A-League review: Sydney FC start 2020 nine points clear at the top

Happy new year, everyone. Be excellent to each other. Here's the good, bad and ugly from Round 12 in the A-League...

JUMP TO: Josh Brillante and space | Jerry Skotadis, all by himself | Nicolai Muller, and the Art of Heading | That's so Newcastle | Castro's goal, and things going through a window

Josh Brillante and space

As Josh Brillante himself recognised, he isn't a player entirely comfortable with receiving the ball in tight positions. With respect to the Melbourne City midfielder, there was one specific moment in Sydney FC's 2-1 victory on Sunday that highlighted the difference between occupying space, and really wanting the ball. It was the 38th minute, and the reigning champions had already equalised with a man down, following Rhyan Grant's ghastly tackle on Nathaniel Atkinson. Curtis Good plays a diagonal pass to Javier Cabrera and Brillante immediately attempts to dart behind the defensive line. Alex Wilkinson smartly covers and Brillante forces the ball backwards, instead of initiating a defensive challenge. Cabrera passes back to Atkinson, and it's here Brillante can look to split Milos Ninkovic and Joel King.

In this matter of seconds, though, Brillante never really looked like he wanted the ball. As a result, Atkinson has to try and force a lower percentage pass for Jamie Maclaren. There stood the trade-off with playing Brillante further up the pitch, because it only further lessens Maclaren's influence on City's phases of possession.

This month, City have had to chase games with the ball. In this sense, losses to Perth and Melbourne Victory were a precursor to Sunday's top of the table clash. And City had an extra player on the pitch for the whole of the second half at Kogarah. Sydney's mental fortitude and discipline deserves credit, but if City are to actually contend for the A-League title, functionality with the ball needs to improve.

Jerry Skotadis, all by himself

Wellington Phoenix fully deserved the three points, as they claimed a 3-1 win over Western United in Ballarat on Saturday. Yet, it was Western United's composition that had the primary impact on the game. However much the warm conditions influenced the decision-making process is conjecture, but with Dario Jertec sidelined and Scott McDonald back in the starting XI, it at least appeared Max Burgess would play deeper in midfield.

United coach Mark Rudan changed the dynamic, though. It was a gamble that didn't pay off, given the conditions and attributes of his players. With McDonald, Burgess and Alessandro Diamanti playing as three attacking midfielders as temperatures hit 35 degrees Celsius, keeping the ball was an absolute necessity. The formational change also isolated the two players who specifically need numbers around them in early phases of possession, Jerry Skotadis and Aaron Calver.

Burgess, despite his effortless grace, showed he can lack purpose in possession -- which then applies pressure on someone like Skotadis, who had to cover ample ground for those in front of him in transition. It was most evident in the 41st minute, with Wellington's opening goal. Burgess has the opportunity to go straight at the defensive line in transition, but he turns his back and allows Cameron Devlin to recover. Upon the Phoenix then winning possession, Ulises Davila does the exact opposite to Burgess. Dribbling straight at Calver, he puts the defender on his heels and eventually forces him to plant his feet, creating separation and the assist for David Ball.

Burgess is a player absolutely worth giving scope to, but these are the kind of details that are critical for an attacking player to progress and positively impact a game.

Nicolai Muller, and the Art of Heading

Much like a taller footballer who is technically adept and can dribble, there is just something so hypnotic about a smaller player who can proficiently head the ball. For example, take all of Lionel Messi's goals: The extra-terrestrial curlers into top corners, the labyrinthine dribbles, the almost comical dinks over goalkeepers who have accepted their fate, and very few compare to that header he scored in the 2009 UEFA Champions League final.

Time seems to stand still, as a smaller player twists and positions themselves to generate all the power and accuracy they can -- with a body part they rarely use on the football pitch.

Nicolai Muller would only break 175cm by standing on a telephone book, but his two headers in Western Sydney's 3-2 win in Adelaide were simply gorgeous -- a contrast to the rest of the Wanderers' play. His first in the 11th minute, following Jordan Elsey's cheap loss of possession, was defined by reaction time and body positioning. Michael Jakobsen deflecting Mohamed Adam's driven cross required the slightest of hesitations, before opening his body up to flick the ball past united keeper Paul Izzo.

Then, when putting the Wanderers up 2-1 in the 59th minute, the Germany international had to generate power from Tarek Elrich's looping delivery -- instead of merely diverting power -- to get the ball across Izzo and into the opposite corner. From that distance, too. Textbook stuff. *chef's kiss*

That's so Newcastle

The Newcastle Jets last game of 2019 could not have been a more fitting depiction of how they have played so far this season.

Following a 1-1 draw at home to Brisbane Roar on Saturday night, it's important to allow for some perspective. Integrating the likes of Angus Thurgate and Patrick Langlois will take time, and it was a first start for Bobby Burns. Wes Hoolahan, Nigel Boogaard and Kaine Sheppard are seemingly significant outs for the Jets. There has been such a distinct pattern to Newcastle games this term, it's hard to determine how much results have been impacted by unavailable personnel and how much by behavioural conditioning under Ernie Merrick.

When it comes to the Jets' profligacy -- with Thurgate being the primary culprit on Saturday, with a one-on-one chance to secure the result -- that's really down to personnel. Like rhythm, you either have it or you don't in front of goal. Yet, the manner in which speed descends into panic on a weekly basis for the Jets, as energy levels drop, is down to Merrick's own framing.

Castro's goal, and things going through a window

It was a fine finish from Diego Castro to put the Glory 1-0 up against Central Coast Mariners on Tuesday, before Perth eventually ran out 3-0 winners. Goals change games, and it was a highly relevant footballing detail in Gosford on New Year's Eve. Perth had not played very well to that point, despite their territorial dominance in the opening 45 minutes.

Primarily, it speaks to the level of focus Perth maintained, even when results didn't go their way early in the season. There might be significant tactical issues within Glory coach Tony Popovic's implementation, but they are still mentally strong. That kind of thing is important.

At risk of going too much into hypotheticals, with that focus and complexion of the first half in mind, does the disparate application at the restart happen as a consequence? In the scenario of a goal just before the interval, what kind of message does the coach send at half-time, immediately after such a swing in momentum? Essentially, what changes in both message and plan, and how measured can the response be from the coach in such short time?