Both Melbourne teams have experienced fluctuating seasons, but it is the away side that are the more settled heading into Saturday’s derby. They have a predictable starting XI and a very defined way of playing, meaning the tactical battle will rest on John Aloisi’s gameplan.
But his side is frustratingly inconsistent– in early November, they thrashed the defending champions 4-1 before mustering up just one shot on target a week later against Adelaide. Last week, a good win against Perth Glory was succeeded by an insipid loss to the Central Coast Mariners.
Their system is also unpredictable. The Heart has long preached a philosophy of an attractive passing game, and they played some thrilling counter-attacking football under Jon van’t Schip, most notably in the 4-0 away win against Sydney FC.
That has been given away to a more conservative approach under Aloisi. He’s struggled to find the right combination in the final third, although the return of Josip Tadic upfront is a timely boost. He fits into the mould of Heart’s technically gifted squad, but the cohesion that characterized their fantastic performance in the opening round has been missing ever since.
The Victory’s high line and desire to play out from the back was the defining feature of that derby as both were continually exposed by ferocious pressing, but it’s unlikely to be as prominent here. Postecoglou’s side now defends slightly deeper in a more defined 4-4-2 shape and are more willing to concede possession for the sake of solidity.
The other crucial difference is Mark Milligan’s re-deployment in midfield, where the Socceroo has mixed ball-winning skills with calm distribution to become a key player for Postecoglou’s side, and his rumoured absence would be difficult to replace. Milligan is vital not only in supporting the attacking quarter but for protecting the back four.
Without him, Fred might be able to find space between the lines. The Brazilian playmaker will focus on finding space high up the pitch, close to Tadic, turning the Heart’s shape into a more defined 4-4-1-1. Therefore, they’re likely to be outnumbered 4v2 in midfield, given both Flores and Finkler like to drop deep, helping the Victory to keep the ball for long periods. Instead, Aloisi will cede possession in favour of keeping it compact between the lines to prevent Finkler and Flores finding space, before breaking quickly down the flanks.
That might inform a surprise decision to give Jonatan Germano a season debut in central defence, which would see Patrick Gerhardt moved into his preferred defensive midfield position. Both he and Simon Colosimo have a tendency to be drawn up the pitch by deep-lying forwards, so Aloisi might break up that fragile partnership and opt for Gerhardt’s combativeness in midfield.
The concern of being overloaded in the centre intensifies when you consider that the Heart’s biggest problem last week against the Mariners was being outnumbered through the narrowness of Bernie Ibini-Isei and Michael McGlinchey, which opened up space down the sides for Joshua Rose and Pedj Bojic to advance, with the latter eventually scoring the two decisive goals.
That zone will again be key. Marcos Rojas and Archie Thompson stay high up the pitch and stretch the play before making diagonal runs in from the touchline towards the penalty area, so Michael Marrone and Aziz Behich will need to track their clever runs in behind. With the Heart lacking any real quality on the wings, Postecoglou might be brave and instruct Rojas and Thompson to stay extremely high up the pitch, as to force Marrone and Behich deep and prevent them from moving forwards to create overloads down the flanks.
The Heart’s best chance of a goal will be through turnovers deep inside the Victory half. Postecoglou’s side still look vulnerable when the central defenders are pressed on the ball, so Garcia’s ferocious energy might be useful in closing down from the front. That would mean Fred would shift wide right, although then he could play narrow and help create numerical equality in midfield. David Williams could then play a lopsided role on the left as an advanced wide forward, looking to break into the space behind Diogo Ferriera.
But the Victory’s well-rehearsed game plan means it’s difficult to go past them as favourites. Barring a surprise tactical switch from Aloisi, they’ll dominate the midfield and bring the Heart’s wingers narrow into the centre of the pitch to help defend, which opens up space to isolate the full-backs with their pacy wingers.