Victory’s season risks spiraling out of control, following a stunning 5-0 loss to their archenemy Sydney FC on Australia Day at Etihad Stadium. Goals from Ranko Despotovic, Alessandro Del Piero (x2), Seb Ryall and Nick Carle embarrassed Victory on their (much unloved) home turf, as Sydney’s execution was clinical.
Victory, much like the loss to Wellington the other week, were lifeless and never really in it. Startlingly overwhelmed by Sydney’s midfield and shape, Victory were constantly opened up their through their lines between midfield and defence. All this allowed Despotovic, Del Piero and Corey Gameiro space to play their part.
The 5-0 loss is Victory’s second in a row, and much of the blame has understandably been laid at the feet of its (currently non-existent) defence, but it is rather the attack and midfield that need to be held accountable as much as the defence. Much of the Sydney attacks originated from their defenders, who played out with ease and under no pressure from both wingers in Archie Thompson and Andrew Nabbout, as well ‘strikers playing as attacking midfielders’ in Kosta Barbarouses and James Troisi, who on current form, should be benched this week.
When the attack has been easily played through as it has been recently, the defence falls under pressure and conceded. Victory, in this era, has been a team that relies on winning the ball back high and has defended better as an XI rather than a back four and keeper in Nathan Coe. When that doesn’t happen, teams attack often enough and find their way to goal.
The most disappointing issue to come out of the past fortnight is the lack of fight and the lacklustre sight of players waiting for the ball to come to them and subsequently being picked off. Usually what follows losses like this is all are left wondering who is to blame, and while the players haven’t been spared attention from their fans, Kevin Muscat has come under question too.
Many have surmised that Muscat is playing a style of football that isn’t his, but if it that was the case, surely a man as proud and confident as this Victory legend would have changed it by now. According to his predecessor, former coach Ange Postecoglou, Muscat helped set up the style of a team that made a preliminary final after an embarrassing season 2011/12.
What some are overlooking is the fact that some issues, with the benefit of hindsight, were brewing months before the season started. Ange’s signing of Chilean journeyman defender Pablo Contreras has blown up in his successor’s face, as well as the signing of Jonathan Bru at the start of the Ange era. How a player at an A-League club can be sent to train alone is beyond me, particularly when it's a player that was signed and was meant to fill a void in holding midfield. Granted, Bru didn’t deserve a spot in the starting XI, maybe even the squad as well, but the treatment was harsh and undeserved.
We can also look back at the transfer of Billy Celeski to UAE side Al Shaab CSC in mid-2013. Whilst it did have logic and common sense behind it from the club and player's point of view, it left a void that is yet to be filled. The failing came when the system did not change when he left, a problem inherited by Muscat. Without Mark Milligan - even when he has been playing, the skipper has not looked fully fit - the soft underbelly that is the Victory midfield has been exposed.
The striker-less set-up that was successful last season is not working now, probably as a result of the loss of Marco Rojas and an out-of-form Archie Thompson. The mercurial Troisi and Barbarouses have not quite done the trick and haven’t replaced Rojas adequately enough. The strikerless set-up hopefully looks set to change with the imminent arrival of Besart Berisha, a huge signing that can only be a positive.
Stubbornness to change or an innate sense of self-belief in what Muscat has done and is doing now is partly the reason why Victory sit in a position where they should not be. How Nick Ansell hasn't figured as the number one centre-back has baffled this humble writer, considering the form of Contreras and Adrian Leijer. Too many players aren't being picked on form, rather on what they have done in the past and where they play in the formation. It is foolish to suggest players don't care, rather a case of complacency.
When performance like the one on Sunday happens once, it is a blip - but now it is a trend that has to be bucked. The mood from fans is bleak, understandably so as this is a smart fan-base who sees the current form as unacceptable. A board that has taken its most vocal and energetic fans for granted, and has been treating its fans as nothing more than consumers has begun to come under question from fans.
After a huge week of news in the A-League, Victory’s loss to Wellington was somewhat swept under the rug and that will not happen this time around. The next month is not an easy one with fixtures in Perth and Central Coast with a visit from Adelaide United and a Melbourne derby following by an Asian Champions League qualifier. The heat is on to turn it all around.