Brisbane went seven points clear at the top with a resounding victory.
After his fine intervention from the bench last week, Guilherme Finkler was rewarded with a first start of the season. This meant James Troisi moved into the outside left position (although he swapped with Kosta Barbarouses on the right throughout), with Connor Pain dropping out of the squad altogether.
With James Donachie unavailable, Mike Mulvey brought Diogo Ferriera into the side at left-back, but otherwise kept with the same side that demolished Sydney 5-2 on Boxing Day, meaning Thomas Broich continued in the false 9 role.
The second half saw Brisbane produce perhaps the best football in the A-League this season, but the first half was actually closer than the final scoreline suggested.
The first noticeable feature of the game was both Brisbane’s wont to retain the ball even in deep positions, and the Victory’s intent to press them high up the pitch, creating a couple of interesting situations early on. The risk for the Victory, of course, was that there was a big gap between where the side was ‘broken’ – with the front six moving high up, and the back four staying back close to the halfway line, there was inevitably lots of space for Brisbane to move into when they broke past the first wave of pressure.
In this regard, Broich’s movement from a central position into the midfield zone was useful, as it created a ‘diamond’ through the centre for Brisbane and thus given them an extra forward passing option – there was one passage of play that particularly summed this up, with Broich dropping in front of the defence to collect a vertical ball from one of the central defenders, which bisected the Victory front six and eased the pressure on Brisbane’s possession.
However, the Victory, broadly speaking, did a decent job in preventing Brisbane from settling into their tempo, enjoying some prolonged periods of possession as well as working hard to close down passing angles. In fact, the first half was actually fairly even, with the Victory, as always, looking dangerous when attacking quickly (without wanting to run over old ground). There was the Barbarouses shot from Finkler’s delightful through-ball nine minutes in, as well as Troisi’s constantly dangerous diagonals from wide positions aimed towards runners in behind the defence – Barbarouses, again, should have done better with a good chance in front of goal.
However, there were two areas in which Brisbane looked consistently threatening. Firstly, Matt McKay was finding pockets of space in his left-sided central midfield position, darting forwards and backwards along that channel to find room on the ball. The fact that Ferriera was constantly bringing the ball forward down the left flank was also key, as he often cut the ball back inside to find McKay free in the middle. The issue here was with execution, with McKay overhitting a few passes as well as being let down by the passes towards him – but the danger of affording space to him was obvious, and he finished as the game’s highest passer, as well as doubling Brisbane’s lead with a fine chip at the end of a superb passing move . He should have had an assist, too, with his delicious through-ball for Henrique minutes into the second half.
Secondly, there was Broich’s unpredictable movement in the centre forward position – which meant, coupled with the Victory system, meant there was no out-and-out striker in the game (in what might have been an A-League first). Broich’s aforementioned movement deep is ‘typical false 9’, but what’s interesting about Broich is that he moves across the pitch as he pleases, happy to look for space in wide positions (particularly down the left, where he normally plays), as well as simply occupying the usual centre-forward position, linking up play in advanced positions.
Particularly important was that when he vacated the “no.9” position, a goal threat came from one of the wide attackers moving diagonally. That’s the standard move associated with false 9s, and there were two good combinations between Broich and Henrique – one where the Brazilian headed straight at Nathan Coe, and another when he was just offside running onto a Broich pass in behind.
The first goal was ‘typical’ Brisbane, with 21 consecutive passes in the build-up crossing the full width of the pitch, a full-back getting to the byline for a cut-back, and Broich providing the assist – but for the opening twenty minutes, the Victory had actually done a good job in preventing them from holding possession for long periods. Still, Brisbane grew into the game, the goal being preceded by a similarly long passage of play that finished in a feisty Petratos shot. Miller’s goal was an excellent illustration of how effective Brisbane’s system can be when executed as brilliantly as it was here.
It’s also worth noting, again, the fluidity of Broich’s movement in the goal – midway through the move, he pops up in a left-of-centre position to dribble past a defender and play in Miller on the right, before providing the assist this time inside the penalty box. The unpredictability and variety of positions he took up made it difficult for Victory to track him without the ball.
Having pressed well for the opening twenty minutes, the Victory sat off more as the half progressed – an obvious attempt to avert fatigue, but one that inevitably allowed Brisbane to build more moves from the back, progressing the ball purposefully into the final third. Rather ironically, the Roar’s best chances in the 20-45 minutes were ‘Victory-like’, with the two wide players combining with crosses across the face of goal, and Henrique could have doubled the lead from a fine Petratos ball (with Broich having dropped off onto the right-wing).
It’s instructive to make a comparison between these two sides, not least because of the history they share with Ange Postecoglou, but also because of the similarity in their approach, particularly pertinent in a game where neither side featured an out-and-out forward. The wide players for Brisbane had the benefit of sitting slightly higher up the pitch than Victory’s wide players, because they have the cover of three central midfielders behind them, whereas the Victory double pivot requires more players to get back and support them behind the ball – meaning Troisi and Barbarouses had more distance to cover when transitioning into attack.
At the break, Muscat surprisingly withdrew Nichols, bringing on James Jeggo for his first appearance of the season. While not overlooking the transfer speculation, it was stressed this was a “tactical” change, but it’s unclear what the intent of the substitution was. Perhaps it was a bid to introduce fresh legs to lead renewed pressing, or, given Jeggo normally features as a deep midfield player, Muscat might have wanted to reinforce the numbers in midfield to help the Victory retain possession better – Jeggo did something of a hybrid of those two roles, dropping back into the midfield zone when out of possession to pressure the Brisbane player on the ball, then moving forward to get between the lines as one of the dual 10s.
Overall, too, the Victory became more proactive, pushing higher up the pitch and taking more risks with their attacking play – inevitably opening up space between the lines on counter-attacks, and Brisbane found space between the lines to carry the ball forward into dangerous 3v2 situations. There was the Henrique chance from McKay’s slid pass, the McKay open goal from Miller’s pass that he somehow contrived to miss and, most obviously, the second goal, where in the build-up preceding the final flurry of penalty-box passing Broich had created space with a purposeful dribble into the final third. As most top-class sides do, the Roar thrived on extra space, which came from the Victory’s attempts to get back in the game, and the third goal merely summed up their dominance.
This was an excellent example of one of football’s intangibles, confidence – which undoubtedly plays a key role in every game, but can be difficult to discuss considering that it can’t be measured. There was, however, an obvious lift in Brisbane’s play after each of the goals, as if they had been buoyed by the quality of the goals they had scored, and as the game progressed, they became incredibly dominant – constantly dragging Victory out of position with quick flurries of passing, leading to Leijier’s red card, as well as slowing the tempo of their possession to see the game out.
With ten men, the Victory simply adopted a 4-3-2, with Jeggo dropping back into a more permanent midfield position. Mulvey, happy with his side’s performance, simply made obvious, like-for-like changes in the final ten minutes to close the game.
Brisbane were undoubtedly the better side, and thoroughly deserved their emphatic lead, but in fairness the Victory had actually competed well in the first half with their pressing, and mounted some decent attacks at the start of the second. They were, however, undone by superb execution, confidence and momentum, which saw Brisbane completely dominate the game after McKay’s goal. Leijier’s red card exaggerated their capitulation, but it’s worth pointing out that Muscat’s substitutions were particularly uninspiring, having little impact on the contest.
He summed it up reasonably well. “I thought we started really well, created a good chance and then something I haven’t seen in a very long time (happened); we conceded a goal and just seemed to crumble. The first 20-25 minutes we gave as good as we got but from there on in, we got completely dominated.”
Broich was the game’s key player, creating overloads on the flanks and providing constant creativity through the centre with his variety of movement in the final third, inviting the wide players and midfielders to get beyond him into attacking positions. Miller particularly relished Broich’s play, linking up nicely with the German and finishing the game with two assists.
This was, more generally though, a victory for Brisbane’s system – they’ve stayed faithful to the philosophy implemented by Ange Postecoglou, kept the core group of players together throughout a transition period, and are now re-approaching their peak form under Mulvey.