The Asian Champions League is the first real example of Kevin Muscat deviating from the tactical approach of his predecessor, Ange Postecoglou.
Up until Wednesday night’s match against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Muscat’s remained faithful to the 4-2-2-2 formation, and the use of two number tens. This is despite ongoing problems defensively, with the side having conceded 12 goals in their past four games. However, in the 4-3 win over Adelaide on Saturday, he asked the wingers/wide forwards – normally allowed to stay high up the pitch as outlets on the counter-attack – to track back and form a second bank of four alongside the midfield, making the Victory appear far more structured without the ball than we’ve come to expect.
Adelaide 3-4 Melbourne Victory
It didn’t necessarily work well, because the lack of Victory pressure high up the pitch gave Adelaide time on the ball in deep positions to play out from the back and work the ball forward into midfield, where they continually focused their passing down the flanks to create 2v1 overloads past the Victory full-backs. Although there was now theoretically ‘more’ protection for Scott Galloway and Adama Traore, in practice James Troisi and Archie Thompson offered little defensively – committed enough to drop back, but not intelligent enough to position themselves to block off passing lanes or even occupy the Adelaide full-backs, who simply burst past them on the overlap to provide support for Cirio and Fabio Ferriera.
However, the counter-consequence of this was that at counter-attacks, Adelaide were continually exposed down the sides by the positive forward running of Thompson and Troisi, who broke forward into acres of space and were directly involved in all four Victory goals. The temptation is to suggest that because they dropped back to form a second bank of four, it invited the Adelaide full-backs forward, thus creating the space for the Victory to exploit on the break.
Change of formation
Nevertheless, Muscat was obviously encouraged enough by the performance in an otherwise cavalier game to persist with a similar approach in their midweek Asian Champions League match against Jeonbuk, where he not only instructed Kosta Barbarouses and Andrew Nabbout to drop back alongside James Jeggo and Jesse Makarounas, but also removed one of his number tens and instead introduced a third central midfielder between the two banks of four – Mark Milligan, who played a scrappy, sweeping holding midfield role. It was the same tweak to the one Postecoglou made last season when Guilherme Finkler was injured.
Now, with an extra ball-winner in front of the defence, the Victory suddenly felt far more secure in a long-running problem zone. In the 4-2-2-2, because of the advanced positioning of the wide players, there’s too much space in midfield for two players to adequately be able to cover, as demonstrated against Brisbane and the Wanderers. With Milligan positioned just in behind (and doing an excellent job ‘cleaning’ up loose balls and putting in a number of combative tackles), there was always cover between the lines when one slid across to help defend in wide areas when the wingers were caught out high up. Combined with the fact that Muscat asked the wingers to drop back defensively, and this was a far more pragmatic Victory performance than we’ve come to expect.
Still, the concession of 2 goals suggests it didn’t work, and to a certain extent that’s true – clearly, there was too much space in midfield for the first goal. It’s worth noting, however, that the two goals came from spectacular long-range strikes (the first, albeit, a tap-in from the initial shot). The second goal, for example, was unstoppable, and for once the Victory’s conceded goals weren’t a direct product of their defensive mistakes, but rather simply fine pieces of attacking play.
Further to the point, despite these minor tweaks, the Victory system remains inherently attacking – they commit a lot of players going forward, and rely on integrated movement from the front four (three, here) to create chances. Tom Rogic, nominally upfront on his own, played as a false nine, dropping away from the Jeonbuk centre-backs to receive passes from the midfield. Importantly, unlike in the 4-2-2-2 system where the playmakers generally occupy a permanent space between the lines, Rogic stayed higher up, then made his run deep as the pass was played, thus creating that important distinction between being a number 10, and being a false 9.
He had a fascinating battle with compatriot Alex Wilkinson, who was keen to stick tight and was often drawn up into advanced positions by Rogic’s movement – creating space in behind for Barbarouses and Nabbout to attack with diagonal runs from the flank, most clearly demonstrated by the second goal.
This is hardly new information, though, and it’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from the Victory under Postecoglou and now Muscat, even with the caveat there was only one central playmaker, rather than the usual two. It’ll be interesting to see if Postecoglou persists with this 4-3-3 for their next match against Perth Glory, but he might want to be more proactive in the A-League, and save his pragmatism for the more challenging Champions League matches.