Melbourne Victory came from behind to record their first win of the season.
Ange Postecoglou made six changes from the side that was thumped 5-0 by Brisbane last week. Tando Velaphi came in for Lawrence Thomas in goal, while Petar Franjic and Billy Celeski were handed starts. The trio of Marcos Rojas, Archie Thompson and Mark Milligan, who had all been on international duty, returned to the side.
John Kosmina, by contrast, made just one change from the team that defeated the Western Sydney Wanderers, with Dario Vidosic returning from injury for Bruce Djite. Jeronimo Neumann was the central striker.
Both sides had periods of momentum, but Melbourne was able to make the most of their chances.
Postecoglou’s most significant change was to move Milligan into central midfield alongside Celeski, opting to play Adrian Leijer and Franjic at the back. Milligan was quickly identified as one of Postecoglou’s two main targets upon the coach’s arrival at the Victory, and it was clear why: he combines both strong defensive ability with the natural technique to play out from the back. He played an unusual role as the deeper midfielder, sitting in between the two centre backs for the majority of the match, similar to how Erik Paartalu was deployed under Postecoglou at the Roar. He was often sitting extraordinarily deep for a nominal midfielder, and with essentially five players in the backline, the Victory found it easier to retain possession, which is, of course, the central tenet of Postecoglou’s playing philosophy. Milligan also moved into midfield to support attacks and help circulate the ball during long periods of build-up play. Tactically, he was the game’s key player, suitably scored the equaliser, and was aptly rewarded with the man of the match award.
Adelaide had also made subtle changes to their side, with Kosmina’s omission of both Djite and Sergio van Djik from the matchday squad the biggest talking point pre-match. Jeronimo had played the majority of the second half against the Wanderers in the no.9 position, and scored the winning goal in that role, but his performance was disappointing here. Despite being nominally a midfielder in a centre forward position, it would be incorrect to call him a false 9: instead, he rarely dropped deep, was often found around the penalty area, and struggled to link up with the attacking band of three. But he isn’t a physical player either, and wasn’t an outlet for long balls, meaning Adelaide struggled to create chances in open play, and both Fabio Ferriera and Iain Ramsay were largely anonymous.
The ‘true’ false nine
Offensively, that was the major difference between the two sides. By choosing to deploy Marcos Flores as the focal point of the attack, the Victory play with the very modern false 9 system, which essentially revolves around the central player dropping deep to allow wide forwards to motor inside. The wingers are required to stretch the play vertically and horizontally. Rojas generally stays wide and extends the active playing zone on the right, while Thompson provides quick diagonal runs behind the defence, looking to drive into the space vacated by Flores. He has a good understanding of his role, and that clarity is crucial to providing Flores time and space on the ball in midfield. Without some sort of attacking threat to mark, defenders playing against a false nine can simply play higher up the park, but Thompson’s pace and directness pushes them back and opens up room in between the lines of midfield. Flores was superb, varying his movement by not only shifting deeper but also to the flanks, ensuring an element of fluidity to Melbourne’s play. The tremendous pass from the Argentine midway through the second half was a wonderful microcosm of what Postecoglou is trying to achieve.
The team sheets seemingly suggested both sides would match up largely like for like in the midfield zone, but with Milligan dropping deeper, the possession battle became more uncertain. Finkler played higher up and close to Flores, leaving Celeski to play a ‘runner’ role, box-to-box to provide support both in defence and attack. Therefore, Adelaide theoretically could have outnumbered him and played through that zone, but they faced a similar problem: Dario Vidosic prefers to try and play goalside and rarely drops deep, while Osama Malik was concerned with the movement of Flores and Finkler and played deeper, leaving Cameron Watson to motor up and down the pitch. With every player in the midfield zone concerned either with a) providing creativity higher up the pitch b) blocking space to the opposite creative midfielder or c) supporting both the defence and the attack, there was little cohesion, and frequent turnover was the result, and little was created after long periods of possession. Instead, the best chances came from quick counter-attacks.
Bringing Flores deep and playing Thompson behind the defence seemed to be Victory’s best route to the goal, and they attempted this frequently and were the better side. Adelaide looked dangerous while Jeronimo could draw Milligan out and then burst past him into space, but this only occurred once late towards half-time.
Flurry of goals
In a manic period of four minutes, both sides scored set-piece goals seemingly alien of any tactical factors. However, at half time, Adelaide assistant coach Michael Valkanis identified the “need to be more positive,” and that message was clear when the Reds began to press higher up the pitch, with more cohesion that at any point during the first half, and the penalty resulted from a corner won via intensive pressing.
Finkler was the architect of the Victory goal, not only for the superb set piece delivery but also for the long raking pass which found Rojas, who was again stretching the play down that flank, and Cassio was drawn into a silly challenge. Adelaide had been vulnerable to lofted free kicks all game (Melbourne really should have scored from one of the three corners in the opening seven minutes) and the manner of the goal was little surprise.
The second half followed in much the same pattern as the first, with Adelaide struggling to fashion chances and Victory relying on Milligan to drop in and create more passing angles. They still appear vulnerable to pressure high up the pitch, particularly when Velaphi is in possession. He was originally overlooked in the opening two rounds as Postecoglou preferred Thomas’s ability to play out from the back, and this game made it clear what had informed that decision, with Milligan often visibly frustrated at his goalkeepers’ poor distribution. What makes the keeper selection interesting is Velaphi’s tendency to come off his line and sweep in behind his defence, an attribute crucial when attempting to play a high line. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Thomas return to the starting side in the coming weeks.
Kosmino was the first to make a substitution, electing to replace the quiet Jeronimo with Marcelo Carrusca, who moved into a left of centre midfield position, with Vidosic becoming the most advanced player. Malik began to play deeper between the lines This was a curious move, because it didn’t solve the problem of fluency in the final third. Vidosic as centre-forward was very similar to Jeronimo as centre-forward, and although it gave Adelaide more presence in the midfield zone with Carrusca sitting deeper, Ramsay and Ferriera still struggled to get involved
Postecoglou also made a change, removing Billy Celeski for Jonathon Bru in a like-for-like change. The Victory coach might have been wanting to introduce fresh legs into the midfield zone, reacting perhaps to Adelaide’s greater threat between the lines. Sometimes Milligan was too deep and Celeski too upfield, leaving space in dangerous areas. Bru sat deeper than Celeski and played a more disciplined, holding role.
The winning goal, scored by Rojas, could easily have been written off to luck, but the delivery was significant: the two wide players had swapped positions, but their roles remained the same – Thompson was wide on the right to produce a fantastic pass, and Rojas was storming into a central position.
Behind for the first time this season, Kosmina’s side now had to show they could play proactively. They played on the counter-attack to great success in the first two rounds, but now had to show they can provide the running and force the issue. But with little movement in the final third, and a lack of an aerial outlet, they struggled to create chances, and Victory actually had the better of the final twenty minutes, with Thompson’s running from the left a useful outlet for Victory transitions. They were happy to sit back in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Finkler the lone attacker (Flores having been typically removed at the 70th minute mark), and draw Adelaide up the pitch.
Lots to discuss here – Victory’s false nine, Adelaide’s faltering attack, and Milligan’s hybrid midfield/defender role. Postecoglou was extremely pleased with the three points, but will continue to tinker with his side to ensure they find the right balance both in defence and in attack. He will be especially pleased with the performances of his fullbacks, with Adama Traore having a strong game down the left to both shut down Ferriera and motor forward in attack.
Kosmina will be disappointed with how his side failed to play proactively in the final twenty minutes, and Adelaide’s challenge is to show they are not a one-dimensional side.