Breakdown: Master or apprentice?
Despite the change in coaches and context this was almost a carbon copy of the same fixture last season. The primary feature was Wellington’s high line being exposed unsurprisingly by a rampant Melbourne Victory inside the opening thirty minutes – remarkably, the scoreline, 3-2, was the same in both games.
It is lazy, however, to pin the troubles purely on Ernie Merrick’s decision to ask his defenders to play high up the pitch, although it is worth questioning why such a strategy was pursued after the Victory repeatedly got in behind the similarly risky defensive line deployed by Adelaide and Brisbane in the previous two rounds. Instead, the first match of the season, when John Aloisi instructed his side to play very cautiously in two banks of four and cut off passes into the Victory attacking quartet, should be the template this season for sides that want to nullify the Victory flurry of movement and speed in the final third.
Yet Merrick was bold and his side subsequently struggled significantly in the opening half hour. Having spoken extensively this week of the balance he’s had to strike between his preferred attacking format – a 4-3-3 with three out-and-out forwards – and the system he has predominantly used, with Jason Hicks tucking in on the left side of midfield, it was unsurprising to see one change from last week’s draw with Newcastle: Paul Ifil dropped to the bench with Albert Riera making a starting debut in the centre of midfield.
Although this was a change designed to bolster the centre of midfield it was still practically the former system that Merrick had referred to, with Jeremy Brockie, Carlos Hernandez and Stein Huysegems playing as a nominal front three. Their positions weren’t fixed, and the two strikers often switched sides when the ball was turned over as Hernandez tended towards a more central, playmaking role – sometimes making the formation appear a 4-3-1-2 – but the key issue was the fact that out of possession they all pressed the Victory back four with great intensity but contributed little defensively when the home side played past the initial burst of energy.
Perhaps this was a specific ploy for Merrick to try and take advantage of the space down the sides and Brockie often received long passes in space simply because he was always in a position to be the out-ball in a counter-attack. That certainly played a hand in the first goal, with Hernandez able to pick out Brockie in acres of space down the left with an excellent first-time ball after winning possession. There was also a moment in the opening five minutes when only a smart sliding tackle by Pablo Contreras prevented Huysegems latching onto a dangerous pass into the right channel from Hernandez, who frequently drifted towards the right flank to prompt attacking moves.
However, closing a side down high up the pitch only works if the opposition struggles under that sort of pressure and one of Ange Postecoglou’s lasting legacies at the Victory has been to develop the defence’s ability to pass out from the back. That has only been strengthened by the arrival of the calm Contreras who frequently brought the ball forward from deep positions, pulling Phoenix players towards him before he quickly passed forwards to a teammate in space.
Often the beneficiary of that is the midfield duo of Mark Milligan and Leigh Broxham, who regularly rank high amongst the league for passes completed. Milligan moves cleverly across the width of the pitch to receive possession on the half-turn so he’s in a position to play the next pass facing forwards.
In the context of this match it meant that the Phoenix’s flat midfield trio were often dragged out of shape, with the nominal deepest player, Riera, often charging forward from his deep-lying berth to close down Milligan. The layout of the Phoenix midfield was curious in its flatness and the straight line they were keeping in the centre of the park was often very obvious.
With the Victory’s attacking quartet moving fluently between those lines it looked quite naïve, and the purposeful nature of their attacks meant moves flowed into the final third with a speed and precision that overwhelmed the Phoenix back four. Their troubles were exacerbated by the high line they were keeping and James Troisi in particular found room to ‘connect’ the Victory attacks in wide, left-sided positions before charging forward into goalscoring areas. The fact both he and Thompson were working that left flank contributed to the frequent overloading of Louie Fenton in his new role at right-back and a large proportion of attacking moves stemmed from down that wing.
The first goal is clearly the case in point as Troisi collect possessions in a left-sided position between the lines, although it is Thompson who provides a classy finish from – unsurprisingly and fittingly – Milligan’s probing forward pass. The second, Troisi’s first, is mainly due to disastrous defending but the nature of the awful back-header was telling of the Victory’s dominance, having already twice got in behind the back four but only denied first by an inevitable Thompson offside and secondly by Glen Moss’s smart sweeper-goalkeeping. The high line was certainly most obvious when Kosta Barbarouses chipped a through-pass for Troisi into the thirty yards of space in behind Ben Sigmund for the eventually decisive third goal.
At 3-0 up, the Victory’s lead emphasised the Phoenix’s struggles and yet Merrick’s side pulled two back without any particular change to their formation or approach. After withstanding a series of Victory corners at the start of the second half they increasingly controlled possession – although the tempo dropped significantly – and the Victory midfield duo, so impressive in possession, began to look extremely vulnerable without the ball. There was often acres of space between the lines for Hernandez, whose combination with Manny Muscat – limited to just 4 passes between them in the first half, and nearly doubling in the second – illustrates the increased time on the ball the Phoenix were enjoying.
Combined with Paul Ifil’s directness off the bench and it was, like last year, a recipe for an inspired yet insufficient Victory comeback. Like how the Victory’s three goals were indebted to the Phoenix’s defensive issues in the first half, though, the turnaround was linked to the home side’s complacency in the second – and questions have to be asked of how the Victory like to close out games.
We’re not entirely sure if they want to simply dominate possession to prevent the opposition from building momentum, or if they want to increase their lead, or simply sit back and soak up pressure. Rather paradoxically, there’s a lack of clarity and cohesion about them when they they’re winning: after a successful debut as the new head coach, that might be Kevin Muscat’s first, most pressing issue.