In their past two matches Melbourne City have trailed at the 70-minute mark and, in both instances against the Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Victory, coach John Van ’t Schip has had the same response.
His go-to move when chasing a game is to remove holding midfielder Erik Paartalu, who plays at the base of the midfield triangle as a #6, and bring on Paolo Retre, a tall, energetic youngster who goes on as one of the advanced midfielders, with Aaron Mooy dropping into Paartalu’s role.
The intent of the change, it seems, is to get Mooy on the ball more often in time and space, with Retre’s role to press on opposition midfielders, help win the ball and also create space for the #6 with his energy.
Mooy has a superb range of passing, and when chasing the game, it would seem ideal to have him facilitating attacking moves from a deep position – theoretically free from pressure from opponents. The negative consequence of the change is that Mooy isn’t as solid defensively as Paartalu, and doesn’t protect the centre-backs as keenly.
Two games, the same change in both – and two different results. Against the Jets, having wrestled back control of the game after Edson Montano’s header, City had the momentum. They were dominating possession, getting into the final third and pushing the Jets defensive block very deep. Paartalu’s job had become simple – recycling the ball to players further forward – and the Jets were barely threatening on the counter.
Mooy to #6 was logical. He could execute Paartalu’s distribution at a higher, more incisive tempo, and could switch the play with long, searching diagonals. In the context of the game state, with City bossing the play, it was a logical, controlled switch to up the ante.
The same move, however, had the reverse effect against Melbourne Victory. This time, two goals down, Van ’t Schip really had to roll the dice but crucially, as Victory had stormed the second half with a superb display of high-tempo football, City were on the back foot.
Mooy as the #6 backfired. He was overwhelmed by waves of Victory attacks and, because City were struggling to retain the ball – let alone work it forward - it was impossible for him to impact the game from a deeper position. Instead, City left themselves too open and Victory added a fifth via Archie Thompson on the counter-attack.
Context is vitally important when managers make mid-game changes. An effective substitution, of course, relies inherently on the quality of the player being introduced, but the game state will determine how effectively they can impact the game. As we saw in the Melbourne derby, if you can’t win the ball in your own half, there’s not much an extra attacker higher up the pitch can do to help.
It’s encouraging to see Van ’t Schip be so positive with his use of the bench (indeed, another substitution this season has seen him switch to an aggressive back three) but as the Mooy change against the Victory demonstrated, sometimes even positive intentions can backfire.
City’s problem wasn’t in transitioning the ball into the final third, which is what Mooy brings as a #6, but in winning it in the first place, a quality Paartalu can provide.
Removing the holding midfielder, ironically, made City less effective going forward. Somewhat paradoxically, all-out attack isn’t always the most effective way of attacking.
Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com