Postecoglou emerges victorious over Ferguson in clash of contrasting styles

Last Friday night, Melbourne Victory v Perth Glory threw up an interesting contrast in attacking styles. One built around finesse and pace in behind, and another constructed on traditional number nines and service through crosses. That’s not really a surprise considering the coaches, Ange Postecoglou and Iain Ferguson.

Postecoglou is a self-confessed possession ideologue, constantly dedicated to a certain way of playing. “I remember when we lost to Victory at AAMI Park in his second season,” says Brisbane goalkeeper Michael Theo. “I passed it to right back who passed to Luke DeVere, there was a turnover and Tom Pondeljak scored.”

“He could’ve said don’t take risks, but he told us to keep playing this way, he wasn’t bothered and he got the rewards.” It’s an anecdote that sums up Postecoglou neatly.

On the other hand, Ferguson is more concerned with defensive discipline and prefers a more direct style of football, and is willing to mix his tactics in accordance to the opposition, but always to ensure they have as little scope as possible to build attacks.

“I don’t like teams having time on the ball because at the end of the day if you give players time they’ll hurt you,” he says. “I do like that high-up-the-park pressing game, getting in people’s faces, and that’s the sort of team I’m trying to build, who can play football at the same time.”

Curiously, Ferguson’s never beaten a Postecoglou side in the A-League, with last season’s grand final the most high profile of those defeats.

In that game, Perth sat deep and stifled the Brisbane attack, looking to soak up pressure and play on the break. As a broad summary, it worked – certainly when Ivan Franjic turned the ball into his own net following a quick counter-attack down the right – until Perth dropped too deep and gave Brisbane too much time on the ball in the attacking third.

Both coaches also experienced different paths on the route to that Grand Final: Postecoglou was the hero of the Brisbane faithful following an extraordinary unbeaten run and eventual title the season before and continued to carry the fan’s backing throughout the course of the 11-12 season, while there was always doubt over Ferguson’s capabilities as a coach as Perth struggled to play cohesively, leading to persistent rumours late in 2011 that he would be sacked.

Yet a combination of outstanding form from Shane Smeltz and a tactical tweak to a reworked 4-2-3-1 formation proved the catalyst for an impressive run to the grand final. By dropping Billy Mehmet and introducing Steven McGarry into an advanced midfield position, Ferguson struck the balance between defence and attack: he had enough bodies to congest the centre of the park, but enough craft in playmaking positions that his side could fashion opportunities for Smeltz, and the New Zealander rewarded their service with twelve goals after the turn of the year.

It was that subtle switch from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 that proved the difference for Ferguson, and it was ironic that switching back to 4-4-2 proved to be their downfall in last Friday’s match against the Victory. Neither Smeltz nor Mehmet has a particular tendency to drop deep – although Mehmet sporadically dropped into a deepish sort of position – and so both played close to the Victory centre-backs, leaving the midfield duo of Nick Ward and Liam Miller stranded against the Victory’s fluid four.

With Postecoglou’s false nine system encouraging fluidity between Guilherme Finkler and Marcos Flores, the Victory effectively operate with four midfielders, who all moved narrow into the zone of Ward and Miller and allowed the home side to dominate possession. That in itself was not the tipping point but rather their ability to play through the Glory’s pivot and find Marco Rojas and Andrew Nabbout in behind proved crucial for the Victory’s 1-0 win.

By contrast, the Glory, operating with a once traditional but now uncommon two striker system, were mainly looking for service from out wide in the form of crosses, and the strikers were focused on finding good positions inside the penalty area. The four passing chalkboards below provide a good illustration of the contrast. 

Postecoglou and Ferguson aren’t polar opposites: both encourage their respective full-backs to move forward and create overloads down the flank as well as encouraging defenders to play out from the back (although this admittedly has only developed recently for the Glory with the signing of Michael Thwaite).

Both play with good width, but use it differently. The Victory wingers are encouraged to make narrow diagonal runs towards the penalty area to receive passes from the two creative midfielders, with Archie Thompson particularly proficient at fulfilling this role. He was absent on international duty here, but Nabbout showed a good understanding of what he was required to do: the execution wasn’t perfect, but the intent was always clear.

Perth play with width differently, as the wide players generally collect the ball closer to the touchline, expected to cross the ball towards the penalty spot. Again, a comparison of the passes completed by each pair of wide players reveals these tendencies. In particular, the excessive amount of incomplete crosses in the right hand side of the Perth chalkboard evidences Dodd’s propensity to crossing. 

Trends and statistics in the modern game suggest crossing is a hugely inefficient way of scoring goals – with some data revealing that 54 crosses are required before scoring a goal, although there are caveats to this analysis – which might go some way to explaining Ferguson’s inability to beat Postecoglou.

It’d be extremist to suggest that that particular statistic indicates the superiority of a more technical style, but it does provide an interesting quirk in regards to tactical strategy in the A-League. More successful systems in the more recent seasons generally feature mobile, technical attackers. Besart Berisha is a good example at the Brisbane Roar, while Matt Simon (and more lately, Daniel McBreen) thrives on through balls from a central playmaker.

As a final word, the shooting data from Friday’s match. 

The Victory shoot from wider positions inside the penalty box, and the majority of shots come from the wide players, including the decisive goal from Rojas. On the other hand, a vast percentage of Perth’s shots are by the two central attackers, and are generally taken from positions closer to the penalty spot.

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