Dylan MacAllister scored the match winner in a pulsating opening to the new A-League season.
Ange Postecoglou elected for twenty year old Lawrence Thomas in goals, with Marcos Flores making his Melbourne debut in the false nine position.
John Aloisi set his side out in an attacking 4-4-2, with captain Fred behind MacAllister up front. Patrick Gerhardt made his debut at centre-back alongside Simon Colosimo.
The first half was characterized by extreme high pressure from both sides, and as the intensity of the pressing dropped during the second half, the result stayed the same.
The opening game marked both coaches’ first games in their new roles. It was widely pitted as a battle between youth and experienced, with Postecoglou having won the last two A-League titles. His defection to Melbourne was the most promising tactical development of the off-season, as pre-season suggested he would play with the sophisticated false nine system. With Flores partnering Guilherme Finkler up front, and Archie Thompson and Marcos Rojas cutting in from the flanks, it promised to be an exciting and fluid formation, where possession and clever movement would be paramount.
Aloisi has a similar philosophy of attractive football, but he had the additional benefit of that culture already being deep-rooted at the club. John Van’t Schip departed to C.D. Guadalajara leaving behind a thrilling and aggressive system which was marred by inconsistency. Pace was the side’s crucial asset, with lighting fast breaks a hugely successful element to their stunning 4-0 away win over Sydney FC. Aloisi named a similarly pacey side with David Williams and Mate Dugandzic playing on the flanks, looking to break forward in support of MacAllister. The extremely versatile Matt Thompson and new signing Richard Garcia manned the midfield zone in a straightforward 4-4-2.
Both sides had four across the back, four across the midfield, and two “attackers”. On paper, it seemed to be a fairly simple formation battle, with the sides evenly matched across the pitch, but their commitment to pressing ensured the match was played at a high tempo and extremely attacking.
The Heart were pressing higher than the Victory: right from the kick off, the front six all stormed forward and looked to box in the man in possession. The Victory would have been prepared for this, and were committed to their new philosophy of playing out from the back, and adopted a similar attitude when they were out of the ball, looking to restrict passing angles forward.
The Heart’s pressing was surprisingly organised, and that is a testament to Aloisi. Similar to Barcelona, who are the benchmark for pressing, they would immediately try to regain possession, before dropping back into their 4-4-2 shape. They would then wait for one of the Victory centrebacks – Adrian Leijier of Mark Milligan – to bring the ball up the field, which would be a trigger for one striker to attack the ball possessor, the other to occupy the spare centre back and cut off the horizontal pass, and the two midfielders to move high up the pitch and form a shield around the player, forcing the play backwards. It was a demanding system, but it was effective, with Victory often forced to restart the play from either Thomas or one of the fullbacks, who generally had a restricted view of the pitch.
With both sides so committed to pressing, it was clear there was going to be space in between the lines, and the first two goals originated in these zones. Heart were looking to play quick, one-touch combinations to bypass the Victory midfield, and moments before the opener Garcia had been played in behind Jonathon Bru with the time and space to attempt a long range shot.
William’s goal came from a similar wall-pass situation, and while it was clever interplay between the Heart attackers, they benefitted greatly from the wayward positioning of Adama Traore. The Ivorian was caught high up the field throughout the match, but was rarely available as an out ball in attack, and although he was offered little protection by the roving Archie Thompson, his overall game was very poor. The Heart were also able to take advantage of a Victory side committing to playing out all the costs and often turning the ball over in dangerous areas as a result. By contrast, Clint Bolton was more willing to go long, aided by the presence of MacAllister who was an aerial outlet.
Despite originating over sixty years ago with Matthias Sindelar and Hungary’s wunderteam (read Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathon Wilson for more), the concept of a deep-lying centre forward remains a relatively untrodden system viewed largely with scepticism. The concept revolves around intelligent movement from the nominal “no.9”, who makes lateral movements to draw defenders up the field and provide space for wide attackers. In Thompson and Rojas (and Markelis, who would make a substitute appearance), Postecoglou has the perfect players to take advantage of Flores, who constantly wants to get on the ball and play incisive passes. With no player patrolling the zone in which a holding midfield would normally occupy, Flores was often free to drop in between the lines, and he was Victory’s key player in the first half. He hit a reverse pass for Rojas was too heavy for the winger, and his clever turn provided Finkler with the opportunity to attempt a wonderful curled shot which went just wide. The Heart central defence also had trouble controlling him when he was directly on the ball, with both Colosimo and Gerhardt being brave and willing to be drawn high up the pitch to close him down, although chances came when Flores could skip past these challenges.
His movement into wide positions was also notable, and it was a smart run into the left sided channel that created Victory’s equaliser. The image below (taken from Fox Sport’s Match Centre service) shows how the Heart central defenders were left with marking space, unaware of Rojas marking a run from the touchline. Archie Thompson showed great understanding of his role throughout the first half, and it was fitting that he recorded the assist.
With both sides having pressed so doggedly in the first half, it wasn’t surprising to see the second half became characterized by fatigue, with both teams becoming sloppy on the ball and displaying poor decision making. Both sides also dropped off more in defence, allowing the opposition centre backs more time on the ball. The Heart defenders adapted better to this by playing some long diagonals into the left channel, where David Williams had a good game working the flank, offering both width and drive towards goal.
As the side chasing the game, it was only natural that Postecoglou made more proactive changes, introducing all three of his subs before Aloisi had only made one. The most notable move was to remove Leigh Broxham and replace him with Danny Allsopp, a striker. That saw Finkler move into the midfield two, with Allsopp playing a similar sort of role to Flores, dropping deep but also making stronger, more driving runs into the box, and he missed a good chance with one of these runs forward.
Heart were dropping deeper and deeper as the half went on, but they didn’t keep a particularly good shape, and the willingness of both centrebacks to move aggressively out of their position was becoming a strong risk. Aloisi’s first change was to remove the extremely versatile Matt Thompson for Jason Hoffman, who provided fresh legs in that zone. Heart continued to target that left wing, and Williams squandered a few chances to put the game away. Postecoglou’s last two subs, introducing Markelis and Jeggo for Rojas and Flores respectively were uninspiring changes, and the game finished as it was at half time.
Much work to do for Postecoglou, but as the Fox Sports commentary pointed out, it took his Brisbane side six games to record a first win. On a more global scale, even Guardiola’s Barcelona failed to win their first game. In fairness, Heart had a clever game plan, and by pressing high up the pitch were able to disrupt a Victory side that would have otherwise benefitted from being given time and space to play out from the back. A lot of criticism was levelled at the defence tonight, and while the individuals played poorly, they were offered little protection from their midfield. Erik Paartalu is one of the unsung heroes of Brisbane’s success, as his position at the apex of the midfield triangle is crucial for allowing Brisbane to play the ball out of defence. With Victory’s midfield two, they were will find it harder to complete that defence to attack transition, and sides will continue to press high up the pitch and force them into mistakes until they become more comfortable on the ball. Heart will be extremely happy with their efforts tonight and were suitably rewarded, and the challenge for Aloisi now is to carry that form into the rest of the season.