Despite a late comeback from the Phoenix Melbourne Victory held out for a second straight win.
Guilherme Finkler returned in midfield following his injury while Ange Postecoglou gave Diogo Ferriera a first start of the season at right-back ahead of Matthew Foschini.
With Ben Sigmund suspended, Ricki Herbert selected Michael Boxall in central defence alongside captain Andrew Durante. Jeremy Brockie partnered Stijn Huysegems up front.
Marcos Rojas scored a brace against his former club before two late Jeremy Brockie goals narrowed the scoreline, but the game was won by a combination of superb attacking play from the Victory and poor defence from the Phoenix.
Victory movement + Phoenix defence
The main story of the game was Postecoglou’s side ‘clicking’, and although their movement and understanding was superb, their efforts were exaggerated by a shocking defensive strategy from the Phoenix.
Balls in behind the defence were the clearest route to goal, with Finkler and Flores constantly finding space between the lines to play the wide forwards, Archie Thompson and Marcos Rojas, towards goal. Both players’ roles in the new-look Victory have been well documented by this blog, but tonight was the clearest illustration of how the unusual false nine system works. Flores would constantly drop off the centre backs to link up with the advanced midfielder, Finkler, in the pockets behind Manny Muscat and Alexander Smith. That left the Wellington defenders with the dilemma of choosing whether to track Flores or leave him, but the speed of the Victory attacks as the wide forwards made diagonal runs towards goal meant it was extremely difficult for them to close down the attack.
The Phoenix defence actually sat relatively high up the pitch, but their biggest problem was the lack of pressure on the ball possessor. Too often one of the two deeper Victory midfielders, Mark Milligan and Billy Celeski, could pick up the ball and pass it forward, free of any pressure and able to pick out either Flores or Finkler between the lines of midfield and defence.
In the Phoenix system, Manny Muscat generally sits in front of the back four while Alexander Smith pushes forward to press, turning the Phoenix into a 4-1-3-2, but here that meant that Smith was stranded against the intelligent movement of Flores and Finkler. The interchange between the two South Americans was at times mesmerising and Victory deserved their lead, but the movement of Thompson and Rojas was also crucial. They have an excellent understanding of the movement required as wide forwards in Postecoglou’s system.
At the other end, the Phoenix played a straightforward 4-4-2 system, but with Paul Ifil, Louie Fenton and Jeremy Brockie all capable of playing on either wing, there was some rotation throughout the first half – Brockie started as the centre-forward but then switched with Ifil midway through the half.
The static figure in this attack was the Belgian Huysegems, who had a more specific role: he was a withdrawn forward, instructed to pick up Milligan when his side were out of possession. Huysegems isn’t a particularly mobile player, and Milligan was able to evade him fairly easily and pass without much pressure.
Notably, Milligan played higher up the pitch in this game, meaning the Victory played with a midfield duo and looked far more like a 4-2-3-1. Milligan’s been deployed as a hybrid midfielder/defender against Adelaide and Newcastle but as his passing chalkboard to the right demonstrates; he was much more involved in attacking play as the Victory dominated possession.
Herbert made no changes immediately after half-time, and the Phoenix continued to struggle with the synchronised movement of the Victory attack as the two South American playmakers continued to find space between the lines, and it was no surprise that Rojas added a second.
With that goal, Herbert decided to shake things up, by removing Ifil and Huysegems, who had both been quiet, and reconfiguring his attack with Tyler Boyd and Benjamin Totori. Brockie moved into a permanent centre-forward position with the Solomon Islands winger taking a position on the left.
The substitutions did not have an immediate tangible impact, but had the expected result, with the fresh legs injecting more pace and movement into the Phoenix attack. Yet the Victory were happy to control possession and kill the tempo of the game, and with Flores dropping deep to effectively create a 4v2 situation in that zone, the Victory were fairly comfortable.
The two crucial subs came later, when Vince Lia was introduced and Finkler was removed: the latter had been key to Victory’s monopolisation of possession, while Lia solidified the Phoenix midfield. The Victory passing became sloppy, they were less focused on controlling the ball, and dropped deeper than Postecoglou would have intended – he made his feelings over the change in strategy clear at the post-match conference.
The coach removed both goal-scorers and introduced Jonathon Bru and Andrew Nabbout, but this did little to stem the flow. Totori had been particularly effective off the bench and isolated Diogo Ferreira down the left-hand side with direct, purposeful dribbling. Brockie was able to find space on the edge of the area to curl in a fantastic goal following good work from Totori down the by-line.
Sixty minutes of Victory domination, then the momentum of the game slowly turned. Some might say that they should have pressed on when they could so clearly take advantage of the Phoenix flaws, but 3-0 is a big lead and the onus falls on the players to close the game out. “Disappointing way to finish,” siad Postecoglou. “We want to play a certain way, and players can’t change their mind and play how they want,” branding the final thirty minutes “unacceptable.”
It’s difficult to give credit to Herbert for the almost-comeback, just as it is to give Victory full credit for their first half attacking display. Both sides took advantage of the others weaknesses to score goals.