Kevin Muscat’s first game in charge of Melbourne Victory was a win over his former mentor, Ernie Merrick.
Merrick made one change from last week’s 0-0 against Newcastle, with Paul Ifil making way for Albert Riera as part of the switch to a 4-3-3.
With Muscat’s appointment based purely on the fact he can effect a smooth transition from the loss of Ange Postecoglou, it was unsurprising that his team and formation were the same as we’ve come to expect from the Victory, with Pablo Contreras returning from suspension in place of Nick Ansell.
Like the exact same fixture from last season, which also ended 3-2, the Victory took a big lead by getting in behind Wellington’s high line, before the Phoenix turned things around in the second half.
Firstly, it’s important to note the changes Merrick made to his side’s shape for this match – having initially preferred a 4-2-3-1, this was a very ‘flat’ 4-3-3, with the midfield trio operating on the same ‘line’. Normally, Merrick has either asked the wide players to track back to form a second bank of four – and Kenny Cunningham’s inability to do so proved costly against the Wanderers – or used Jason Hicks tucking inside on the left, in something of an auxiliary role – not quite a central midfielder, but moving inside when the side had possession to become an extra passing option in the middle.
Here, though, it was almost like Wellington had a front three, and a back seven: upfront, Jeremy Brockie, Carlos Hernandez and Stein Huysegems (right, centre and left respectively, although they switched intermittently) sat high up the pitch – not pressing, though – and acted as the ‘first wall’ of defence. However, when the ball was played beyond them, Brockie and Huysegems moved into space, ready to collect balls on the break – often, it was like they were inviting the Victory full-backs forwards, as to create counter-attacking space in wide areas.
Brockie’s passes received chalkboard below shows how the majority of his possession came from collecting long, sweeping balls, with Hernandez also drifting across to that side to facilitate quick transitions. Inside the opening five minutes, Huysegems was nearly set free on goal through an incisive, cross-field ball from Hernandez, denied only by Contreras’ block. Later, the Phoenix’s first goal was the perfect example: Hernandez hits a superb first-time ball for the sprinting Brockie down the left, who’s in the acres of space left by Jason Geria’s movement upfield – the Kiwi promptly provides the finish.
That, though, was a minor by-effect in the broader context of the game’s key feature, which was the Victory’s dominance.
Victory take lead – Wellington’s high line
The most noticeable reason for the Victory’s three goals inside the first half was Wellington’s high line, which, with the back four practically sitting ten metres back from halfway, was extremely obvious.
As I wrote for FourFourTwo,
It is worth questioning why such a strategy was pursued after the Victory repeatedly got in behind the similarly risky defensive line deployed by Adelaide and Brisbane in the previous two rounds. Instead, the first match of the season, when John Aloisi instructed his side to play very cautiously in two banks of four and cut off passes into the Victory attacking quartet, should be the template this season for sides that want to nullify the Victory flurry of movement and speed in the final third.
The third goal is the classic illustration – Barbarouses has almost thirty yards of space in behind Ben Sigmund to chip the ball through for Troisi, who then provides the second brilliant chip of the attacking move for the eventually decisive goal. Earlier, Thompson had been flagged offside, and Glen Moss been forced out of his box to clear a ball played in behind Wellington’s back four.
Although the space in behind the high line created obviously created room for the Victory to get their attackers into, there were other factors at play.
Victory take lead – Victory play out
Although Wellington’s front three sat relatively high up the pitch – and closed down the centre-backs to force Nathan Coe long at goalkicks – the Victory back four were comfortable playing out from the back, and Contreras in particular looked to bring the ball forward from deep, drawing an opponent towards him before laying it off to a nearby teammate. The midfield duo, Mark Milligan and Leigh Broxham, frequently received possession facing forwards and dragged the Phoenix trio out of position, thus in turn creating space between the lines for the Victory attacking quartet.
Archie Thompson (the nominal left-winger) and James Troisi (the nominal left-sided attacking midfielder) worked the Phoenix right hand side, almost as if they were purposefully targeting Louie Fenton in his first A-League match as a right-back (a redeployment as part of Merrick’s changes), having just returned from injury.
For the first goal, Troisi receives the ball in a pocket of space behind Vince Lia, then Milligan bursts forward – having dragged Riera forward earlier in the move – to find room to pick out Archie Thompson, whose first touch is poor but curled finish excellent.
Victory take lead – momentum
The third, and least tangible factor, was momentum. The Victory seemed empowered by their attacking fluency, buoyed by the success of their passing moves – and conversely, the Phoenix struggled to hold possession for long periods, often turning the ball over in dangerous positions, most evidently for the second goal when Sigmund’s disastrous back-header was exploited by Troisi.
At 3-0 down, though, and having had the perfect opportunity to reformat his side at half-time, Merrick made no changes, although the back four sat slightly deeper. Instead, the major change to the pattern of the game was tempo – it dropped significantly, and after the high tempo nature of the first half, the second forty-five was contrastingly pedestrian.
After a series of Victory corners at the start of the second half, the Phoenix began to dominate possession, with Hernandez often receiving the ball in a huge, open space in the centre of the park. Paul Ifil came off the bench for the second week in a row to provide extra attacking spark and promptly scored the second, while Merrick’s other changes were broadly positive, not sacrificing the structure of his side but still managing to introduce more attacking players.
The key reason, though, was probably the Victory’s complacency, as they became sloppy with their passing and were very open defensively, often with lots of space between their four bands. Muscat seemed unsure of what to do with his bench, and having already had to replace the injured Nichols with Guilherme Finkler early on, simply made two like-for-like changes at the tail end of the match.
It was bizarre how similar this game was to the same fixture in 2012 – in both cases, a high line, and the Victory’s exploitation of it, was followed by an ultimately futile Phoenix rally. In fact, the same conclusion can be drawn for both games, and as Australia Scout wrote last year, it’s difficult to give credit to Herbert for the almost-comeback, just as it is to give Victory full credit for their first half attacking display. Both sides took advantage of the others weaknesses to score goals.