The Melbourne derby fizzled out to a goalless stalemate.
After the winter’s transfer business, Ange Postecoglou has a myriad of new options at his disposal, electing to start with new marquee Pablo Contreras alongside Adrian Leijier in defence. Rashid Mahazi surprisingly started just days after signing while two other new arrivals, James Troisi and Mitch Nicholls, played as the dual 10s.
John Aloisi also had a number of debutants, including what was in essence a brand new back line of the returning Aziz Behich, Patrick Kisnorbo, Rob Wielaert and the redeployed James Hoffman. It was also a new look central midfield pairing of Andrea Migliorini and Massimo Murdocca, with Harry Kewell playing further ahead.
This game failed to live up to lofty expectations, with very few moments of excitement.
Two banks of four
This fixture last season was perhaps the high point of Aloisi’s coaching career to date – by asking his players to press incredibly high up the pitch, he exploited the Victory’s inability to play out under pressure. A 2-1 win was a just reward.
Things have changed significantly, however, and considering the relative improvement/regression of either team, a more reactive strategy was appropriate here. Aloisi asked the two wingers, David Williams and Mate Dugandzic, to drop back to about halfway, alongside the midfield pivot, and prevent passes into the feet of Troisi and Nicholls. Wielaert and Kisnorbo were also happy to come out from the back and harry the player in possession – it was remarkably congested in that middle third.
The by-effect, of course, was that Contreras and Leijier enjoyed great time on the ball, and frequently passed to Leigh Broxham facing forwards inside the centre circle. However, although the Victory captain finished as the game’s highest passer, very few of his balls were to the attacking quartet between or behind the lines – which was the zone the Victory wanted to be in.
Instead, they were just playing in front of the Heart – so this wasn’t a repeat of last season’s opening game, but instead very similar to the December fixture. In that game, the Victory struggled to break down the Heart’s deep defence – they’re excellent at breaking into space that opponents leave in behind, but struggle when they can’t get the two playmakers on the ball.
There was also a noticeable lack of fluency between the attacking four – Pain and Thompson didn’t really time their runs in behind that well, and frequently just stayed wide and received passes to feet. There wasn’t enough variety to their movement.
The players with most freedom were the Victory full-backs, because Williams and Dugandzic were primarily concerned with protecting their own defenders, but Adama Traore and Jason Geria were concerned with the same problem – push too far forward, and they ran the risk of leaving space in behind for the Heart to break into.
And that was Aloisi’s primary strategy in attack – counter-attacks down the flanks. Look at the passes received and passes played by Mate Dugandzic – they’re very rarely involved in build-up play, but frequently sprinted onto long balls into the channels…
…and it was the same for striker Golgol Mebrahtu:
There was that one delightful chipped pass from Kewell for Mebrahtu, but aside from that, the main effect of this was to push the Victory full-backs deep, because Postecoglou would have been wary of the obvious threat in behind.
Space between Victory lines
In fact, you could tell from the positioning of the defence how much of a concern it was – while the front ‘six’ pushed reasonably high up the pitch, the defence sat about fifteen metres into their own half, creating a huge disconnect between the two bands. In an ideal world, this would have been perfect for Harry Kewell – but the Heart were so concerned with breaking quickly down the sides that they often bypassed their central playmaker.
When Murdocca and Migliorini did receive balls out from the back – often with one dropping into the back four, and the other pushing high to create space – they found it difficult to find Kewell to feet, because Broxham and Mahazi did a good job of screening passes into him, forcing him into wider positions. He linked up a few times with Williams, but in the seventy minutes he played he had very little impact.
There was no progression in this match – Postecoglou was briefly more ambitious when he introduced Andrew Nabbout, and moved Mitch Nicholls into deep central midfield, but a combination of scrappy fouls, and bizarrely, a series of muscle cramps, killed the already low tempo.
Restricting the Victory to three shots on target probably represents success for Aloisi, who set up his side primarily to stop the opposition playing, even if that was to the detriment of his own attack. The fact the game was then therefore essentially dictated on his terms probably prompted his post-match comment of “enjoying the tactical battle” – but in truth, there was little tactical battle here, and instead simply a game dominated by one side’s defensive strategy.