Archie Thompson scored an extraordinarily late winner to cap off a thrilling finale in the Melbourne Derby.
Both sides were largely as expected in the preview, with John Aloisi handing Jonaton Germano a first start of the season in the centre of midfield. Richard Garcia was deployed on the right.
Ange Postecoglou kept with the same side that drew with Brisbane Roar last week, meaning Marcos Flores and Guilherme Finkler continued as the focal point of the attack.
There were three broad phases to this game: an initial spell of proactivity, then a defined battle between possession and counter-attacking, before the final ten minutes saw the game open up once again.
The first game of the season was the last time these two sides met, where Aloisi instructed his side to press hard on the Victory back four before counter-attacking quickly, and Postecoglou’s desire to play out from the back was exposed in a 2-1 defeat.
But the feel of his side is much different now, even if the formation remains the same. There is far less of a focus on possession – in fact, Postecoglou is extremely liberal with the ball when you consider Brisbane’s patient, probing style – and they sit back more, pressing closer to the halfway line. The structure of the attack is far more coherent: quick, clever interchange through midfield, aimed at releasing the wide forwards in behind.
Therefore, it was intriguing to see whether the Heart would press as intensely, or rather they would play more reservedly as they have in recent weeks. Their strategy in the opening minutes suggested the former – in one example, Archie Thompson had the ball deep inside his own half on the left, with four Heart players surrounding him.
But the Victory worked the ball out of a tight situation to release Flores in acres of space, and the Argentine played a magnificent pass to Rojas on the right. It was an excellent illustration of how the Victory has improved throughout the season.
Shortly afterwards, the Heart became significantly more conservative: they dropped much deeper, with the two holding midfielders keeping disciplined positions in front of the back four. Perhaps Aloisi was reacting to the Rojas chance, or maybe the Heart had always intended to switch tactics at that point, but either way, it established the pattern for most of the game. The Victory dominated possession while their opponents defended deep with eight players behind the ball, and Fred staying higher up and trying to prompt quick breaks.
Up against such a reactive strategy, the Victory struggled. The tempo of their passing was very slow, lacking its usual crispness, and although they had the ball for long periods, they created little in open play. It was easy for the Heart to shift their defensive shape across the pitch as the Victory worked the ball from flank to flank, and the home side was effectively defending across the width of the penalty area.
The Heart’s midfield two of Thompson and Germano were key: they played close to the back four, reducing the space in between the lines where Flores and Finkler like to operate. Both South American playmakers tried to drop deep but always found that area congested, and instead, they were forced beyond the Heart midfield, meaning they’d often turn on the ball and find themselves facing a mass of red shirts.
To accentuate the problem, both Patrick Gerhardt and Simon Colosimo are combative defenders and can be drawn up the pitch by deep-lying forwards – that trend was as obvious in the first minute when Gerhardt rushed up quickly and tackled Finkler from behind.
If the Heart had been defending higher up the pitch, this might have been more of a problem, but they had the cover of two sitting midfielders and when they followed Flores and Finkler into midfield, Thompson and Germano would cover in defence.
The Heart’s low block also meant there was little space in behind for Rojas and Thompson, both of whom struggled to have a significant influence on the game for long periods despite scoring a goal apiece. The Victory played with decent width, but rarely crossed the ball – unsurprisingly, considering that neither Flores or Finkler is an aerial threat.
The negative consequence of the Heart’s counter-attacking strategy was that it allowed Billy Celeski and Mark Milligan, without no direct opponents, to advance freely with the ball, and the nature of the opening goal, with the latter bursting forward to become an unusual source of width down the left, free to put in a low cross, was significant, even if the deflection was fortunate.
Heart counter down left
The Heart’s tactics were unquestionably defensive, but they created several chances through quick counter-attacks down the left. There was an obvious focus on using the pace of David Williams in behind Diogo Ferriera, and the left winger generally stayed wide and high so that the Heart had an easy out-ball immediately after the ball was won. To complement this asymmetry, Garcia tucked in narrow on the right to become an auxiliary central midfielder, meaning there was often lots of space down that side where Adama Traore could have been braver in moving forward to exploit.
The Victory recognised that Behich was sometimes isolated at left-back, so Flores and Finkler constantly drifted towards that side to try and overload him, but Colosimo was comfortably moving out into the channels to support Behich.
Instead, this was a point of strength for the Heart. Diogo Ferriera’s yellow card summed up his troubles in defending against the dual threat of Williams and Aziz Behich, who was brave and stormed forward frequently to overlap, despite the obvious threat of leaving Rojas in behind, and he created a good chance for Fred with a cutback to the edge of the area.
Postecoglou’s choice to substitute Ferriera for Spase Dilevski at half-time was a fitness isue, but tactics might also ave influenced the decision. The latter was unnecessarily aggressive and tried to close down Williams before the winger had time to turn on the ball – a decent idea in theory, but his rash yellow card demonstrated his troubles putting into practice.
Having gone behind after seventy minutes, the home side had an obvious responsibility to play more proactively, and the introduction of Golgol Mebrahtu for Richard Garcia illustrated Aloisi’s ambition. For a brief period, they struggled to win the ball – which is only natural for sides forced to change their strategy having conceded while playing reactively – but they started to build attacks in good positions, with Williams encouraged to move into more central positions, where he fired in two feisty volleys.
The use of Mebrahtu, nominally a centre-forward, on the right, meant the Heart lost Garcia’s scrapping as an extra midfielder, but the substitute offered fresh directness and speed down that side and pushed Traore deep, pressure that paid off in the build-up to Fred’s equaliser.
Overall, the Heart’s response to conceding was excellent – they had invited huge pressure for the majority of the match, but managed to turn that around after the goal.
Meanwhile, Postecoglou made his own changes, removing the two central playmakers for Jonathon Bru and Andrew Nabbout. The former provided midfield security, but the latter changed the dynamic of Victory’s attack. It was now purely about speed, as they were simply soaking up pressure and then breaking quickly down the flanks – a role reversal, of sorts.
Just as Aloisi had kept Williams high up the pitch for these opportunities, Postecoglou instructed one of Rojas or Thompson to stay high up on the left in the final ten minutes. It was a hugely risky gamble, and looked to have backfired when Marrone burst past Traore to cross into the centre for the equaliser, but five minutes later it meant, having regained possession with a clean tackle, the Ivorian full-back could play the ball immediately to Rojas, who combined with Thompson for the dramatic late winner.
This was an evenly balanced game, although possession statistics suggest the opposite. The Heart’s counter-attacking tactics meant they rarely held the ball for long periods, but they worked hard to ensure the Victory barely created meaningful attacks, and their transitions down the left were promising.
“We couldn’t get a good tempo in the game and I just wanted us to stay switched on,” said Postecoglou. He would have obviously been delighted with the three points; less so with his side’s inability to break down a team sitting deep.