Defences win championships. It’s an old adage and one that is often proved correct.
In the case of Western Sydney Wanderers and their AFC Champions League triumph it is most definitely the case.
In defeating Saudi giants Al Hilal 1-0 over two legs, the Wanderers, who didn’t even exist this time three years ago, became the first Australian side to be crowned continental champions.
And there is no doubt they did so with a defence-first philosophy, looking to stop the opposition from scoring first and foremost, and then hitting on the counter.
A look at the statistics underlines just how defensive-minded Western Sydney were during the campaign.
Since the AFC Champions League, in its current format, came into being in 2002/03 there have been 12 winners (including the Wanderers this year).
While varying formats have ensured that across the 12 years the winners have played differing numbers of games, the Wanderers this year became the only team to win the ACL by scoring fewer than 20 goals across the campaign (they scored 19).
The only other team to do so was Al Ain in the inaugural tournament in 02/03, however they only played three group games and seven games in total, exactly half the number of Western Sydney. And even then, they scored 15 goals in those seven games.
In 2013 the AFC introduced, for the first time, home and away legs for the Round of 16. This means that only Guangzhou Evergrande, the champions in 2013, has played as many games as Western Sydney across a campaign (14 in total). They won the 2013 ACL by scoring a record 36 goals; almost double that of Western Sydney this year.
Over the 12 years of the ACL the average number of goals scored by the winning side is 24.3.
A look at the defensive stats further illustrates just how strong defensively the Wanderers were.
In 10 of their 14 matches they managed to keep a clean sheet; a new ACL record. Prior to this year, the most clean sheets kept by a winning side was six. This was achieved by Guangzhou Evergrande (2013), Pohang Steelers (2009) and Urawa Reds (2007).
The average number of clean sheets kept by the winning side since 2002/03 is 4.5.
It is no surprise that a club coached by one of Australia’s best defenders of the last two decades has such an admirable defensive record.
While Al Hilal managed to completely all aspects of the two-legged final, both in possession and shooting stats, Western Sydney’s defence did a fine job of nullifying their main strengths.
Across their 2014 ACL campaign, time and again Al Hilal has looked to exploit the space in behind the defence by getting their wingers in behind to cut the ball back, either for Nasser Al-Shamrani or captain Yasser Al-Qahtani.
By staying compact and restricting space between the lines, Western Sydney restricted the number of times Al Hilal were able to achieve this, restricting the ‘Blue Wave’ to crosses from wide positions which, as they showed in their semi final win over FC Seoul, they are more than comfortable defending. It also completely nullified the impact of Al-Shamrani, the all-time leading ACL scorer.
It is no surprise that Al Hilal’s best chance of the game came when, for one of the rare occasions, attacking right back Yassir Al-Shahrani was able to get in behind -and cut the ball back for Al-Qahtani.
Given how much success they’ve had with that exact play this year you could understand the look of disbelief on their faces when Ante Covic got a hand on Al-Qahtani’s shot to palm it out for a corner. Given the time of the match and what was at stake, it was easily the best save by a goalkeeper in the ACL this year.
Just like he had so many times during the campaign, the 39-year-old veteran had saved his side.
Perhaps the perfect illustration of their defence-minded tactics came post-game when Covic was awarded the 2014 AFC Champions League MVP award. It was only the second time since 2007 that a defensive player has won the award. The other, ironically, was also awarded to an Australian – Sasa Ognenovski in 2010.
While defensive football won’t win over the purists, and no one can argue that Western Sydney were outplayed in many, or perhaps most of their games, the ACL Honour Roll will not show possession stats, or goals for, it will simply show that Western Sydney Wanderers were the 2014 AFC Champions League winners.
And to the winners go the spoils.