Will Kevin Muscat stick or twist with Melbourne Victory’s striker-less system?

Perhaps no position has undergone such significant change in the past decade than the striker. Traditionally, the number 9 was simply a target-man figure, aiming to get on the end of crosses – stereotypically, “a bull at a gate”. Increasingly, though, technical players became preferred, and the notion of a striker that dropped deep gained much pace when popularised by the success of Spain and Barcelona.

While the A-League has, on occasion, seen glimpses of striker-less formations in the past, it was Ange Postecoglou’s Melbourne Victory who first fully embraced the concept, doing away with a ‘classic number 9′ altogether in favour of an unorthodox, ‘Dual 10′ system.

Originally, in Postecoglou’s first season at the Victory, it was Marcos Flores and Guilherme Finkler who played ‘upfront’ in what was, broadly speaking, a 4-2-2-2 system. The defensive base of the side – the ‘back six’ – were orthodox in their roles, although Postecoglou, naturally, as a possession-based coach, asked them to bring the ball out from the back using short passes. When the Victory worked passing moves into the middle third, however, that was the cue for intelligent, integrated movement from the front four.

The No.10s, starting as the most advanced players in a central position, dropped off into space between the lines. That drew central defenders with them and created space for the wide players, Marco Rojas and Archie Thompson, to make penetrative runs in behind. The two had a good understanding of their roles and struck up a fine partnership, often combining with low crosses across the face of the penalty box.

In the following season, Postecoglou made a slight, subtle alteration to this movement pattern. With a new-look front two of James Troisi and Mitch Nichols, he encouraged more dynamic, lateral movement. They still started high up and then dropped deep (like false 9s), but now also drifted wide to pull away opposition defenders.

A common pattern of play was to position themselves just beside an opposition midfielder. As Troisi and Nichols were ostensibly the responsibility of the central defenders, they still drew these opponents out of their positions – but also, by sitting close to the opposition midfielders, they pulled these players out of position, and created gaps elsewhere. Typically, this was exploited by a reverse run from the other no.10, who would burst forward into the space created.

This was something we didn’t see much of with Finkler and Flores, and explains why Nichols and Troisi, the latter in particular, scored far more goals than the previous combination. It was still more or less the same dynamic, but because there was a wider breadth and depth to the movement of the no.10s, it was even more dangerous going forward.

The system, however, came at a cost. As it required integrated movement from four attackers, when the ball was turned over these players were often not in a position to suitably defend against counter-attacks. Therefore, the Victory were repeatedly exposed on the break, with the deep-lying midfield two not sufficient protection for the back four. Furthermore, if attacking moves were not quick enough, that created time for opponents to get behind the ball and reduce the threat of penetration.

In a paradoxical way, the deeper the opposition defence, the harder it was for Victory to attack efficiently, primarily because the system relied on space being available for the front four to move and attack into. Hence, why they struggled so often against sides that played very cautiously.

These issues, therefore, meant Kevin Muscat – who had taken over from Postecoglou after the latter was appointed as Socceroos coach – became increasingly conservative towards the end of the season. In the Asian Champions League, for example, he switched to a 4-3-3 by removing one of the no.10s and adding in an extra holding midfielder. He also decreased the positional fluidity of the front four, and played more on the counter-attack. This meant the wide players were asked to track opposition full-backs into deep positions, before springing forward on the break.

Now, with a full pre-season available to him, this season is a good opportunity to see how Muscat’s philosophy deviates from Postecoglou’s. It was unsurprising last season that the young coach persisted with the original 4-2-2-2, but the structural issues with the system combined with the signing of Besart Berisha has seen him change approach.

The starting line-up of the pre-season friendly v Perth
The starting line-up of the pre-season friendly v Perth

Berisha, instead, has been deployed as the lone forward in a new 4-2-3-1 formation. This isn’t a concession to the claims that the previous striker-less system ‘didn’t work – a simple look at Victory’s goal-scored tally invalidates this argument – but rather, seems to be simply about Muscat accomodating his best attackers in positions that best suit their skills.

Berisha, for example, while comfortable dropping deep (and often did so for Brisbane Roar), also likes to attack space in behind defences and will make penetrative runs from a central position. While this was not accommodated in the previous system, it was plainly obvious in Victory’s pre-season win over Perth Glory, where Berisha scored a hat-trick. Rather than the system dictating Berisha’s role, Berisha (and others) are dictating the system.

Another example of this from the Perth Glory match was the role of Connor Pain, who started wide on the left. Whereas in the 4-2-2-2 he would have concentrated primarily on making complementing runs in behind when the no.10s created that space, in this 4-2-3-1 he stayed wide on the left, received passes to feet and looked to take on defenders 1v1. His individual battle with Josh Risdon, the Perth right-back, was a fascinating feature of the game, and Pain constantly drove past him to the by-line to cut balls back for Berisha. Then, again, in the FFA Cup tie against Tuggeranong United, his dribbling was the game’s key feature – he was constantly available wide on the left and laid on three assists, as well as a goal.

Guilherme Finkler also illustrated the tactical change. The former was used as a #10 behind Berisha, and simply looked to get into space between the lines, and play incisive passes for the other attackers. The shift in emphasis from the Brazilian creating space for others with his movement – as was previously the case – to a more ‘individual’, roaming playmaker role, was discernible. In particular, he now drops quite deep towards the midfield pivot.

Finkler himself has indicated his role has changed. “We’ve changed the formation this season.” he says. “I watch a lot of video and Kevin has been talking to me about having more freedom this season in the movement through the midfield area.”

Archie Thompson completed the attacking quartet in this 4-2-3-1 against Perth, playing from the right. He made lots of runs in behind, providing another goal threat alongside Berisha. In the Tuggeranong match, Kosta Barbarouses played from the right, but as a very similar type of player to Thompson, offered similar qualities. When considering the tendency of Pain on the opposite side to receive passes to feet, Thompson’s ability to run onto balls made for a nice balance, and created a promising asymmetry on both sides of the pitch.

While the specific attacking patterns will change as personnel inevitably changes throughout the season, it is clear that this in itself is the major changes to Melbourne Victory’s attacking play this season. Kevin Muscat has switched from a structured attacking format to a more ‘expressive’ style, with the individual attributes of players primarily dictating the nature of attacking moves, rather than the side constantly looking to execute a certain pattern of play. It will be fascinating to see how this evolves over the course of the season.

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