The Heart dominated the opening, then made the most of their extra man to illustrate their superiority.
John van’t Schip had to reshuffle half of his back four with both Patrick Gerhardt and Aziz Behich accumulating yellow card suspensions, with Rob Wielaert and Ben Garrucio replacing them at centre-back and left-back respectively.
Kevin Muscat made three changes from the midweek defeat to Guangzhou Evergrande, with Guilherme Finkler starting ahead of Jesse Makarounas, and Kosta Barbarouses making way for Tom Rogic – meaning a brand new front two, with Troisi going wide left. Meanwhile, at the back, Pablo Contreras was dropped in favour of Scott Galloway, which saw Jason Geria shuffle across to centre-back. Finally, Lawrence Thomas was surprisingly selected ahead of Nathan Coe in goals.
Heart start strong
A key feature of the Heart’s win over Brisbane last week was how physical they were in the midfield zone – using three energetic, combative players to break up passing moves. It was the case again here, with a number of strong challenges right from the first whistle, resulting in a succession of Victory free-kicks – the commentator’s story about the word “aggression” being underlined on the Heart change-room whiteboard was appropriate.
In games featuring an early goal, it’s often the case that there’s not been time to establish a pattern, or tactical trend, but in fact, here, the Heart’s route to the opening goal was practically a duplicate of the passage of play immediately before it – Engelaar winning the ball because of his height, and playing a quick ball over the top for one of the front three. In the move preceding the goal, Engelaar released Williams in behind with a lofted pass into the channel – the striker’s shot was high over the bar, leading to the goal-kick from which Thomas, of course, hit the ball directly at the tall Engelaar, who promptly played Ramsay in behind before moving forward to tap in the forthcoming cross.
Stylistically, the goal was also quite similar to Engelaar’s last week against Brisbane, and it’s worth noting how the 4-3-3 system accommodates those runs from midfield – with three central midfielders, there’s always cover in behind when one of them moves forward, as Engelaar has obviously done so to good effect recently.
Importantly, when the Heart had the ball higher up the pitch, Germano held his position in front of the back four. That meant the Heart had numbers behind the ball at transitions, and Germano did a good job of jockeying Finkler and Rogic towards the sides – normally, the Heart midfield trio is quite fluid and flexible with the three rotating positions, but Germano’s discipline as the most central player was vital here. A good example was when Andrew Redmayne mishit a kick, as the ball fell to a Victory player inside the penalty area – fortunately, Germano was able to fill in at centre-back and clear the danger.
Afterwards, the game slowed down, with the Heart establishing a control of possession through slow, measured build-up from the back – the two centre-backs split wide, with Germano dropping in between to give them a 3v2 numerical advantage against the Victory front two of Finkler and Rogic, who pressed high up to prevent forward passes (with the wide players dropping back to create a second bank of four as has been the trend in recent weeks).
However, Kisnorbo still managed to play a number of penetrative passes from a wide-left position, sometimes moving forward purposefully on the ball, and sometimes hitting straight balls through the centre for Williams. Williams to Kisnorbo was he key combination – it brought attacks into the final third, with the former doing an excellent job of laying it off for supporting players. One such pass lead to Dugdanzic getting free on the right, and sending in a looping cross from the side, from which Ramsay’s volley struck the side-netting.
A few seconds later, Dugdanzic scored from a very similar type of cross – this, though, was obviously an enormous stroke of fortune, and not reflective of any particular tactical theme.
Still, the Heart were now 2-0 up, and had the freedom to dictate the game on their terms, which meant long spells of possession. This was a marked change from last week’s counter-attacking approach against Brisbane, where they had just 37% possession – contrasting with the 60% they enjoyed here.
Obviously, the nature of the opposition – as Brisbane are always going to dominate the ball in their matches – informed this approach, but it was interesting how calm the Heart’s passing was for long stretches of the first half, often happy knocking it around in deep positions. It was as if they deliberately wanted to slow the tempo, perhaps wary of how the Victory benefitted from the openness of last Saturday’s match against Adelaide, which lead to both sides counter-attacking frantically in a helter-skelter 4-3 Victory win.
Unsurprisingly, then, the Victory’s best chance came when they robbed the Heart high up the pitch – Troisi intercepted a loose Wielaert pass and broke forward to put a shot high over the far post. Aside from that, though, the Heart generally were able to play under the Victory’s first wave of pressure.
As briefly mentioned earlier, the Heart’s major attacking pattern was hitting direct balls to the front three. Often, Williams would drop short in front of the centre-backs, pull the defenders forward and thus create space for both Ramsay and Dugdanzic to move inside on the diagonal run – the ‘false 9’ move. There was a moment where Williams hit a one-touch pass on the outside of his foot for Ramsay to chase – Thomas collected it cleanly, but it showed how and where the Heart were looking dangerous.
Shortly after that, in the forty-first minute, Ansell was sent off for pulling the shirt of Williams when the striker got in behind off a long, direct pass from the back.
Muscat’s response to the red card was to drop Leigh Broxham into centre-back, meaning Finkler in turn had to move deeper into central midfield, in a 4-4-1 formation spearheaded by Rogic. There were also, understandably, passive without the ball, sitting back and allowing the Heart to continue their patient passiog in deep positions.
John van’t Schip acted early to bring on Nick Kalmar in place of Germano twelve minutes into the second half. With 10 v 11, the thinking was probably that there was no need for Germano to drop in between the centre-backs (with only Rogic in the first line of Victory defence) – so Kalmar played slightly higher up, becoming a ‘spare man’ in midfield (with Engelaar and Murdocca occupying Milligan and Finkler) and so dominating the play with his passing. Considering he only played half an hour, it was remarkable he finished as the game’s 7th most frequent passer. The majority of his distribution was calmly towards the sides but he also hit penetrative forward balls towards teammates between the lines, while also providing a brilliant chipped through-ball for Dugdanzic to go 1-on-1 with Thomas.
The second most prominent feature of the second half was the Heart’s crossing – they seemed keen to target the makeshift Victory centre defence (particularly Broxham) obvious weakness of height. Dugdanzic missed a good chance on the volley from a Williams cross (the original move stemming from, unsurprisingly, a Kisnorbo pass to the striker), while later, Ramsay was only denied by a last-ditch clearance from Traore off a low Williams ball across the face of goal. Later, Williams somehow managed to hit a volley from five yards over the bar, but scored minutes later from a penalty box scramble that originated, inevitably, from a cross.
Meanwhile, Muscat made a double change on the hour mark, replacing his wide players with two direct attackers, Connor Pain and Kosta Barbarouses, which, on paper, made sense – both, as quick, dribble-first players, were ideal for leading counter-attacks. Later, Makarounas came on for Rogic, but this was an insignificant change.
Van’t Schip’s second change saw Harry Kewell replace Engelaar, playing broadly the same role as the Dutchman- he scored a fantastic goal from a clever position between the lines, the assist coming, fittingly, from Kalmar.
This was a fine win for the Heart: not only a thrashing over their local rivals but a tactically excellent display, and importantly, a completely different style of win from the preceding game – this showed how effective they can be when controlling possession, doing an excellent job in playing out neatly from the back to create space in the final third, particularly through that Kisnorbo –> Williams combination.
Of course, they benefitted from the extra man for the entire second half – but even there, Van’t Schip deserves great credit for his positive use of the bench , with Kalmar providing purposeful forward passing and proving instrumental in the final two goals. Furthermore, the obvious focus on crossing paid off, especially considering the number of chances Williams, Ramsay and Dugdanzic spurned in the second period.
Muscat will acknowledge the red card as a turning point (and in fairness, the Heart’s second goal was indebted to pure luck), but he’ll privately admit his side were still inferior at 11v11 – they didn’t press the Heart effectively to prevent them from building attacking moves, and struggled to cope with Williams’ clever movement in front of the central defenders.