Ange Postecoglou’s arrival at the Melbourne Victory – at least until the storm of marquees – was the most promising development of the off-season. Not only did he build a dual-championship winning side at the Brisbane Roar, he did so with an unprecedented (in Australia, at least) possession-based style that combined ruthless defensive qualities with marvellously attractive attacking football. With their distinctive short passing game and an incessant focus on dominating the ball, Postecoglou established a reputation as an extraordinarily talented coach with a very defined way of playing.
Not only that, Postecoglou became known as a ‘club builder’, having transformed a floundering club into the country’s most polished, efficient and aesthetically pleasing outfit. In basic terms, he was a very good fit for a Melbourne Victory that was lacking direction and in desperate need of an overhaul in playing style.
Postecoglou went to great lengths to suggest he wouldn’t copy the Brisbane template, but it was still a big surprise to see the Victory come together in the manner that they have. This has been a thoroughly quicker transition than the lengthy teething process that the Roar experienced, and more significantly, the Victory don’t abhor possession for possessions sake – instead Postecoglou has been far more relaxed about how his side treats the ball.
He is almost willing his side to attempt ambitious, risky passing moves, a huge contrast to the safety first Brisbane approach. Part of this might be because of limitations within his squad – and their dismal failure to play out from the back the opening rounds of the season will have certainly influenced his decision – but Postecoglou seems particularly keen to accelerate the process of transformation, perhaps with an eye on future job prospects in Asia.
Another plausible explanation is that Postecoglou simply isn’t as possession focused as his initial success suggested, and he is simply reacting to the nature of the league. When he started at Brisbane, the league was far more focused on more direct patterns of play, and far more ‘long-ball’ focused, and the impact of a side that actively tried to play out from the back and along the ground was enormous. Now, however, there is a widespread focus on a more ‘modern’, proactive brand of football, which in turn impacts on how Postecoglou wants his side to play.
As the excellent Brett Taylor suggests, “perhaps as his time with Brisbane drew to a close he recognised that other teams were getting much better at setting up deep defensive blocks that could frustrate their ponderous play and stop them getting in behind. So he built a side that always has outlets to attack through before the opposition is set.
It’s fascinating to consider how a coach forced a league to evolve, and then had to adjust his own approach in response.”
The new possession
Either way, this is perhaps the most exciting and attacking side in the competition. They are currently neatly sandwiched between the Mariners and the Wanderers, two sides that favour structure, defensive discipline and organisation, yet succeed in a different manner with their commitment to attack.
No player better encapsulates this than Marcos Flores, one of Postecoglou’s first signings. The presence of Guilherme Finkler raised questions about how Postecoglou envisaged fitting two similar playmakers within the same team, but the tactically savvy coach sprung a surprise by deploying them both in tandem as number 10s. The ploy worked brilliantly, dragging defenders away and opening up space in behind for the pacy duo of Marcos Rojas and Archie Thompson, so the loss of the Brazilian to a long-term knee injury was a huge loss – and remarkably, he remains the most prolific for assists in the league despite his prolonged absence.
The sign of a good coach is who he can adapt to change, and on this criteria, Postecoglou passes with flying colours – instead of trying to fit square pegs into the round holes of his 4-4-2, he switched to 4-3-3, with Flores ostensibly the most advanced player but given a licence to roam and drift in between the lines. After a disappointing first half season, Flores has returned to his Adelaide form, invigorated by the freedom afforded to him as the ‘lone’ false nine.
But for all his talent, he would be very little without the second piece of the formula in the league’s deadliest combination – Thompson and Rojas. Both boast tremendous pace and natural poaching instincts, and the latter is capable of conjuring up tremendous pieces of improvisation, as his double against Newcastle illustrated.
Both could theoretically played through the middle, but they’re far more effective when used as wide forwards, darting into the space created by the movement of Marcos Flores. The relationship between the three – and Guilherme Finkler too – is instinctive, and when they sync at exactly the right moment, it’s almost impossible to defend against. Defenders are left with the dilemma – push high up the pitch to deny Flores space to work in and you leave yourself vulnerable to pace, or play deep, and deny space for Rojas and Thompson, which invariably allows the Argentine to do as he pleases. An extremely negative approach would be to drop the midfield deep as well, but at what cost does this come to a side’s attack? It was the strategy John Aloisi used in the second Melbourne derby, and he frustrated the Victory for long periods – but of course, the risk is that you invite too much pressure, and concede.
Postecoglou’s solution to sides defending deep has been to encourage midfield runners, but with only two ‘sitting’ midfielders in his 4-4-2, there was a lack of protection for the back four and their defeat to Western Sydney came from two strikes in this pocket of space between midfield and defence.
But with the 4-3-3 affording three players in that zone, there is now more freedom for the midfielders to burst forward and provide support. Postecoglou has created a wonderfully fluid midfield triangle with lots of rotation – it’s near impossible for the opposition to track their direct opponent, and as Billy Celeski and Mark Milligan are both fantastic passers and boast good shooting ability, there is added threat from deeper positions. The former is perhaps the greatest embodiment of the transformation in Melbourne, having gone from scapegoat to midfield star in the space of months. There isn’t a clear member to round out this trio – originally, the versatile Spase Dilevski provided energy and running, but Leigh Broxham impressed in a more destructive, aggressive role against Sydney FC. Jonathon Bru is also an option, but has been underwhelming since his arrival and his ponderous passing doesn’t suit Victory’s high tempo
The extra man in midfield also allows the Victory to hold possession for longer periods, and they’ve become notably more patient with the ball ever since the switch, while the ‘outside’ midfielders are now happy to move across and support the fullbacks defend in wide areas – especially important, considering how Rojas and Thompson are allowed to stay high up the pitch – which in turn increases defensive solidity. It’s testament to both the Victory and Postecoglou that they’ve not only minimised the impact of the loss of their best player, but have become a better side as a result.
But Postecoglou, in his trademark manner, still isn’t happy – he constantly demands more improvement, always insisting his side can do better. As Matt Smith attests, “The big thing was Ange was never focused on winning anything, we never focused on winning games or championships we truly focused on trying to create something special by playing a certain way.”
With that in mind, he’s used the transfer window as an opportunity for reinforcement, especially in attack. Whereas before he only really had the raw talent of Andrew Nabbout to call upon from the bench, he now has Jesse Makarounas, who sees himself as a ‘Flores’ – “he sort of plays the same position as me. My whole life I was a striker, attacking. The system that we play at Melbourne Victory is perfect. The position they have, they basically have two number 10s and I think I can fit into the position really well” – and Francesco Stella, who says he is “an attacking midfielder and second striker” and thinks “I can cover three or four attacking roles.”
Weakness in defence
Undeniably, defence is this side’s weak link. Part of this can be attributed to the attacking ambition, but also to a lack of consistency in the back four. Only Adama Traore has truly cemented his place in the side, having started every game, providing storming forward funs as well as incredible tenacity – he’s recorded the most tackles this season, and uses his pace to intercept the ball cleanly.
In the centres, after initially using Mark Milligan as a central defender before pushing him into midfielder, Postecoglou has settled on a first-choice partnership of Adrian Leijer and Nick Ansell. The former is captain and is usually a reliable defender, but has been wobbly this season and is vulnerable to being dragged out of position by clever strikers. His partner, Ansell, is your typical young centre-back prospect: quick, good in the air, an assured passer and prone to the odd mistake. After being deliberately targeted by Brisbane Roar, he’s become a mature and exciting prospect in his own right. There is also concern with depth – in an extraordinary turn of events, Postecoglou was forced to use the diminutive Broxham up against the hulking Emile Heskey, such was his scarcity of central defenders. Brisbane Roar youth product Jason Geria was signed mid-season, but at the age of 19, he’s one for the future.
Meanwhile, right-back has also been a problem position: naturally, Postecoglou wants attacking thrust, but that isn’t really supplied by Petar Franjic (who’s since been released), Matthew Foschini or Diogo Ferriera. The latter has become the first choice, but the signing of Scott Galloway indicates the coach wants improvement, although Ferriera’s contribution has improved in recent weeks.
This impacts on the structure higher up the pitch – although Thompson and Rojas rotate intermittently throughout matches, the latter is instructed to play more to the right, as he stays in wider positions and stretches the active playing zone, thus compensating from the lack of overlapping runs. Thompson can cut inside onto his preferred right foot in the knowledge Traore will motor past him, to provide width.
The man between the sticks has also been a concern – Lawrence Thomas started the first game of the season, specifically for his technical ability. “Lawrence is pretty comfortable with aspects of our game, particularly playing out from the back, and he’s a good keeper as well, but that is a big part of what we do and that gives him the edge at this stage,” said Postecoglou, justifying his decision to start the youngster ahead of Tando Velaphi.
But as Thomas showed signs he wasn’t quite ready for this level, Velaphi was given a chance – his good reading of the game was useful for playing as a ‘sweeper keeper’, but his distribution was clearly a huge problem, as he frequently booted it down the pitch towards Flores and Finkler, who couldn’t win aerial duels.
So when Danny Allsopp announced his retirement, Postecoglou elected to use the remaining squad spot on a new goalkeeper (despite Allsopp being a striker). Former SønderjyskE keeper Nathan Coe returned home, and has been firmly first choice ever since. Surprisingly, he doesn’t always play short – another sign Postecoglou isn’t as possession-focused as Brisbane suggested – but his biggest asset is his shot-stopping. He’s similar to Manchester United’s David De Gea, in a way – capable of some brilliant stops, but struggles to control his box and flaps at crosses. Whipping balls into the area from out wide is an entirely viable, and justified strategy against Melbourne.
It’s hard not to get excited about Melbourne Victory. Whatever your alliance, you can’t help but admire the aesthetic quality of their football, and their almost naïve commitment to attack. Postecoglou has greatly enhanced his reputation both in how he’s managed to rebuild a shattered club, but how he’s managed with setbacks and initial criticism, even if his changes have come at the ruthless cost to some.
A key focus of his tenure is youth – he’s always looking to snap up young talent, while hammering home the message that this is a long-term project. And it’s that – a relentless drive to be better, the need for constant improvement and consistency – that makes the Victory so dangerous.
Steven Chang, of the excellent MVFC News Twitter, shares his thoughts on the season:
After two seasons of distinct mediocrity, Victory gladly welcomed a championship-winning star signing – but it was a coach, rather than a Kewell-esque marquee player recruit. Ange Postecoglou has since radically improved the club’s fortunes and stamped his undeniable authority on both Victory’s results and tactical philosophy. The contrast between the dreary, directionless drift under Durakovic and the fluid brand of football under Postecoglou could not be any more stark. His system is not only effective and aesthetically pleasing, but also flexible, and has consequently been able to adapt to major losses like Gui Finkler. With the premiership clearly in sight, Victory are continuing from strength to strength, with the club’s renaissance punctuated by two ecstatically celebrated derby triumphs. Consistency in winning and style has been marred only by a wobbly defence that has conceded 29 goals, double that of premiership-seeking competitors, the Mariners. Expectations are once again sky-high amongst Victory fans – with many crawling out of their gloomy bunkers of Durakovic-era pessimism, and now believing that an A-League championship is well and truly on the cards for Postecoglou’s Victory. /blockquote>