It turned out that Jade North’s own goal was enough to not only condemn Brisbane to their fifth defeat of the season, but also, to end Mike Mulvey’s time at the club.
Having dealt a rough hand selection-wise last week against Sydney FC, Kevin Muscat was able to return to something closer to his first choice side here. Ben Khalfallah started on the left, and Archie Thompson on the right, as Kosta Barbarouses wasn’t ready to start after international duty, while Daniel Georgievski returned at left-back. The main story, though, in terms of the team news, was that Besart Berisha would, as expected, start upfront against his old club.
Mike Mulvey made two changes from the 4-0 thumping of Newcastle Jets. Matt McKay replaced Steven Lustica in midfield, while Henrique, having replaced the injured Jean Carlos Solorzano midway through that Jets match and gone on to score a hat-trick, continued on the left-wing.
Brisbane attacking format
Tactically, the main talking point was whether Mulvey would continue with Thomas Broich in the false 9 role the German played last week. Traditionally, Broich plays on the left and drifts inside, but was very effective dropping between the lines from a central position to create 4v3 (and in the second half, 4v2) overloads against Newcastle’s midfield.
Here, he started off on the left, with Henrique through the middle. After barely three minutes played, though, Mulvey gave a hand signal from the bench to ‘switch’ – so Broich went into the middle, and Henrique to the left, meaning the attacking format was the same as last week.
Broich had great freedom between the lines against the Jets because the two Newcastle centre-backs, Taylor Regan and Adrian Madaschi, were keen to stick tight to him when he moved upfield but were poor in terms of actually wining the ball. Often in that Jets game, Broich was able to have a crucial couple of seconds on the ball unchallenged before Regan pressured him, allowing Broich time and space to be effective in possession.
Here, the Victory centre-backs had the same strategy, with Adrian Leijer and Leigh Broxham often darting forward enthusiastically to try and intercept passes into Broich. Quite simply, they did it better than Newcastle, with Broxham in particular winning a number of balls off Broich.
Brisbane don’t dominate possession
A secondary issue was that Brisbane didn’t have as much of the ball here, which in turn limited the amount of times they were actually able to construct attacks. That was because Mulvey opted for a more cautious approach than we would ever have expected from Brisbane, who always dominate the ball and retain possession reliably.
However, we’ve seen in the past – particularly against Adelaide – that Mulvey isn’t as fussed as ball retention as previous Roar coaches, and he instructed his side to sit off more, not pressing Victory’s centre-backs and instead only closing down when the ball was played into midfield. Brisbane were happy to allow Victory to control the majority of the ball.
That was summed up by the difference in total team pass completion – 201 accurate passes v Victory compared to 408 v Newcastle – and in possession – 47% v Victory, 58% v Newcastle.
Tracking ball retention % across the season is also telling – normally above the competition average, but then a substantial decrease in this match.
Man-marking in midfield
The Roar’s focus here was on man-marking tight in midfield. With a 4-3-3 v 4-2-3-1, it meant the midfield triangles were perfectly aligned, and as such, every player had a clear opponent – so Luke Brattan on Guilherme Finkler, Matt McKay on Carl Valeri, and Dimitri Petratos on Mark Milligan.
While Petratos and McKay were fairly comfortable closing down on their direct opponents, Brattan had more trouble containing the slippery Finkler, who likes to drift towards the sides to receive passes between the lines. At first, Brattan seemed uncomfortable following him out not these wide positions, meaning Finkler had the better of the opening quarter of the game. Eventually, though, Brattan began to follow Finkler quite doggedly whether he roamed, conceding one particularly nasty foul on the Brazilian in a wide position around the half-hour mark.
With both sides reciprocating the man-marking in midfield, then, two major patterns emerged. First, the game became quite stop-start, with a number of physical clashes and fouls occurring in midfield – a direct consequence of the tight battle in that zone. Both coaches bemoaned the broken tempo post-match, and this was somewhat reminsicient of the Adelaide-Victory game a couple of weeks back (also on a Friday night), where both sides man-marked in midfield and as a result struggled to construct meaningful periods of attacking play.
Like in that Adelaide-Victory game, too, the second pattern here was that both sides looked more effective when attacking quickly and directly down the flanks, basically bypassing the congested midfield altogether. A good example of this was the Berisha chance on the 20″ mark, saved by Jamie Young’s foot: Georgievski brings it forward purposefully from full-back, and slips the pass in behind for Berisha.
The emphasis on attacking in wide areas was summed up the ongoing battle between the two #14s, Daniel Bowles and Khalfallah, who repeatedly attacked the Brisbane right-back in 1v1 situations but was unable to get the better of him.
To return to the previous point about Brisbane’s relatively low possession count, an interesting feature of this match was the poor distribution of Jamie Young. He finished with just 18.5% passes completed, primarily because the majority of his goal-kicks were kicked long.
This is in complete contrast to the usual Brisbane system, where they always look to play out from the back. In fact, their emphasis on doing so was often so extreme it sometimes lead to disastrous turnovers inside their own penalty box – like when Michael Theo passed it straight to the Victory in an infamous 3-0 defeat four years ago.
The same two sides, but a completely different approach from Brisbane at goal-kicks, with Young often telling his back four to push up, and then just punting long balls towards the front three. Unsurprisingly, Brisbane lost the majority of these aerial battles.
Shortly after half-time, Broich swapped with Henrique to go into his usual left-wing position, where he seemed to find a little more space and become more influential, creating a good headed chance for Henrique.
Mulvey’s tactical switch to the more traditional 4-3-3 system with an out-and-out forward was made permanent by the introduction of Mensur Kurtishi, who had little impact despite some promising link-up play.
Muscat, meanwhile, made the obvious change in bringing on Barbarouses for Thompson, and then later brought Connor Pain on for Finkler, with Khalfallah going central.
Victory took the lead from a free-kick, one of many which they were able to whip into the area. Still, it wasn’t really reflective of any particularly attacking strategy, but rather the overall pattern, as with so many fouls breaking up the flow of the game, it was hardly surprising that one would eventually lead to a goal.
The tactical battle here detracted rather than added to the overall game. Mulvey continued with Broich as a false nine but the German was not as influential, partly because the Victory centre-backs did a good job defending proactively against him, and partly because Brisbane had less possession – which came as a result of an overall shift in strategy, towards a more pragmatic, cautious approach.
With Mulvey sacked on the following Sunday, it would be tempting to suggest this tactical switch (best illustrated by Young’s poor passing) was responsible for their downfall. In reality, though, Brisbane have largely remained true to their possession template, with little change from last season’s system.
That, perhaps, was the real problem: a failure to evolve as the rest of the league did so. In the six games so far this season Brisbane have had real trouble against sides that have pressed them in midfield, then counter-attacked quickly, and there’s been little sign from Mulvey that he’s been able to adapt or even identify these problems. That, coupled with the ongoing rumours of dressing room unrest, are the primary factors behind Brisbane’s fall from grace, and Mulvey’s departure.