Moving Mark Milligan into midfield and playing Marcos Flores as the false nine have been the two biggest tactical talking points of Ange Postecoglou’s tenure at Melbourne Victory so far.
Both players are calm, intelligent passers operating at different ends of the pitch – Milligan is a defender who can also play midfield, while Flores is a creative playmaker best suited to a central role. Postecoglou clearly saw both at the heart of a new-look Victory side centred on monopolising possession.
The main discussion regarding Flores’ arrival was focused upon what this meant for his former club, Adelaide United, but the signing also triggered an intriguing tactical dilemma: how did Postecoglou plan to fit both Flores and Guilherme Finkler, another new signing who likes to play in a central attacking midfield position, into the same side?
The answer lay with one of the biggest talking points of the summer – Spain’s ‘false nine’ system involving Cesc Fabregas. Indeed, Postecoglou foreshadowed his intentions in a July interview with The World Game: “Spain have shown us during Euro 2012 that you can afford to be less dependent on strikers and still win.”
The false nine system is relatively obscure to the majority of football fans, and polarises opinion. Generally speaking, it revolves around the movement of a lone ‘striker’, who has a free role to drop deep and wide, looking to link up play and drag defenders out of position as to create space for wide attackers and running midfielders to exploit. The truest example of the system is Lionel Messi, who essentially pioneered the role under Pep Guardiola, as I wrote on the Chelsea blog We Ain’t Got No History.
Messi is constantly on the move, laterally and vertically across the pitch, seeking the ball in spaces where he can cause the most damage. Because he’s such a frighteningly good technical player, defenders can’t simply let him wander: they’ve got to come up with solutions to stop him getting on the ball.
The fact that Flores is one of the standout technical players in the league informed Postecoglou’s decision to sign him, and with his clever close control and supreme awareness of space, Flores is indeed a perfect fit for a false nine role.
Taking a look at the ONCE Football passing chalkboard for Flores in his most recent game against Newcastle, Flores clearly isn’t playing passes in positions one would expect of his position. Rather, he floats across the pitch and looks to release the wide players in behind the defence, as is characteristic of a false nine.
Compare that with the passes attempted by Emile Heskey in the same game. That’s not to demean the Englishman’s performance, but rather to highlight the clear contrast in roles. Flores is all about movement. He drifts into space, lures defenders out, and uses supreme close control to exploit any opportunities On the other hand, Heskey is a target man, essentially a foil to engineer space for the more technically adept players, namely Ryan Griffiths and Craig Goodwin, and he is also instructed to float around the penalty area and look for goal-scoring opportunities.
Postecoglou’s selections to date indicate that he prefers the combination of Archie Thompson and Marcos Rojas flank Flores on the left and right respectively, and the two complement the Argentine superbly: Thompson makes direct diagonal runs from the left into the space vacated by Flores, while Rojas generally stays wide and stretches the width of the attack. These roles are flexible, and it’s not unusual to see the two switch positions midway through a game.
For the false nine system to be truly effective, it requires players to occupy the space which has been unoccupied. Pedro of Barcelona is a perfect example: the Spaniard is versatile and hard-working, and provides the perfect complement to Messi’s vertical movement.
Using the above image as an example, Flores was able to drop deep and pick the ball up in space, and his centre-forward position was then taken up by one of the wide players. The chance was let down by a poor finish by Thompson, but that move is exactly what Messi and Pedro have been doing for the past couple of seasons.
The opening game of the season – the Melbourne derby – saw Milligan play alongside captain Adrian Leijer in the heart of the defence, but the real story behind that game was Aloisi’s brave pressing. Milligan played what can be termed as a ‘standard’ centre-back role, and his role was tactically uninteresting. He was absent the following week as a consequence of international duty, but his immediate return to the side against Adelaide United signified a change of strategy. Leijer was partnered with Petar Franjic at the back, with Milligan moving into a defensive midfield position.
In that match, he was superb, with the match report quoted as follows:
Milligan played an unusual role as the deeper midfielder, sitting in between the two centre backs for the majority of the match. 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.
His role was similar to that of Erik Paartalu under the same manager at the Brisbane Roar. Paartalu is fundamental to the Brisbane system, as illustrated by the extraordinary number of consecutive starts he has made for the club. A fair comparison, at least positionally, is with Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, who protects the back four in the defensive phase, but also, crucially, drops in between the two centre-backs during attacks to transform a four-man defensive line into a three-man defence, and therefore allow the full-backs to storm forwards in attack. Given that Postecoglou clearly takes many of his principles from the Spanish giants, it’s little surprise for him to continue the Victory tradition of holding midfielders with Kevin Muscat and Grant Brebner all well-known names to have occupied that position
There is a subtle difference to Postecoglou’s system: Milligan often stayed deep in between the centre backs during Adelaide attacks, not quite part of the defence but sitting just in front, transforming a nominal back four into what often looked like a back five. It’s unclear whether this is a deliberate strategy from Postecoglou, but against Adelaide, it meant that Milligan was away from the congested midfield zone, and able to play spread the play from flank to flank with regular ease. According to ONCE data, he misplaced just five passes throughout the match and ended with 90% passing accuracy.
Milligan played a similar defensive midfield role against the Jets, but as noted in the analysis, he was slower to move forward into midfield positions, presumably concerned with the threat of Emile Heskey. Therefore, the Victory struggled to play the ball out from the back, and there was often space between Milligan and the midfield duo of Jonathon Bru and Billy Celeski. Newcastle were poor in their possession play during the first half and went long too frequently, but were much improved in the second half when Ryan Griffiths was shifted into a central position and scored two goals.
The difference between the two performances can perhaps be summed by the ONCE statistic of taken balls: against Adelaide, Milligan completed eleven interceptions, and just one against Newcastle. Striking the balance between defensive and offensive responsibility will be the key.
Two key players, two key positions. Flores and Milligan are crucial to Postecoglou’s system this season: the former is the heart of their attacking strategy and the latter is likewise defensively.
The evidence so far suggests that the false nine experiment will be successful: Flores’ movement is deceptive and Thompson is perhaps the most suitable wide attacker in the A-League, and interchange between the two has been a feature of the Victory attack this season.
It would be unfair to judge Milligan and the hybrid midfield/defender role on the basis of two games, but it is clear there needs to be more cohesion between his movement and his team-mates For example, if Milligan drops into defence, that is a licence for a full-back to move forward, but too often Adama Traore and Matthew Foschini are slow to move forward into attack. By contrast, Shane Steffanutto and Ivan Franjic have a fantastic “hidden” relationship with Paartalu, and it is this synchronism of movement that makes Brisbane so dangerous.
All visual representations of ONCE Football used in this article are copyrighted under the license of ONCE Football