A frantic first half saw five goals in thirty-five minutes, but Adelaide were unable to equalise despite dominating the rest of the match.
Kevin Muscat made one change from last week’s narrow win over Brisbane, with Player of the Month Kosta Barbarouses starting instead of Archie Thompson.
Despite a comfortable 2-0 win against the Mariners, Josep Gombau made three changes – dropping James Jeggo, Fabio Ferriera and Pablo Sanchez, and bringing Marcelo Carrusca, Bruce Djite and Awer Mabil back into the side. That meant Cirio continued as a #10 with Carrusca (as opposed to using Jeggo, more of a box-to-box player), making this a particularly attacking lineup.
Victory fly out of the blocks
There was an utterly frantic feel to the start of this match, with Melbourne Victory steaming forward in attack. They immediately put Adelaide under great pressure, winning a succession of corners and free-kicks, one of which lead to Nigel Boogaard’s unfortunate own goal.
Later, he’d be responsible for another own goal, but as pointed out by the SBS commentary team, it was the fact Victory were putting Adelaide under so much pressure that these defensive mistakes were happening, and not, as it may have appeared, because of luck.
‘Under so much pressure’ is meant both figuratively and literally, because Muscat instructed his side to close down ferociously high up the pitch. We’ve seen a variety of approaches against Adelaide’s possession-domination system. For example, Wellington opted to sit deep, while Sydney FC switched from a low block to a high block in the FFA Cup tie, then did the opposite a few weeks later – starting off by pressing high up, but then later asking the attackers to drop back slightly deeper.
Here, the Victory wanted to close down right up on Adelaide’s back four. Besart Berisha, a tireless, relentless running machine, worked centrally between the two centre-backs, arcing his runs cleverly to force them either to play out to the full-backs or across to their partner. Importantly, Berisha was dictating where Adelaide’s next pass had to go, which would create a series of cues for the two wingers. Berisha covered an extraordinary amount of ground, but was perfect for the job.
Behind him was Guilherme Finkler, who man-marked Isaias and prevented passes into the #6.
On the wings, Kosta Barbarouses and Ben Khalfallah (right and left respectively) started off in slightly deeper positions, blocking off passes into the Adelaide full-backs. If a centre-back received a pass, that was the cue for the Victory winger on the ball-side to push forward and close them down, meaning there was pressure from both the side (Berisha) and in front. If Berisha’s run was angled as to force the man in possession to play wide, the wingers occupied the full-backs, creating a ‘trap’ near the flanks.
This pressing structure is outlined in the video below.
With Isaias and the full-backs blocked off, then, often Boogaard and Osama Malik were unable to play out effectively. Even Eugene Galekovic wasn’t free from the pressure, and he recorded relatively poor pass completion statistics – having completed 100% of his passes in the past three games, his numbers dropped to 91.7% here.
Khalfallah was particularly good at recognising the cue at press, having been asked to do similar against Sydney FC. As a result of this press, the Victory were able to cause real problems for Adelaide whenever they looked to play out, which had an impact on their ability to control possession as they desire.
Adelaide play out
However, contributing to the high quality of the match, Adelaide were sometimes able to play out around the Victory’s pressure. In fact, despite being closed down relentlessly, the back four must take great credit for continuing to try and play their usual way – tellingly, they were rewarded for their persistence (even if perhaps this persistence also proved costly in terms of giving the ball away cheaply in dangerous areas).
This is the way Adelaide always play, though, and it’s illogical for them to deviate from the way they train. Furthermore, when they were able to break the ‘first wave’ of pressure, there was lots of space in attacking positions, with the Victory’s ‘back six’ stretched.
The clearest example of this was for the first Adelaide goal, where they play out through Boogaard’s pass to Cirio, who releases Craig Goodwin in behind. Goodwin’s early cross is excellent, and Mabil equalises at the far post. It’s a sensational example of Adelaide beating the press, and illustrates the classic risk v reward debate that can stem from this ‘bravery’ of trying to play out around the closing down.
Cirio v Georgievski
Adelaide’s ambition in playing out particularly benefitted Mabil. As Khalfallah was energetically moving forward to press Malik, it meant on the occasions when the ball was played out Mabil was often 1v1 against Georgievski, who couldn’t cope with the youngster’s acceleration and pace down the outside.
The opening goal, too, was indicative of Mabil’s individual ‘victory’ up against Georgievski, with the Adelaide winger getting in front of him as the cross came in. It had been foreshadowed minutes earlier when Mabil got in front of Georgievski at the far post but blazed the shot miles off target. He didn’t miss on the second opportunity.
Also contributing to the frantic, frenzied nature of the first half was the tight 3v3 battle in midfield, where the two formations – 4-2-3-1 v 4-3-3 – aligned perfectly in that zone, meaning every midfielder had a direct opponent. Cirio was on Carl Valeri, Carrusca on Milligan and Isaias on Finkler. Whereas the Victory weren’t as ‘strict’ in these specific individual battles, Adelaide were particularly keen to man-mark when defending.
Therefore, the best moments came when midfielders varied their positions to find space. In the opening minutes, Milligan was especially keen to storm forward and support the attack, which by virtue of committing an extra body forward contributed to their god start.
In terms of the goals, Cirio, as aforementioned, drifted to the left to get away from Valeri in the build-up to Mabil’s goal, while Finkler moved towards the channels and darted past Malik in a more advanced position to assist the Victory’s second goal. The penalty is the prime example – Carrusca drops narrow to escape Milligan, and Cirio runs in behind to receive the pass over the top, and is fouled by Adrian Leijer.
After half an hour, the intensity of Victory’s press dropped, and Adelaide had greater possession.
However, after the break, the Victory seemed ‘re-energised’, and began closing down high up again. A good example of this is when Milligan had that header flashed just wide of the far post – Victory win the ball by pressuring Malik into a poor forward pass, then surge forward quickly. Another was when Berisha won the ball high up, but was only stopped by a superb recovery challenge by Boogaard. It’s the first example in the video above.
Again, though, the Victory seemed to tire. Finkler especially seemed exhausted, and was eventually replaced by Thompson. Into the second half, then, the game became more about possession v counter-attack, with the Victory relying on quick breaks to break up Adelaide’s attempts to chase the game. They retained a threat on the break through the pace of the front four, but the game was increasingly being shaped by Adelaide.
Having lost Malik on the hour mark to a calf injury, Gombau went all-out – making a double change of bringing on Jeggo and Sanchez for Carrusca and Marrone, and using another replacement, Dylan McGowan, to switch to the 3-4-3. Originally touted as an option when chasing games, but then used as a default formation in the first three rounds of the season, this is an unusual system where the shape metamorphoses between a 4-3-3 defensively, and a back three offensively, with Isaias the fulcrum – a centre-back without the ball, a holding midfielder at the base of a diamond with it.
Here, it was more an ‘outright’ 3-4-3, because Isaias rarely dropped into the backline. Instead, Elrich, Boogaard and McGowan were basically defending against Barbarouses, Khalfallah and Berisha 3v3 whenever the ball was turned over. That lead to even more Victory counters, with a 5 on 2 break at one point where Barbarouses really should have squared rather than shooting.
The counter-consequence of this ambition from Gombau, though, was that Adelaide had more bodies forward, especially in midfield. With a 4v3 advantage in that zone now, thanks to the midfield diamond of Isaias, Jeggo, Sanchez and Cirio, Adelaide were able to play centrally far more easily. Milligan and Valeri seemed uncertain of who to press, and Adelaide were creating good chances by playing through the middle and taking advantage of the width provided high up by Goodwin and Mabil.
The momentum was with them, though they went increasingly direct as they chased the game – but they didn’t get an equaliser, and the Victory hung on to win 3-2.
A sensational game played at a ludicrously high tempo in some parts. It was everything the slow-burning 1-1 back in Round 2 had promised to be, and was a brilliant show of two sides determined to play ‘their’ way. This was 2nd v 3rd, and the game reflected that – these two teams are deservingly favourites for the premiership.
The battle of Victory’s press v Adelaide’s playing out was especially thrilling, because there was no clear winner. The Victory were successfully breaking up Adelaide’s rhythm, but at the same time, that left them vulnerable whenever the front four were bypassed, and later in the contest, it had an impact on fatigue.
That, along with other ‘mini-tactical battles’ like in midfield and Mabil v Georgievski, made this not only one of the most entertaining games of the season, but also one of the most tactically fascinating.