Emile Heskey scored a double to ensure Newcastle’s third win of the season.
Gary van Egmond gave Ben Kantarovski and Josh Brillante a first start of the season in midfield and defence respectively, with James Virigli dropping to the bench, and Ryan Griffiths moving to the right of a 4-3-3 formation.
Ange Postecoglou, having lost Guilherme Finkler to injury, selected Billy Celeski and Jonathon Bru in midfield. Mark Milligan continued in his hybrid defensive midfielder/centre back role.
A congested and scrappy first half – with the Hunter Stadium’s poor surface a crucial factor – with some interesting tactical points became quickly eradicated by Heskey, who rolled back the years with a quickfire brace.
This was always going to be a match centred around possession: the key tenet of Postecoglou’s philosophy is possession, and Van Egmond suggested this week his side has played too direct as a result of Heskey’s late arrival into the squad: “we’ve been doing it [possession] the whole preseason, but with Emile getting here later,” he said, “they’ve tended to look at that as an outlet a little bit too soon and we haven’t got that balance right as such.”
The selection of Kantarovski was significant – it signified that Van Egmond wasn’t comfortable with Griffiths, a nominal striker, being able to provide support in what was going to be a congested zone. It was clear he wanted to place an extra man in midfield and play the ball out from the back against a teething Victory side. The selection of Kantarovski on the left side of midfield meant captain Jobe Wheelhouse dropped deeper into a position between the lines, looking to pick up Marcos Flores.
With Milligan sitting deeper as part of (nearly) a back five, the Victory essentially had two players against the Jets three, meaning the home side theoretically had the extra man to pass their way through, especially with Flores often staying high and pressuring the centre-backs. Kantarovski and Zadkovich were broadly picking up Celeski and Bru, with the latter playing more as a duo rather than the ‘split’ partnership that normally features for the Victory, where Finkler plays a more advanced role in support of Flores.
Too often though in the first half, Newcastle went long and direct, which was a shame: they had looked good when they drew the wide players up field and then played quick passing combinations with the fullbacks and Wheelhouse, and the latter picked out a few accurate long diagonals to the wide players.
The Victory also struggled to build up play effectively in the first half. Last week against Adelaide Milligan played a clever role, splitting in between the centre backs when Victory didn’t have the ball and moving forward quickly to provide support as a holding midfielder in attack. Here, though, he was slow to move forward in attacks, too concerned with the threat of Emile Heskey. The Victory looked much more like a back five tonight and struggled to pass out from the back, as is their wont.
More generally, the passing in the first half was poor, with both sides being careless with the ball, and although the pitch was clearly an issue, too many passes were simply under hit or lacked accuracy. Flores was particularly culpable, guilty of trying to play too many ambitious passes and rarely linking up with Celeski or Bru. He was, however, impressive as the false nine, playing a couple of spectacular passes in behind the fullbacks.
This was the clearest threat throughout the first half: the right winger moving in behind Dominik Ritter to receive a diagonal pass and playing it across the box to the left sided winger, who would make a bisecting diagonal run in front of Josh Brillante. Generally, Marcos Rojas was the player looking to supply Archie Thompson, but too often the New Zealander’s delivery was poor. His poor execution was perhaps the biggest detriment to the Victory game-plan tonight – he failed to square a good chance to Thompson early when the game was scoreless, and at 1-0, he scuffed a fine one-on-one chance directly at Mark Birighitti.
The two swapped positions after Rojas had failed to capitalize on the third opportunity of this ilk, but the move remained similar. The key was finding space behind Ritter: the Swiss is naturally attacking down the left hand side and forms a natural partnership with Goodwin, who has experience at left-back, but too often he was caught high up the field and the left sided centre-back, Josh Mitchell, was uncomfortable moving out into that channel, as can be seen in the image above.
Second half formation change
The half time interview with Ryan Griffiths foreshadowed the major move of the match: the striker prompted concern at his relative lack of involvement, and Van Egmond clearly felt the same, deciding to change to a 4-2-3-1 formation, which meant Griffiths came into a central zone, Zadkovich moved right and Kantarovski and Wheelhouse became the double pivot, taking turns to move forward.
It’s difficult to decide whether this had a significant factor in the goals, and thus it’s difficult to give Van Egmond outright credit for the change, but it did provide Heskey, who scored the goals, more support. The Englishman had been crowded out by essentially three centre-backs and although he was often a target for long balls, he rarely found space to bring the ball down. His all-round play isn’t spectacular, but when he is combined with Griffiths, it is a combination of pace and height which makes it much more difficult for defences to set their line. In the first half the Victory could play high up the pitch in the knowledge there was little threat in behind, but throughout the second they were clearly confused as to the correct setting of their defensive line. Newcastle has much of an all-round threat when Griffiths plays centrally, and with the wide players stretching the active playing zone, they can attack both through the middle and the flanks – the second goal came from a [deflected] cross from the right side.
Postecoglou didn’t make any significant changes: his first move was to introduce James Jeggo for Celeski, which introduced more vertical running into the central zone, but that wasn’t linked to the goal, which rather stemmed from a bizarre clearance by Tiago. Jeggo was more proactive in shuttling forward to support Flores, contrasting with the rather stilted play of Jonathon Bru: the Mauritian has failed to impress this season and here, his role was unclear: if he was intended as a calm distributor in midfield, then his poor pass for the first goal betrayed that notion, while he is rarely in position to break up counter-attacks.
Postecoglou’s second change was a straightforward swap involving Theo Markelis and Rojas, while Van Egmond, although he used all three substitutes, was rather forced to through necessity rather than desire. He made like-for-like changes with James Virigili, Michael Bridges and Adam Taggart all playing the same role as the players they replaced (although Virigili switched flanks with Zadkovich shortly after coming on).
The best Victory chances came when the fullbacks made overlaps down the flanks, and they looked dangerous in patches – but were undermined by the Jets simply switching the ball from the wide players, who would stay on the touchline and thus make it difficult for the Victory to turn the ball over.
(A quick aside: in the first half, the discipline of the Victory fullbacks was notable – against the Heart both Traore and Foschini were naive and too often bombed forward at the same time, but here they were far more aware of the movement on the opposite side. One would suit if the other went forward, giving the defence a greater balance it had missed earlier in the season)
This was a strange game, the goals stemming from circumstance rather than clear tactical factors. Heskey was the ‘narrative’ of the match, but his overall game wasn’t particularly special – his main role is as a foil and poacher, but if Van Egmond wants a more proactive possession game, then Heskey needs a partner, else he becomes too isolated.
Much to ponder for Postecoglou, but he will have noted that had Victory taken their first half chances (or indeed the Rojas one-on-one) then the story may have been very different. The diagonal running of Archie Thompson is a big positive: the Socceroo has received some criticism lately but he looks to become an integral part of the Victory blueprint with his clever movement from wide positions.