Having lost Guilherme Finkler for the season, how Melbourne Victory coach Ange Postecoglou set up his side for their clash against Wellington Phoenix was always going to be the key feature of the pre-match build-up.
The Victory system is very deliberate, tailored to the specific abilities of Postecoglou’s four best attackers. He has a very clear vision of how to play the game, and signed players specifically to fit his style. The loss of Finkler, who operates on the left side of a front two as an advanced no.10, was devastating: he provides creativity high up the pitch and has an extraordinary awareness of space – in Flores’ poor form, he has been the spark for Victory’s highly aggressive counter-attacking game. Whereas Rojas could theoretically be replaced by Andrew Nabbout, who offers a similar directness from out wide, there is no clear replacement for Finkler within the squad, such is his specific function within the side.
(On a sidenote, that somewhat highlights the major flaw in Postecoglou’s Victory; that is, their reliance on individuals, which is a contrast to the inherently team focused approach of the Brisbane Roar)
For this fixture, the starting line-up was as expected – Mark Milligan returned to the side after his suspension, while Spase Dilevski was the ‘replacement’ for Finkler in midfield. But the versatile midfielder didn’t directly slot into Finkler’s position, and neither did Billy Celeski, whose outstanding form prompted suggestions he might be moved further forward.
Instead, Postecoglou tweaked the shape of his side, switching to an orthodox 4-3-3 formation. Milligan, Divelski and Celeski were all deployed in deeper, more reserved midfield roles, while Marcos Flores, as the most advanced player, became a false 9.
The system itself didn’t change – the Victory continued to try and dominate the centre, and release the wide players, Archie Thompson and Marco Rojas, in on goal. Instead, there was a subtle change to their build-up play, less of a focus on quick transitional attacks and more of a focus on prolonged periods of possession.
Whether this was Postecoglou’s intent is unclear, but the Victory comfortably controlled the ball for the majority of the match, due in part to the fact they always had numerical superiority in the centre. Wellington had struck upon a good balance in midfield in recent weeks with Vince Lia, Manny Muscat and Dani Sanchez, but Muscat was suspended here, meaning Sanchez had to drop deeper into the pivot. With Jeremy Brockie ‘in the hole’ but playing more as a second striker, they were easily outnumbered 3v2 in that zone, and Flores’ vertical movement towards the ball to become an additional midfielder only accentuated the problem.
Wellington’s initial response to dealing with this problem was for either Andrew Durante or Ben Sigmund to move high up the pitch quickly towards Flores and attempt to intercept the ball cleanly, and the latter was particularly keen to burst forward from the defensive line to ensure the Argentine didn’t receive passes to feet.
However, Herbert would’ve been concerned about the risk of his central defenders being beaten by a clever turn, as well as the threat of a clumsy challenge resulting in a yellow card. Therefore, he instructed one of Huysegems and Brockie to drop onto the deepest Victory midfielder, Milligan, to restore some parity in the centre.
But the problem with this strategy was that the Victory midfield was very fluid, and rotated throughout – sometimes Milligan would break forward from deep, and Dilevski would cover for him, while Celeski was equally keen to move deeper and collect possession from the central defenders.
The ploy worked superbly. As can be seen in the chalkboards above, no player had a dedicated holding or attacking position, although each understood their roles perfectly. Even when Celeski and Dilevski were replaced by Leigh Broxham and Luke O’Dea respectively, the understanding and relationship of the trio in midfield was a constant theme.
Lia and Sanchez had enormous trouble tracking the midfield runners, and the first goal originated from a clever surge forward by Celeski. What was notable about the goal – aside from Flores’ fine tecnhique – was that Milligan is keeping disciplined positions in front of the backline, allowing Dilevski the freedom to move forward to provide the assist. The cover of an extra man gave Victory’s midfielders more freedom to break forward, whereas the 4-4-2 restricts their ability to support attacks.
The 4-3-3 also meant that the central midfielders were far more comfortable in shuttling out to the flanks to help the full-backs defend against overlapping runs. Last week, Leo Bertos’s storming runs from right-back were the key to Wellington’s 3-2 comeback against the Melbourne Heart, but his influence was nullified here as Dilevski frequently moved across to provide protection to Adama Traore.
Although this is a common defensive movement, it tends to leave the Victory exposed in the centre in a 4-4-2, as opposition midfielders can burst forward into the space on either side of the other isolated midfelder. This was a very obvious feature of the Wanderers’ gameplan in their 2-1 win and both goals in that contest were a direct causation of the Victory’s vulnerability in the centre.
Wellington actually defended reasonably well in the first half – Louie Fenton and Benjamin Totori tracked back to double up on Rojas and Thompson, and the Victory struggled to execute their favoured tactic of releasing the wide players in behind. Part of the problem was also that their best opportunities have come on the break this season, and their attacks might have been more dangerous had they allowed the away side to have more of the ball – Wellington weren’t committing huge numbers forward into the final third, and therefore Melbourne didn’t have many spaces to break into.
But then Wellington began the second half very strangely – there was a large disconnect between the midfield and the defence, and suddenly there were more spaces for Flores between the lines. The playmaker, clearly full of confidence, also started drifting more towards the right flank, and there was obvious confusion about who was tracking him.
Melbourne was comfortably in control, at least until the final ten minutes when Herbert was forced to substitute Fenton for Alex Smith. Although this seemed, in theory, a defensive change, it actually provided the away side with an extra midfielder, and they looked more comfortable bringing the ball forward into attack – Jeremy Brockie certainly should have scored.
It would be remiss to suggest the Victory didn’t miss the clever craft of Finkler, but this was a good sign they will be able to cope in his absence. The rotation in midfield was clever and caused problems for Wellington’s structure, while Flores showed signs of a return to form, although he needs to improve his touch when he is operating in tight spaces.
Postecoglou will demand improvement and will ideally like to add more creativity in the final third, but this was their first clean sheet since November 30th – broadly speaking, they simply had more numbers back to help them defend.