The Breakdown: Tense theatre of titans
This was an entertaining clash, not in the sense that it was loaded with goals and excitement but rather because the theatre stemmed from the tension and caginess that dominated the tempo of the match for long stretches of play. Neither of the two coaches are particularly pragmatic but the overwhelming emphasis here was on the two sides nullifying the other’s strengths.
Both sides played with a double screen in front of the back four and as a result the creative players struggled to find space. James Troisi and Mitch Nichols rarely found room to turn on the ball facing forwards between the lines – the key to the Victory system – while Shinji Ono was forced into wider positions, darting to either side of the Victory pivot to find room.
Popovic’s side spent long periods without the ball and in those moments it was obvious how compact and well-drilled his side are even when starved of possession. The wide midfielders dropped into deep, narrow positions, the same approach John Aloisi took in the opening round and unsurprisingly, it lead to the same result. The passing angle into the Victory’s attacking midfielders was blocked and the route for their attacks was often to be forced wide towards Thompson or Pain, into far less dangerous positions close to the touchline.
It’s fast becoming obvious that the Victory’s attacks can be nullified by a side that stands off and sits deep. In contrast to the high line and intense pressing approach used by Wellington, Adelaide and Brisbane, games in which Victory’s front four flourished, Melbourne Heart and now Western Sydney have managed to keep a clean sheet simply by closing down the space in advanced positions for the attackers to move into. In fact, Sydney looked far more comfortable last week when defending with ten players behind the ball, almost thankful for the red card to Marc Warren that had necessitated that strategy.
At certain points in this match the Wanderers back four were defending across the width of the penalty box with the second bank of midfielders ahead of them narrowing the space and keeping the side incredibly compact from back to front. With space in the final third at such a premium, it’s little surprise Thompson and Pain rarely threatened the goal.
Indeed both sides attacking strategies revolved around getting players in behind and unsurprisingly Melbourne Victory’s best moments came when they could spring forward into open spaces on the counter-attack. Their best chance came when Thompson broke free down the right hand side but dragged his shot just wide of the far post, while Pain also had a shooting opportunity when receiving the ball from a long cross-field ball on the break.
Likewise for the Wanderers their most promising moments came not when they dwelled on the ball in deep positions for long periods, as was the case for much of the first half, as Matthew Spiranovic and Nikolai Topor-Stanley exchanged passes in a manner we rarely expect from Tony Popovic’s usually direct tactics.
Instead, it eventually became obvious that the home side were far more comfortable when building attacks through sequences of four or less passes, bypassing the midfield zone altogether. Right before the interval a lightning fast counter meant Cole managed to find himself in room inside the penalty area where he crossed when he might have been better shooting.
In fact Cole had been one of the more prominent attackers of the match before his substitution despite emerging onto the A-League scene as a utility defender. Often the outlet on the right hand side for long switches of play, Aaron Mooy frequently distributed the ball positively across to his side, the midfielders’ long sweeping diagonals switching the point of the attack and freeing up both Cole and the overlapping Polenz to cross into the middle. Yet the majority of the crosses, often lofted towards the back post, were just over hit, an indictment of the differences between the injured Tomi Juric and his replacement Brendan Santalab.
Santalab, redeployed as the main striker after initially entering the Wanderers fray as a right-winger, was rarely involved in build-up play, completing just four passes in the seventy minutes he spent on the pitch. Instead, he constantly moved off the shoulder of the Victory defence and looked to dart onto balls in behind. He had a few half-chances but even after he was replaced by Labinot Haliti his role was replicated as the substitute’s clever run into the channel to latch onto a Polenz long ball created the opportunity for him to square across goal for the waiting Bridge, whose finish was as simple as the move that had preceded it.