The Victory inflicted the Wanderers with the heaviest defeat in their short history to open the new A-League season.
Kevin Muscat started with four of his new off-season signings, with Daniel Georgievski and Mattheiu Delpierre at left and centre back respectively, Carl Valeri in midfield alongside Leigh Broxham and Besart Berisha upfront in what is a new 4-2-3-1 formation.
Tony Popovic was without Nikolai Topor-Stanley for just the second time ever, so Antony Golec moved to centre-back to partner Brendan Hamill. That meant Shannon Cole, superb at right-wing in the Asian Champions League, dropped to left-back, with Kwabena Appiah-Kubi starting in his previous position. The two new attackers, Vitor Saba and Romeo Castelen, were on the bench, with Mark Bridge instead tucked in behind Brendon Santalab.
The Victory’s change of shape this season (away from their previous 4-2-2-2) has been informed by the arrival of Berisha, a tremendously mobile and clinical number nine who leads the line by stretching defences with smart runs in behind, but also roams across the pitch to link up play and create space for other attackers. Put simply, Berisha is a fine all-round forward, and the logical conclusion is for that the Victory have built their attack around him.
While that has significantly altered the style of their play in the final third, the dynamic of the Victory side remains familiar. They have continued to try and build up from the back, and the back six has a similar feel to last season, with two central midfielders screening the defence and the full-backs looking to get forward.
Therefore, with the Wanderers barely deviating from their usual system, the clash of style here was fairly obvious. The Victory got their foot on the ball early on and controlled possession, while the Wanderers sat off in a medium defensive block and looked to counter-attack quickly.
Victory target the left
However, there was one key, recurring theme here that dictated the flow of the match, and was the primary reason behind the Victory’s dominance. There was a clear emphasis on playing down their right hand side – the Wanderers left – with #10 Guilherme Finkler combining with Kosta Barbarouses to exploit the lack of familiarity down the left-hand side of Western Sydney’s back four. Cole is tremendously versatile and can play in attack or defence down either flank, but he has the least experience at left-back, and appeared tremendously out of his depth up against a very quick, incisive Victory attack.
The first key factor behind this was that Finkler dropped into a pocket of space just in front of Poljak, drawing the midfielder towards him – then looked to play a quick one-two with Barbarouses, thus working the ball into a position between the lines. From here, Barbarouses would sprint in behind Cole, and often overwhelmed him with his pace. There was a good example of this when Leijer simply cleared his lines from the back towards the Wanderers left-back zone, and Barbarouses roared past Cole in a simple footrace.
In the opening six minutes, there were three clear examples of this combination play, with the third leading to the free-kick from which Mattheiu Delpierre opened the scoring. The video below highlights these, plus four other examples from the first half.
When Jason Geria got forward from right-back in support, it upped the pressure on Cole even further, especially with Finkler constantly drifting towards that right-channel. By overloading that side, the Victory put the Wanderers defence under tremendous pressure, and probably deserved their three-goal lead – the third, scored by Broxham, summed up their emphasis on playing down this side. It was actually quite fitting that the midfielder (and captain for the night) scored a goal, for he had two earlier shots at the top of the box from crosses from the right-hand side.
At the other end, The Wanderers had a few chances by attacking down their own left (Victory’s right, which meant it felt like most of the game was being played down one flank), with Haliti directly involved in three dangerous chances. First, there was the cross that forced Leijer into an awkward tackle on Santalab that could have been the penalty, and then there were two shots that required Coe to parry away from goal.
The Wanderers got a goal back from a simple long ball down the middle, but it proved just a consolation.
Popovic made two changes for the second half, bringing Jason Trifiro on for Iacopo La Rocca and Vitor Saba for Appiah, meaning Bridge went to the left and helped protect Cole slightly better. These changes felt largely irrelevant after Archie Thompson scored the Victory’s fourth – after that, they just went through the motions, closing out the game.
An exciting, high-scoring match to start the new season was all about the Victory’s fluid, quick attacks. They combined the base template of their previous system with the qualities Berisha brings, and focused their attacking down the right to target Western Sydney’s weakness.
However, this felt like an aberration rather than the indication of a long-term slump for the Wanderers, who may be struggling to balance both the league commitments and their success in Asia. They simply weren’t very good at the qualities that they usually pride themselves upon. The story here was about how good the Victory were, rather than how bad the Wanderers were.