Robinson’s team for this opening game was laudably attacking; effectively five attackers held up by one defensive midfielder and the back four. Fielding a powerful centre forward, two wingers, a playmaking No 10 and a lung-busting central midfielder in Terry Antonis was a statement of intent, and yet the sum was somehow rather less than the parts.

Wanderers coach Carl Robinson has plenty to ponder from the derby.

Bernie Ibini’s finest moments in just about every team he has played in have come in the space his pace and power can exploit, and he rotated cleverly with Tomer Hemed at times as the Wanderers sought to stretch Sydney FC’s back four.

Yet on the other side of Hemed was Remy Najjarine, whose intuitive play seems to thrive in small spaces close to his teammates. The contrast in the demeanours of Ibini and Najjarine speaks to the question of what style Robinson aims to embed in his team – will they instinctively attack directly with pace, especially in those crucial seconds after they regain possession, or will they seek to manipulate teams with control of the ball for periods of the game?

Behind the forwards prowled Dimi Petratos, a gifted footballer who resists any simple categorisation as an attacker. He has played as a striker, a winger, a single No 10 and in partnership with another playmaker. Ernie Merrick, one of his coaches at Newcastle, thought the latter might be his best role.

In this first outing of the new season, though, Western Sydney struggled to get him on the ball in places where he could do damage, and you sense that the direction their season goes in will be defined by the success they have in solving the riddle of how to get their most dangerous players into the most effective spaces on the field.

By contrast, Sydney FC’s possession-based style is as comforting and familiar as well-worn slippers. It is the foxtrot of the A-Leagues, a tempo of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow as they build a rhythm of passes and then switch play at pace from one side to the other to exploit uncharted space.

Thec pace of Trent Buhagiar, right, is a powerful weapon for the Sky Blues.

Missing three senior players through injury forced coach Steve Corica to explore the depths of his squad. Perhaps the most telling absentee was Luke Brattan, whose passing range is often the key to when Sydney slip through the gears.

The line-up meant Elvis Kamsoba playing as one of Sydney’s second line of attackers, somewhere between a winger, a No 10 and a second striker. It’s a role that is built on the quality of decision-making – when to push wide, when to push on, when to tuck in – a quality that so far has not been the hallmark of Kamsoba’s career.

His endeavour was unarguable, and there will be days when his pace and dynamism find greater reward. But the comparison with Milos Ninkovic, playing the same role on the left, was unflattering, for Sydney’s Serb seems untroubled by the passing years and lived in pockets of elegance for much of this game. A dummy here and a drop of the shoulder there brought the crowd to its feet, but as always there was as much value in his simple passes and economy of possession.

Yet Corica, like Robinson, has questions to ponder too about the most effective direction for his team. Bobo was missing with a calf strain, and Trent Buhagiar’s attributes are rather different to the Brazilian’s. The latter is most effective as a link man and a finisher, while Buhagiar’s pace is a very different weapon. Every team should have multiple strings to its bow, but what becomes the Sky Blues’ default style may have to change depending on the fitness of its senior players.

At the final whistle the senior executives of both teams gathered on the pitch, deep in conversation as the players applauded the fans. As much as one game offers only superficial insights into how their teams might go, there are plenty of questions for the execs, and the fans, to consider about the campaign to come.