The headlines continue to be written by Bruno Fornaroli, Aaron Mooy and Harry Novillo but Melbourne City's title hopes may be defined by wing-backs Ivan Franjic and Michael Zullo.
City's risk-reward balance out wide paid off against Wellington Phoenix on Monday as they triumphed 3-1 at AAMI Park, but it remains uncertain whether John van 't Schip's current penchant for 3-5-2 can lead to silverware.
Van 't Schip turned to three at the back during the first half of City's match against Sydney FC on January 2 where the Sky Blues dominated the opening 30 minutes.
That match ended 2-2 and they have yet to lose playing 3-5-2 after wins over Phoenix and Western Sydney Wanderers, plus last week's draw at Perth Glory.
Playing three central defenders with two wing-backs generally provides more defensive cover as a team essentially defends with five players.
It also allows the wing-backs to attack with little fear, as attacking full-backs in a back four can sometimes leave a team undermanned in transition.
But one of the major weaknesses is the amount of running the wing-backs must do, as the 3-5-2 normally has no other natural wide players, while the formation can leave space on the flanks for the opposition.
The Phoenix had some joy on their left wing in the first half for that exact reason, as Tom Doyle and Michael McGlinchey overloaded Franjic.
McGlinchey would stay high on the flank, generally behind Franjic but outside City's right central defender Patrick Kisnorbo, and if Wellington had had a better finisher on the pitch, the former Celtic youth player's crosses may well have led to a goal.
But City's left side had no such issues as Roly Bonevacia - nominally Phoenix's right winger - played much more centrally than McGlinchey, while right-back Matthew Ridenton was less adventurous.
This allowed Zullo to focus on his attacking responsibilities, with the 27-year-old feeding Fornaroli for a stunning opening goal in the 12th minute, while the one-time Socceroos left-back produced a fizzing cross for Novillo to double the hosts' lead just after the half-hour mark.
Playing 3-5-2 benefits City two-fold; it gives Fornaroli, Novillo and Mooy freedom in the forward third, and it suits Zullo and Franjic - hardly the most defensive of full-backs - perfectly.
Franjic attacked more regularly in the second half, often receiving the ball high on the right, including in a move that saw Novillo hit the bar.
With new signing Anthony Caceres showing some good early signs as Erik Paartalu's defensive midfield partner, there was plenty to like about City's performance against the Phoenix.
But this was against a severely undermanned Wellington side.
It would be easy to imagine Melbourne Victory's resurgent wingers Kosta Barbarouses and Fahid Ben Khalfallah thriving in the space McGlinchey initially found in the next derby on February 13.
But if City can improve at the back, Monday's performance underlined the firepower at Van 't Schip's disposal.
Surely enough to lift a trophy this season.comments