Round 13 of the 2016-17 W-League season saw Western Sydney Wanderers host Canberra United in beautiful, sunny Campbelltown. On paper this was a total mismatch. WSW were looking to atone for an extraordinary 10-2 loss against bottom side Adelaide United, while Canberra were flying high after a 7-2 demolition of Perth Glory.
Perhaps surprisingly, Wanderers coach Rich Byrne made only two changes from the starting lineup against Adelaide, with Chloe O’Brien and Joey Burgess chosen in place of Eliza Ammendolia and Rachel Lowe. This meant that the WSW keeper and back four were unchanged, a strong show of faith given the events of the previous game. Meanwhile, Canberra coach Rae Dower named an unchanged side from their victory over Perth, which meant that Lisa De Vanna and promising youngster Nicki Flannery were both on the bench.
Canberra played in a 3-1-4-2 formation for this game, with Jenna McCormick, Emma Checker and Hannah Brewer at the back. While their central midfielders would rotate during the game, Yukari Kinga was usually the deepest midfielder for Canberra, with Celeste Boureille and Grace Maher further forward.
Stephanie Ochs and Hayley Raso were the wide players in Canberra’s midfield. Early on Ochs dribbled past Wanderers fullback Helen Petinos with ease before crossing from a dangerous position, so it was surprising that Canberra didn’t focus on this part of the field, as it seemed like a potential mismatch. It was even more surprising when the Canberra wingers swapped flanks, as Ellie Carpenter had a much easier time dealing with Ochs.
In attack, Ochs and Raso would often move forward to be level with the Canberra strikers, but when WSW regained possession the Wanderers wingers would break quickly, creating a 3 on 3 situation at the back for Canberra. The outside defenders in Canberra’s back three (McCormick and Brewer) would then be forced to mark WSW’s wingers, leaving Checker isolated against Stengel, and the American’s off-the-ball runs into the channels dragged Checker out wide and caused problems for Canberra. Interestingly, this also occurred even when Canberra were set in defence, as Raso and Ochs wouldn’t drop deep enough to mark Erica Halloway and Joey Burgess.
It was no surprise to see WSW sitting deep in the opening stages and looking to hit Canberra on the counter. The plan was effective early on, with Canberra mainly restricted to shots from distance and hopeful crosses in the first half. Sitting deep also allowed the Wanderers to mostly nullify the pace of Canberra strikers Ashleigh Sykes and Jasmyne Spencer, who were sometimes able to find space in behind the WSW fullbacks, but were denied space in behind centrebacks Caitlin Cooper and Angelique Hristodoulou.
After about half an hour there were two close calls, one at each end. First, Hannah Brewer deflected a cross from Halloway onto her own crossbar. Less than a minute later, Jada Whyman fumbled a Grace Maher corner under pressure from McCormick, but was able to gather the ball right on the goalline before Spencer could apply the finishing touch. Despite this mistake, Whyman had a solid game in the Wanderers goal, although at times she had trouble with both the distance and accuracy of her goal kicks, allowing Canberra to win the ball back quickly and putting WSW under extra pressure.
When the Wanderers looked to counter, the attack was usually down the right hand side, and they would often look to switch play towards Halloway. The speedy right winger had a fantastic game, running at Brewer at every opportunity and putting in some threatening crosses.
However, WSW’s focus on quick counter-attacking upon receiving possession meant that their fullbacks (Carpenter and Petinos) rarely had time to move upfield and support the attack, especially in the first half. In the second half Carpenter would be more involved in the attack, on one occasion forcing a last-ditch block from Kinga in the Canberra box after beating two defenders.
WSW’s gameplan also meant that their two deep-lying midfielders (Kendall Fletcher and Chloe O’Brien) generally held their position in front of the defence, with neither venturing forward too much. In the early stages Paige Nielsen was also forced into a lot of defensive work, although as the first half went on she was able to break forward and link well with Katie Stengel on a number of occasions.
After nearly all of WSW’s first-half play went down the right, the opening goal came from a rare left-wing attack, only a couple of minutes before the break. Whyman and Burgess were both involved in the buildup, with the latter picking out Nielsen after a clever run into space on the left flank. Stengel had previously been restricted to a couple of chances from acute angles, but after Nielsen dribbled past Maher and set up Stengel, the striker made no mistake, drilling the ball low past former Wanderers keeper Trudy Burke.
This goal demonstrated Canberra’s vulnerability in transition. A lack of players on the right flank caused McCormick (playing on the right side of the defence) to move forward to close down Burgess. Maher covered the space left behind by McCormick but was unable to hold Nielsen up for long enough for to allow the Canberra defence to get back in numbers, leaving the Wanderers with a relatively simple pass and shot to take the lead.
There was still time for Canberra to cause a couple of scares before the break. First, Whyman fumbled a long shot from Kinga, although any goal from the rebound wouldn’t have counted as both Maher and Sykes were offside. Then in first half stoppage time, a mistake from Hristodoulou allowed Spencer to collect the ball on the left flank. The American was able to dribble past both Wanderers centrebacks, but a heavy touch allowed Whyman to claim the ball.
The second half continued in the same vein as the first, with Canberra looking to unlock WSW’s defence and WSW looking to counter quickly. Halloway and Stengel in particular continued to trouble Canberra’s defence, as both players were able to run past their marker and create overloads.
Canberra made a double substitution on the hour, with Lisa De Vanna replacing Maher and Nicki Flannery coming on for Ochs. Both subs were pretty much like-for-like, and so WSW didn’t have to change their defensive setup too much to deal with the threat posed by the substitutes. Rich Byrne will be pleased that his players were able to keep De Vanna quiet when she came on.
At the same time as Canberra’s double substitution, WSW replaced Burgess with Sarah Yatim, who was able to make some dangerous runs as the game got stretched towards the end. Yatim’s most notable contribution came with fifteen minutes left, when she beat a defender on the left flank and played a great through ball to Stengel. The American lobbed the ball over the advancing keeper but couldn’t hit the target, squandering a golden opportunity to double WSW’s lead.
As the game went on Canberra seemed to run out of ideas. They were far too predictable in wide areas in the second half, nearly always looking to cut inside and either shoot or play angled balls into the box, which were easily dealt with. Canberra looked much more dangerous when they got to the byline and crossed from a more dangerous position (such as when Spencer was inches away from Sykes’ low cross from the left), so it was odd that they didn’t try this more often.
Michelle Heyman’s absence due to injury meant Canberra had a lack of height up front, possibly influencing their decisions to cut inside with the ball from wide positions, instead of crossing. For the last 10-15 minutes it might have been worth the risk of sending Checker or McCormick upfield to play as an extra forward, just to give Canberra’s attack a different dimension.
Despite conceding a couple of late set pieces in dangerous positions the Wanderers were able to hang on for the victory, although it was tarnished somewhat by a potentially serious knee injury to Caitlin Cooper in the dying seconds. WSW have beaten three of the top five this season, but poor form against the other teams in the bottom four (one win in five attempts) has cost them the chance of their first W-League finals appearance. They finish their season at home to Perth Glory, who will be missing star forward Sam Kerr due to suspension.
Canberra United missed a great opportunity to go top of the league, and will rue a combination of poor shooting and lack of creativity in this game. They still need a win to guarantee a home final, but things are unlikely to be easy in their final game of the regular season. Opponents Melbourne Victory should be fresh after coming off a bye week, and their spirits should still be high following their last game, a derby win over Melbourne City.
Western Sydney Wanderers 1 (Stengel 43’)
Canberra United 0
Western Sydney Wanderers (4-2-3-1)
1 Jada Whyman, 18 Angelique Hristodoulou, 2 Caitlin Cooper (capt.) (12 Rachel Lowe 90+6’), 15 Ellie Carpenter, 5 Helen Petinos, 4 Chloe O’Brien, 6 Kendall Fletcher, 8 Erica Halloway, 10 Paige Nielsen, 23 Joey Burgess (7 Sarah Yatim 60’), 9 Katie Stengel.
Unused subs: 22 Casey Dumont, 3 Nikola Orgill
Yellow card: Cooper 90’
Canberra United (3-1-4-2)
1 Trudy Burke, 5 Jenna McCormick, 15 Emma Checker, 12 Hannah Brewer, 2 Yukari Kinga, 22 Stephanie Ochs (19 Nicki Flannery 60’), 13 Celeste Boureille, 10 Grace Maher (32 Lisa De Vanna 60’), 8 Hayley Raso, 14 Ashleigh Sykes (capt.), 9 Jasmyne Spencer
Unused subs: 20 Georgia Boric, 18 Kahlia Hogg
Yellow card: Brewer 89’