Guilherme Finkler scored a stunning late free-kick to equalise against the club whom he suffered that terrible injury almost one year ago to the day.
Despite rumours that Finkler would make a long-awaited return to the starting lineup ahead of James Troisi, Kevin Muscat elected to keep with the same side from last week’s derby win.
Tony Popovic surprisingly reformatted his attacking quartet from the fine performance against the Central Coast Mariners midweek, bringing Jason Trifiro, Kwabena Appiah-Kubi and Labinot Haliti into the side for Shinji Ono, Yousouff Hersi and Tomi Juric respectively, although he kept with the same back six that kept a clean sheet against the Mariners. While the commentary was keen to give Popovic the moniker of Tinkerman, it wasn’t entirely accurate, considering the shape and structure of the side remained intact – this was an example of rotation, not tinkering.
Two substitutes scored in a high tempo, even contest.
Battles between these two sides are always interesting – as with most A-League games, it wasn’t a “tactical” battle in the sense that the coaches adapted their strategy to counter an opposition threat, but more simply a clash between the two systems, and the consequences that had on the game’s overall pattern.
Early on, possession swung freely between the two teams, and the game was fairly open, played at a quick, exciting tempo. The main reason for this is that although both sides have evolved towards a calmer possession-based game this season, they’re both still at their best when launching quick, forward attacks, taking advantage of the space created by the opposition’s structure without the ball.
There is a great quote from the man who wrote the book on tactics, Jonathon Wilson, where he compares football formations to covers on a bed. “Pull the blanket however you like, there will always be a little left exposed.” It’s an apt way of illustrating the key feature of this match – the fact that in an otherwise even encounter, there was always going to be space in certain areas, and for both sides, the distance between their full-backs and wingers was a recurring problem.
The fact that four direct, “dribble-first” wingers all started – Connor Pain, Kosta Barbarouses, Tahj Minniecon and Kwabena Appiah-Kubi – was significant. Throughout the match, they constantly seemed to be available in space, and attacks frequently flowed down the flanks, with the wingers carrying the ball forward into space. The Victory wingers, of course, with the dual 10 system, provide the goal threat, so cut inside frequently towards goal, while the Wanderers system is more centred around crossing and driving to the byline, as reflected in the tendency of Minniecon and Appiah-Kubi to take their direct opponents on in 1v1s.
In measuring the effectiveness, it’s simple to start with the home side, who finished the match with 60% of possession, but as mentioned, very much looked at their best when constructing moves through four or less forward passes to bisect the Wanderers press. The obvious, and best, example is the Pain chance the youngster somehow missed, which starts in the left-back zone – Barbarouses beats two defenders, brings it forward into the final third and whips a wonderful ball across the face of goal for Pain, who miscues the finish. It was the ‘classic’ Victory move, the two wingers combining from opposite sides of the pitch, and an excellent example of their gameplan. Other examples of their effective quick attacking included the Barbarouses chance in the 26th minute, as well as the transition that drew a yellow card for the onrushing Matthew Spiranovic.
Interestingly, Muscat opted to swap the starting positions of his wingers. Pain usually starts on the left, but was switched to the right here. While this didn’t change the dynamic of their counter-attacks, the narrowness it created in longer periods of possession was obvious, with Pain being particularly keen to cut inside onto his stronger foot, despite constantly receiving passes in wide positions (which was useful, because it stretched the defence and opened up pockets of space for Nichols in the right channels).
The problem of width was exaggerated by the fact that the full-back pairing, Jason Geria and Adama Traore, tended to ‘stay at home’, perhaps wary of the Wanderers counter-attacks. With the ball, therefore, the Victory back four was often intact as a line across the halfway, meaning there were no overlapping runs high up the pitch throughout the first half.
It was a similar story from a Wanderers point of view – Polenz and D’Apuzzo were far less involved than usual, aside from a fine cross from the former that saw Haliti head just over the bar (again probably wary of being caught out of position at transitions).
Because of the way their attacking structure sees the wingers finish attacking moves high up the pitch, the recurring weakness for the Victory is a lack of protection in wide areas – something the Wanderers constantly looked to exploit. A high percentage of their passes were focused down the sides, with central playmaker Trifiro playing a ‘facilitator’ role rather than ‘creative’ – he wasn’t looking to slide passes in behind, but simply link up the play to the two attackers either side of him.
The player who benefitted most from this was clearly Minniecon. He was constantly available for passes on the left, and relished in the freedom to run directly at Geria. The success of his dribbling was mixed, but he was responsible for two of the better opportunities in the first half – the shot that curled just wide of the far post after he cut inside just outside the area, and the Haliti chance that the striker blazed over the bar which stemmed from Minniecon’s low cross.
Unsurprisingly, he was involved in the opening goal, although the central position from where he provided the assist for Brendan Santalab was atypical of his role.
The distribution of the two Wanderers centre-backs was particularly important. Poljak and La Rocca is Popovic’s ‘combative’ midfield pairing, and often the one he prefers in tough away games. While their defensive contribution was typically impressive…
…their passing was crucial to the Wanderers attack, and in fact, Poljak finished as the most frequent passer in the attacking third…
Furthermore, Trifiro sometimes acted as a clever ‘bounce’ player between the lines, inviting neat, short lay-off passes from Poljak and La Rocca to bring the deeper midfielders forward – the 3rd man runs added an extra dimension to their attacking play. Haliti, too, was industrious using his body to hold the ball up intelligently and making darting runs into the channels to drag away defenders and create space for shooting opportunities.
The major themes of the first half continued after the interval – Minniecon being free (he had a shot blocked just after the hour mark), the game being open with a good tempo, and the best chances coming on the counter-attack – with the Victory looking promising when they crossed the ball into the ‘corridor of uncertainty’. There was the Troisi ball which flashed just beyond Barbarouses at the far post in the 57th minute, as well as the Pain to Nichols low cross that was cut out by Ante Covic – again, the combination we’ve come to expect from the Victory.
Around the hour mark, there came a flurry of substitutions (with Pablo Contreras forced off early in the second half through injury, replaced by Sam Gallaway and Leigh Broxham moving to centre-back), which seemed purely aimed at introducing greater attacking quality into the game. Popovic brought on his two most dangerous attackers from the bench in Hersi and Santalab, moving Haliti into the no.10 role with the arrival of the latter, while Muscat inevitably introduced Finkler, for Troisi.
Santalab scored within minutes of coming on – it was easy to paint it as a Popovic masterstroke, but it was really simply about fresh legs, and an obvious change to make at that stage of the game.
Having gone behind, Muscat’s side reacted strongly. He made an attacking change when bringing on Andrew Nabbout, which saw Gallaway move to right-back and Mark Milligan sweeping up in behind five attackers. Furthermore, they upped the tempo once more, building waves of attacks and pressure throughout the final fifteen minutes – inevitably, though, this opened up space for the Wanderers to counter into, and both Haliti and Hersi went close with chances on the break.
Again, with Finkler scoring (a splendid free-kick, it must be said), the equaliser was hailed an inspired substitution – but again, it was the obvious move, and rather than being a particular clever change, was pretty much just about bringing on extra quality. Popovic, for what it’s worth, did everything possible of a coach when defending a lead, in bringing on extra defensive protection in Dean Heffernan, and sitting the defensive line deeper to absorb the Victory attacks.
Still, the goal was probably fitting, given the overall balance of play had been even and neither had had a particular superiority in any area of the pitch. The space came down the sides, and Minniecon was constantly dangerous down the left – but so were the Victory in their cross-field combinations, and should have had a goal much earlier if not for wasteful finishing.
Having rested three key players from his starting line-up, Popovic will be more pleased with the point away from home.