Melbourne Victory have recruited strongly over the off-season, and Kevin Muscat has adapted to his revamped squad by adjusting their formation and system.
For the past two years, Ange Postecoglou’s 4-2-2-2 has been their template, with two no.10s creating space for the wide forwards to dart into. That evolved slightly last season with Mitch Nichols and James Troisi making the shape more fluid and interchangeable, but the underlying weaknesses remained – a vulnerability on the counter-attack, primarily because of a lack of protection for the full-backs due to the advanced positioning of the wingers ahead of them.
Furthermore, the Victory relied on a rehearsed pattern of play in attack, which was often nullified by opponents that sat very deep and reduced the space in behind for the wide players to run into.
The Victory committed lots of players forward and struggled to find compactness without the ball, meaning while they were spectacular going forward (scoring 42 goals, the third most in the competition) they were similarly spectacularly bad defensively, conceding 43 goals, the second most in the competition.
With all this in mind, Muscat has used his first full pre-season as head coach to tweak both the shape and style. They have switched to a more elementary 4-2-3-1. The major modification comes in the format of the attacking quartet, whereas the back six remains relatively intact.
Therefore, the dynamic of the side when building up play remains familiar. They play out from the back and look to get the two central midfielders on the ball facing forward. While they are capable of slower, sideways passing, the ideal is quick, vertical balls through the centre of the pitch.
At centre-back, new signing Matthieu Delpierre is extremely tall and is physically strong, but is also elegant on the ball and brings it forward calmly. He appears slightly vulnerable against tricky dribblers but should be more assured than Pablo Contreras. His partner is likely Adrian Leijier, who is a club legend but is clumsy with his challenges. Nick Ansell should be able to usurp him from the starting XI when the youngster returns from injury, while Leigh Broxham has an obvious height deficiency but can do a job at centre-back.
One of the full-back positions will likely be filled by the versatile Macedonian Daniel Georgievski, who can play either side and gets forward well. Muscat seems to prefer him on the left, using Jason Geria on the right. Geria played most of last season at right-back but remains wholly unconvincing, often awkward when in possession despite constant overlapping runs. Scott Galloway is another option at left-back, while there is obvious faith in Dylan Murnane to pick up from his impressive Asian Champions League cameos.
In the midfield zone, Mark Milligan, now on Australian marquee wages, will play to the left of midfield. Milligan is a favourite of Ange Postecoglou’s because he turns defence into attack neatly with neat and tidy distribution, and he’s also very good at occupying space to force attackers wide. His partner will be Carl Valeri, a holding midfielder who will stay at home in front of the defence and allow others forward, as Milligan himself has alluded to.
“My partnership with Carl has been good so far because he is a very smart and experienced footballer and I think we have good communication and an understanding of how Kevin Muscat wants us to play.”
“Just naturally I tend to go forward a little bit more than Carl because that is his natural role. As long as we have that one midfielder who takes care of defence we will know that in transition we are well set up defensively. It is reassuring to know that if I go on the attack we have somebody like Carl anchoring our defence.”
Rashid Mahazi and Leigh Broxham are the backups in midfield, and are also capable of connecting the side with their passing – an important element in this neat, possession-based system.
The major change this season, though, is in the final third. The signing of Brisbane Roar’s Besart Berisha has signalled a shift away from the 4-2-2-2 structure to a more orthodox 4-2-3-1, with the attackers now dictating attacking moves rather than executing a set pattern of play.
This is obvious with Berisha’s role in leading the line. He’s the same as he was with Roar, all energy and tenacity mixed with tremendously clinical finishing. He constantly varies his position, and is very good at dropping off the shoulder of a defender and taking one touch to open up his body for a shot.
Furthermore, Berisha’s the most defensively aware striker in the league, and works tremendously hard to press opposition defenders. However, high pressure only works if the side closes down as a unit – if the centre midfielders don’t move forward, space is created between the lines. This was a huge problem in their last pre-season fixture, against Sydney FC in Hobart, with the side stretched across the depth of the pitch, and was reminiscent of their previous problems with compactness when using the 4-2-2-2.
Muscat either needs to use a high line in conjunction with Berisha’s pressing, or ask the Albanian to be more controlled with his running. Otherwise, the side will become disjointed defensively.
Behind Berisha is Guilherme Finkler. The Brazilian battled his way back into the side last season after a long period out with a knee injury, but is one of the competition’s best playmakers and has a superb eye for a killer pass. Like many of the other attackers, Finkler seems to benefit more in an individual sense by a greater freedom – rather than being ‘shackled’ to the strict, structured positional play of the 4-2-2-2, he now has more liberty to work across the width and depth of the pitch.
“We’ve changed the formation this season,” says Finkler. “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.” An example of this is his deep, vertical movement close to thee midfield pivot, which has helped transition possession into the final third during pre-season.
Out wide, Muscat can choose from Archie Thompson, Kosta Barbarouses, Connor Pain or new signing Ben Khalfallah, all of whom can play from either flank. Again, rather than the system dictating player movement, the 4-2-3-1 emphasises the individual attributes of these players – so Pain stays wide, receives passes to feet and dribbles past opponents, while conversely Thompson and Barbarouses play as wide forwards and make runs in straight lines in behind.
Khalfallah, meanwhile, is more comfortable on the right where he’s able to both dart down the outside and send in crosses but also run intelligently towards the penalty area. An important part of the Victory’s strategy this season seems to be getting to the by-line and cutting balls back across the centre for Berisha. This attacking move lead to two goals in a friendly against Perth Glory, as well as in the 6-0 FFA Cup win over Tuggeranong, where Pain ran riot by simply sprinting past the opposition right-back and then crossing into the middle.
This may sound like a fairly simple concept, but the importance of Muscat ‘freeing’ up his attackers is the Victory’s most significant development this season. While a squad full of genuine quality and depth should ensure they make the finals, the major question mark remains the defence, and whether Muscat can fix the leakiness.