THE BREAKDOWN: The Melbourne Derby was one of the showpiece games to kick off the new A-League season - but fizzled out in a disappointing 0-0 deadlock. How did the derby get so dull? Tim Palmer explains...
The difference in strategy between Ange Postecoglou and John Aloisi was obvious even before the teams were announced – the latter’s preference for a 4-2-3-1, with disciplined wide players and a creative attacker supporting an out-and-out forward contrasts greatly with Victory’s lack of a true number nine. The starting line-ups were predictable and the tactical battle of this Melbourne Derby played out largely as expected.
Few, though, expected it to be quite this dull. There were very few amounts of attacking inspiration, aside from some clever one-touch play from Victory inside the opening half hour, and it is difficult to remember a clear-cut chance from open play. Instead, this derby was about a discernible lack of fluency and attacking cohesion from either side, rather than a particularly clever defensive strategy.
That said, there were intriguing contrasts in the way both sides defended without the ball. In terms of shape, both coaches prefer two banks of four – but whereas Aloisi asked David Williams and Mate Dugandžić to drop back alongside the midfield pairing out of possession, Postecoglou threw more caution to the wind and instructed the front four to press high up the pitch.
However, this aggressiveness was not reciprocated by the rest of the side, with the Victory back four often leaving acres of space between the bands of their 4-2-2-2 formation: a natural response to the obvious threat of pace in behind that the Heart’s front three boasted.
Williams, Dugandžić and Golgol Mebrahtu (the central striker) is a remarkably quick, athletic front trio and all frequently looked to get in advance of their nearest markers – for the latter, that was in behind the central defence, while the wide players looked to break into the space behind the Victory full-backs.
None of the three was significantly involved in build-up play, but instead sprinted onto direct balls played into their channel.
However, Harry Kewell’s glorious ball for Mebrahtu was Heart’s only clear cut opportunity – the quick, direct nature of the transition from back to front, indebted to Kewell’s superb ball over the top (illustrated by the light blue arrow below), summed up Aloisi’s strategy.
Kewell received passes in a variety of positions, and his movement, and link-up with Williams on the left, looked most promising – but his main role was to control long, hard passes out from the defence, to quickly launch counter-attacks, which was a difficult ask. Given the gap between the Victory’s front six and back four, it was a shame he didn’t get on the ball more in between the lines.
Kewell’s defection from Heart to Victory was an interesting subplot in its own right – and it has been surprising that more has not been made of the fact Postecoglou publicly regretted not having him in the squad last season. A potential deployment of Kewell as one of the no.10s in Victory’s unique attacking structure would have been fascinating, but instead, it was James Troisi and Mitch Nicholls who played those roles here.
Heart’s response to this threat between the lines was predictable – the midfield two narrowed the space in front of the back four, and the two debuting central defenders, Patrick Kisnorbo and Rob Wielaert, were also happy to move out of the backline, making a particular effort to do so when Troisi and Nicholls received passes facing goal. It minimized the time the Victory playmakers had on the ball to play passes in behind – but the problem was twofold for Victory, as the wide attackers rarely made those runs in behind. Even if the opportunity to play those balls was there, there wasn’t anything to aim for.
Last season, it was all about the combinations – Guilherme Finkler and Marcos Flores couldn’t just drop deep: they needed Marco Rojas and Archie Thompson to complement their movement towards the play with runs into the space in behind. Thompson started here but on the right (rather than the left) his runs from outside to in didn’t feel as natural. Instead he received a significant number of passes close to the touchline.
It was a similar story on the opposite flank, with Connor Pain keeping wide and often calling for balls into his feet, to try and dribble past Jason Hoffman.
It meant that despite Victory recording almost double the amount of Heart passes in the attacking third, very little actually stretched Aloisi’s new look defence. Both sides focused attacks down the flanks, but in very different ways – and to very similar ineffectiveness.
Newcastle can learn from Victory midfield
A key feature of Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane and Victory teams is the midfield’s ability to receive passes facing forward – and you don’t have to look much further than Newcastle’s impotency against Sydney FC in the opening fixture of the new season to see why. The home side in that fixture were happy to allow Newcastle’s back four ample time on the ball, but pressed quickly when the ball was played into midfield – meaning the majority of passes from Zenon Caravella and Ruben Zadkovich went back towards their own goal, or towards the sides.
Compare it with the distribution of Leigh Broxham, who received a game-high 82 passes, mainly short, tidy forwards balls from the defence, and completed a game-high 84, always looking to play forward into the feet of the attacking quartet.
Neither Newcastle nor Victory scored a goal, but the problems for the former run far deeper.
Perth nullify Isais Sanchez, but neglect others
Maybe John Aloisi could have taken a leaf from Alistair Edwards’s book, and asked Kewell to pick up Broxham out of possession – like how the Perth Glory coach instructed his son, Ryan Edwards, to track the deepest midfielder in Adelaide’s midfield trio, Isaías Sánchez.
In theory, it was a sound move – as a graduate of the Barcelona academy and a player specifically signed by Josep Gombau for his ability to play and understand the style of the new coach, it was predictable that Adelaide would try and play through Isaías, and the debutant rarely had space or time to receive the ball.
However, Adelaide were prepared for this – and impressively, the central defenders, Jonathan McKain and Nigel Boogard, were bold in possession and mixed sideways balls to their partners with incisive forward passes. With both ranking first and second in the game’s highest passes, it illustrated flexibility in Gombau’s approach – and as it turned out, Isaías didn’t even finish the match thanks to a red card.
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Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com