In terms of starting XI, this is one of the more difficult sides to predict, with a number of versatile players meaning spots are always up for grabs. This impacts upon the ability to define the Melbourne Heart style – in short, they’re not particularly good at any particular system, and that, in turn, has probably had an influence on their perplexing consistency. One week that might pull off an impressive win, and fail to muster up a shot on target in the following game. They’re especially poor away from home, and they’re yet to win outside Melbourne this season.
Therefore, they’re unlikely to have an extended run in the finals if they do qualify, but if they spring a surprise, it’ll be through their energy and mobility, especially on the flanks.
You can always count on the Heart to turn up in the derby against the Victory, and two of their most impressive performances of the season have come in that game. In the first, they played high up the pitch and pressed intensely, exploiting the Victory’s inability to play out from the back, and back in December they played a more reactive game, playing extremely deep in two banks of four to prevent being exposed at counter-attacks.
This isn’t unusual – van’t Schip frequently changed his tactics from game to game, and Aloisi seems to want his side to be able to execute both according to their opponents. More than anything else, the most consistent strategy will be to press high up the pitch for the opening twenty minutes, before steadily retreating into a ‘low block’.
It’s probably the best explanation of their unwanted record: according to @OptaJason, they’ve conceded a higher percentage (79%) of second half goals of any team in the league. They generally dominate a game in the first half and control the majority of possession, but then invite too much pressure and invite the opposition to come onto them, but aren’t good enough at penalty-box defending to cope with this strategy.
At the back, Clint Bolton has always been the clear first choice goalkeeper, but recently Aloisi has preferred Andrew Redmayne in light of some poor form. “I thought about it after the Wellington game … I came to the decision, it was a tough one because Clint’s been our best player for the last two seasons,” Aloisi said. “It’s not like he wasn’t playing well, but I thought Redders [Redmayne] deserved a chance. He played really well in pre-season, also in training he has been great, he wants to improve and I thought it was his time to get his opportunity.”
This has been met with mixed results: Redmayne clearly has a weakness when forced to come off his line, but, like Bolton, has excellent reflexes – the latter might win back his spot, purely thanks to his experience.
Ahead of the goal is a standard back four – despite Van’t Schip’s occasional preference for a back three – featuring an unusual centre-back partnership of two converted defensive midfielders in Simon Colosimo and Patrick Gerhardt. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their positional history, both play aggressively and can be drawn high up the pitch towards a deep-lying forward, something which probably influenced Mike Mulvey’s seemingly bizarre decision to use Thomas Broich as a false 9 against Heart.
But this positional ill-discipline has become less of a problem in recent weeks, as they’ve forged a good understanding and have learnt to cover in behind if one moves forward. They’re also both very good passers, and are capable of long passes from deep to the forwards.
In the space of two weeks, Aloisi has lost his two first-choice fullbacks – Aziz Behich joined Bursaspor, while Michael Marrone moved to Shanghai Shenxin. Both are quick, energetic fullbacks who motor forward at every opportunity, and the width they provide on the overlap will be sorely missed.
There are two young players who could theoretically replace them – Sam Mitchinson and Jeremy Walker can play left and right respectively, and the latter has recently been enjoyed a run of games in the side following Marrone’s departure. He’s solid defensively and eager to get forward, but his crossing is wayward and he sometimes leaves too much space between his centre-back.
On the left, Aloisi had the chance to experiment with Behich’s recent suspension, and he used the versatile Jason Hoffman in that role, in a callback to the Newcastle days in which Branko Culina touted him as a flying wing-back. It’s easy to see why Culina thought so: Hoffman is supremely fit and has the work ethic to track back into position. Football director John Didulica has suggested Jonaton Germano is another option to cover for the loss of Behich and Marrone.
Within his 4-2-3-1, Aloisi wants a pair of hardworking midfielders to help connect defence to attack – the one constant has been Matt Thompson, who is strong and good in the tackle but lacks variety with his passing, tending to knock the ball wide than look for a more incisive pass. He hasn’t got a consistent partner – initially, Richard Garcia provided good energy with well-timed bursts forward, but Mate Dugdanzic’s injury meant he had to move further forward, so Hoffman came into the side, playing roughly the same role.
Now the availability of Germano has cast doubt on Hoffman’s place in the side – the Argentine can also play in the backline, but Aloisi probably doesn’t want to disrupt a settled centre-back partnership. Instead, he’s played Germano alongside Thompson, where his technical quality has been useful in helping carry the ball up the pitch – and besides, Hoffman, as mentioned above, is probably required at fullback.
In an ideal world, Aloisi would have liked the intelligent Vince Grella to play that role, but the former Socceroo has been forced into a premature retirement, which is a huge shame. A move for Jobe Wheelhouse makes perfect sense, but it seems the former Newcastle midfielder will take an extended break from the game.
But the biggest debate is further forward – captain Fred is an obvious choice for the playmaker position and theoretically provides plenty of creativity, but has struggled to find form following a hamstring injury. In his absence, Garcia has been used centrally – he works extra hard to get into position for a pass and closes down from the front extremely well, and as a result, the whole side looks more mobile and energetic. The Socceroo has been one of Aloisi’s best players, versatile enough to cover three different positions, and despite it not being his best role; he’s mainly been used on the right which he interprets in different ways.
He drifted inside quickly and became an extra midfielder verus the Melbourne Victory, which allowed David Williams to play higher up the pitch on the opposite side, almost as a second striker, or Garcia can stay wide and help stretch the play, which is where he provided a fine pass for Josip Tadic against Adelaide.
But before his latest setback, Fred seemed to be coming into form – his movement was better, he saw more of the ball and was becoming more of a force upon matches. For the sake of consistency, Aloisi will probably keep with Garcia on the right, and he did so against the Wanderers, electing to play Nick Kalmar centrally instead.
That means David Williams or Golgol Mebrahtu will be competing for a place on the opposite flank. Both can also play upfront and provide quick, direct runs towards goal – extremely useful for counter-attacks, and as they cut inside, space opens up for Behich on the overlap. The attacking slant down that flank will be counter-balanced by the discipline and protection of Garcia. Dugdanzic is a perfect compromise, but unfortunately injured.
Aloisi’s first choice at centre forward is Josip Tadic. He’s comfortable playing in many different ways; he can drift into the channels, bring the wide players forward and hold off opponents until support arrives, play on the shoulder with a ball in-behind and importantly operate with his back to goal. Six goals is a respectable tally, but three assists have also been useful, and Tadic is a decent penalty taker.
Dylan MacAllister is another option but is a less reliable finisher and has underperformed off the bench, while the returning Eli Babalj is a useful target man but mixes his physicality with excellent technical ability and has fantastic link-up play. Aloisi might consider, especially with Fred’s injury, shifting Tadic deeper, where he’s played in the past, while a formation switch to 4-3-3 might also be an option (although unlikely, considering how dedicated he’s been to the 4-2-3-1).
Tactically, this isn’t a particularly interesting side, and injuries have disrupted the team’s ability to form an understanding with one another. There’s nothing pertinently wrong with playing two different systems, but the key is to be good at it – if you’re not, then you’re just an underperforming side. Right now, you can’t help but want a bit more consistency from the Heart.