The two most successful sides in the A-League’s history meet for the first time ever in a finals match.
Having had fifteen days off since their last match against the Central Coast Mariners, Mike Mulvey has no new injury worries and so will name an unchanged side. That means Besart Berisha will start upfront against the side he will join next year.
Kevin Muscat has had to rotate his squad frequently this year to accommodate their Asian Champions League commitments, but will name something close to his strongest starting XI – Mark Milligan, Pablo Contreras and James Troisi have all had the benefit of a full week off.
Both these sides, of course, share an Ange Postecoglou legacy, but he moulded two very different approaches in his time at both clubs. First, at Brisbane, he developed a possession-based style, something that’s remained intact since his departure, with Mike Mulvey retaining the core of the original squad and effectively returning to the system that was so successful in the two consecutive Championship years. They’ll inevitably dominate possession here, building play slowly out from the back.
The Victory are more immediate, with Postecoglou taking the side in the unusual direction of being a possession-based side that relies heavily on counter-attacking. Like Brisbane, they play out from the defence through the midfield, but the manner of the attack is often very direct, with quick forward passes from front to back. In fact, the Victory are better attacking space in behind rather than when forced to have the ball for long periods against deep-lying defences, and this type of fixture – where they’ll have somewhere between 30-40% of the ball, suits their style best.
The formation battle here is also predictable – Brisbane will play 4-3-3, the Victory 4-2-2-2 (with the minor possibility Muscat uses the 4-3-3 he’s preferred in Asia). However, the key feature here will be where the Victory press: will it be high up the pitch, with the front four closing down Brisbane’s passing from the back, or will they sit back and try to soak up pressure, before breaking quickly through Kosta Barbarouses and Archie Thompson?
Muscat’s become more cautious during his short tenure, and more flexible than Postecoglou in terms of both shape and the positioning of the side – particularly the wingers, who he has sometimes instructed to play much more disciplined roles than they’re accustomed to, dropping back to form a second bank of four ahead of the defence.
Normally, they have a licence to ‘cheat’, staying high up the pitch in a position to counter-attack, but it’s long been obvious that leaves the Victory undermanned in key areas, especially to either side of the midfield duo, with the full-backs also vulnerable to overloads because of a lack of protection. As Ivan Franjic and Shane Stefanutto constantly get forward, Muscat will probably be more conservative, asking Barbarouses and Thompson to drop back and support Jason Geria and Adama Traore (right and left respectively) defensively. This might be an even bigger concern considering how threading Sebastian Ryall was pushing high up from the right in last week’s elimination final against Sydney FC.
Conversely, though, he will be hugely encouraged by how dangerous the Mariners looked breaking into the space in behind the full-backs in the final round of the regular season, because Phil Moss’s low block 5-4-1 tempted them high up the pitch, before Bernie Ibini and Nick Fitzgerald burst forward on the counter-attack. Barbarouses and Thompson will play similar roles here, and in light of Brisbane’s inevitable dominance of possession, Victory’s counter-attacking threat will be even more pronounced.
It’s what Muscat did in a 1-0 Brisbane win a few weeks back, and it actually suffocated Brisbane’s play for long periods – while they remain the best side in the competition for breaking down deep defences, they do inevitably struggle most against sides the pack their penalty area. It took a spectacular Brattan strike from distance in the 90th minute to separate the sides.
Furthermore, the actual deployment of either winger will also be interesting. Although they switch intermittently, Barbarouses is generally right, Thompson left – it was Stefanutto’s side that looked particularly vulnerable in that Mariners win, so he’ll want the counter-attacks to be focused towards that side.
In slower periods of build-up play, the Victory centre-backs will look to play short through Milligan and Leigh Broxham, who look to turn and face the play, trying to distribute into Guilherme Finkler and James Troisi between the lines. Finkler’s quite good at finding little pockets of space to either side of a deep-lying midfielder, which Luke Brattan will be here, and although Finkler’s actual creative output is inconsistent, he will be the main playmaking threat when the Victory hold the ball for longer periods.
Next to Finkler is Troisi, who’s more of a goal threat – timing runs into the penalty area excellently, and also superb when breaking forward into space through the middle. Last year, with Finkler and Flores as the dual numbers 10s, the Victory lacked pace through the middle – Troisi isn’t quite a number nine, but he attacks more directly than the aforementioned, as reflected in his fine goal return this season.
The bulk of the game, however, will be Brisbane’s possession. Brattan’s primarily responsible for the transition of the ball into attacking areas, moving laterally into space in front of the centre-backs to collect possession, before distributing it upfield. One of Finkler or Troisi might be instructed to pick him up out of possession, as Mitch Duke was two weeks ago.
The actual incisiveness comes predominately from the left, and the neat triangle made by Matt McKay, Stefanutto pushing forward and Thomas Broich drifting inside, with McKay and Broich capable of quick, clever one-twos to break forward into space. Leigh Broxham could be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of numbers in and around his zone, and Broich was particularly influential in the 3-0 a few weeks back – creating a staggering nine chances in the left channel.
On the opposite side, the attack is more direct, with Petratos moving into the channels to shoot on goal, and Franjic overlapping on his outside to cut balls back from the byline. Because Contreras tends to stick tight to opponents, it’ll be interesting to see if Petratos can drag him out of position with his favoured position in the space just in front and between the centre-back and full-back.
Lessons from the 3-0
In a 3-0 Brisbane win between these two sides back in January, the Victory actually nullified Brisbane’s attack for much of the first half, but were undone by a spectacular 21-pass move for the opening goal, which demonstrated how their greatest strength is when they suddenly up the tempo of their passing with quick, incisive balls between the lines, a quality that they lacked against the Mariners.
In the context of the Victory match, the goal had an intangible effect on the Roar’s overall confidence and execution. Mulvey’s use of Broich upfront as a false nine was also key, as the German constantly wandered across the width of the pitch to link up play: Berisha plays a similar role, but is at his best when central, attacking goal – his movement deep often robs Brisbane of their ‘verticality’, because there’s no penetration for their possession, and it’s probably more important here that he occupies the central defenders.
The tactical interest here comes in the contrasting approaches, but primarily whether the Victory can withstand Brisbane’s possession play: if they can tempt the defence high up the pitch, there should be space in behind for the wide players to attack. Muscat has taken the side towards a more pragmatic approach in recent weeks, and that should probably suit the nature of this particular tactical battle.
Whether they can soak up pressure for long periods is another question – they finished the season with the second worst amount of goals conceded, and unlike the other semi-final, this is far more likely to be an open, attacking encounter, centred around who can outscore the other.