Although there’s been much off-field overhaul at Melbourne City (formerly Heart), on the pitch John Van’t Schip has retained a semblance of consistency.
City’s preferred 4-3-3 is more or less the same as the system he implemented after taking over from John Aloisi at the start of the year. Although there’s been much change in personnel, the dynamic of the side will be very familiar.
In terms of style, Van’t Schip is flexible, happy to switch between a possession-based system and a more direct, counter-attacking style. That was evident at the tail end of last season, where the Heart had 51% possession against Wellington Phoenix, then just 37% the following week verus Brisbane. They also combined technical and physical aspects, mixing careful ball retention with sheer brute force – the strength and power of the enormous Orlando Engelaar was crucial in this aspect.
With his departure, and the arrival of smaller, more technical players, the Heart will probably be more possession-based this season. That has been the case in pre-season and there’s been an obvious focus on playing out from the back, using the width and depth of the pitch to stretch opponents and create space to build attacks. While we often talk about centre-backs ‘splitting’ the penalty box to make the field as wide as possible (which City do), Van’t Schip also asks his front three to sit very high up, as this pushes defences back and again, makes the field as large as possible.
Therefore, the side can feel very spread out when in the ‘reset’ position (playing out from a goal-kick or when the centre-backs have possession), which can cause problems if mistakes are made out when playing out – naturally, the further apart players are with the ball, the more distance they have to cover to be compact defensively.
Nevertheless, City will persist with this positive approach, pushing the full-backs very high up when in possession. Jason Hoffman and Iain Ramsay, right and left respectively, are probably the weakest players in the side, but perform an important role providing attacking width by constantly driving up and down the touchline. Ramsay, a converted forward, is particularly energetic, and gets forward with at-times reckless ambition.
The counter-effect of this, of course, is that City look vulnerable on the counter-attack, especially in wide areas. The centre-backs (Rob Wielaert and Patrick Kisnorbo) will move out to cover in the channels but often dive in, and a lack of discipline is a worrying concern.
With the ball, Kisnorbo’s very positive. He is happy to carry it forward and hits long, forward balls into the final third.
Another consideration is Van’t Schip’s previous inclination to switch between a back three and four in his first spell at Melbourne City. He prescribes to the Bielsa ‘spare man’ principle – so a back four against one striker, a back three against two – and often switched between the two shapes accordingly. Back in February, he switched to a back three against Sydney FC, freeing up the wing-backs to charge forward into space, but still keeping a 3v2 advantage at the back against Sydney’s front two.
Van’t Schip’s flexibility isn’t limited to his defence either, and in fact when first taking over from Aloisi he used a 4-4-2 diamond. It was an unorthodox diamond, however, in the sense that it became a flat 4-4-2 defensively with the right-hand striker, Mate Dugandzic, dropping back into a deep right-midfield position to create a second bank of four. This freed up the no.10, Harry Kewell, from defensive responsibility. Such a complex, fluid system demonstrates Van’t Schip’s adaptability, and we can expect more of the same this season.
However, the 4-3-3 seems to firmly be his ‘base’ formation, with the powerful midfield trio capable of out-passing most sides in the competition. At the base is Erik Paartalu, a tall, domineering holding midfielder who will play a very disciplined role in front of the back four, dropping in between the centre-backs and allowing the full-backs forward. He was excellent in this role for Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane and if he returns to the form from their Championship winning seasons, he will be this City’s side keystone. As Van’t Schip put it simply, “the way he played at Brisbane will be his role here too”.
Paartalu’s signing seems to pushed fellow new arrival Aaron Mooy into a slightly more advanced position. Mooy played most of pre-season as the #6, demonstrated his superb range of long passing (perhaps the best in the league) but never seemed entirely comfortable defensively, often being tempted forward and leaving too much space in front of the centre-backs. Instead, he should have more freedom in a slightly more advanced position to the right of Paartalu, helping the side retain possession, and facilitating counter-attacks with sweeping diagonals.
To his left is surprise marquee Robert Koren. The Slovenian has had a long, successful career between the various levels of English football, and brings lots of experience and leadership to the side.
Playing as the most advanced midfielder in a 4-3-3 is his ‘token’ role. It’s where Steve Bruce used him at Hull City, because in Bruce’s own words Koren nowadays lacks the mobility to adequately defend in a two-man midfield, and also where he played for West Brom and Slovenia at the 2010 World Cup. The cover of three midfielders in the 4-3-3 allows Koren to make lots of late runs into the penalty box – his trademark move, and one which saw him finish as Hull’s top scorer in the 2012-13 Championship (with nine).
Koren will play a similar role in this City side – effectively given the same freedom as Engelaar, and roaming down that left channel to make clever, darting forward runs. He’s not as physically imposing as the Dutchman, but is technically sound and is better suited to the more possession-based style this season.
This appears to be the favoured midfield trio and is very fluid, with the players happy to rotate through each position to find space. This will probably be less common with Paartalu happy to anchor at the base, but Mooy and Koren are happy to swap sides and drag defenders out of position.
City have lots of options in the midfield zone. Nick Kalmar is a favourite of Van’t Schip’s and can play that #6 role, as can Jonaton Germano, who can be a ‘solid’ holding player like Paartalu. Massimo Murdocca brings lots of energy and is useful when pressing high up the pitch, and will battle for Mooy for a starting spot. Meanwhile, youngsters Paolo Retre, Stefan Mauk and Ben Garuccio will also get opportunities.
Further forward, the two wide players either side of the central striker have switched flanks incessantly throughout pre-season, so much so at times it’s been impossible to designate players to a certain side. Nevertheless, it’s generally Damien Duff on the left, and either David Williams or Mate Dugandzic on the right. While the latter tend to be more direct and power towards goals themselves, Duff constantly whips in dangerous crosses from the by-line. His ability to drop the shoulder to get half a yard on a defender is excellent and he will provide lots of creativity from either flank.
There’s a valid question about whether a cross-based attack suits David Villa, though. The Spanish striker, a genuine great of the modern game, can challenge in the air but is more comfortable running onto passes in behind, even though his pace has decreased with age. Villa’s movement off the shoulder is tremendous and not only will he create his own space to receive through balls, he’ll also drag defenders out of position by drifting wide and making diagonal runs towards the channels. Clearly, he’s not at his peak, but his pedigree is that he’s probably in better condition than Alessandro Del Piero, and may well prove to be the league’s best ever player even in his short stint.
The trouble with Villa, of course, is that his loan spell is just ten games, meaning Van’t Schip will have to find alternatives upfront at the turn of the new year. In pre-season David Williams has been used upfront. He drops quite deep in that role, but is also capable of sprinting in behind. Marc Marino is a promising youngster, but is raw. City’s lack of striking options beyond Villa is probably their biggest weakness.
Across the rest of the squad, though, there’s encouraging depth. Connor Chapman will challenge Kisnorbo and Wielaert at the back, while James Brown has had a disappointing couple of seasons but can play from either flank and can play clever passes. In goals, Tando Velaphi and Andrew Redmayne have a healthy rivalry, but both can make baffling errors of judgement, and this is another clear area of weakness (relative to the strengths elsewhere in the side).
It’s undeniable the core of the side has improved as a whole, but it feels like there are too many flaws in this side for them to be genuine challengers this season.