Melbourne City upset the Wellington Phoenix 2-0 to book a Melbourne Derby in the semi-final.
Ernie Merrick named the same outfield side from last week’s defeat to Sydney FC, with Roly Bonevacia continuing in the #10 position, and Michael McGlinchey wide on the left. Louis Fenton continued in his new midfield role. The only change was in goal, where Glen Moss returned in place of Lewis Italiano.
John Van’t Schip changed to a 4-2-1-3 formation, after recently experimenting with a 4-4-2 diamond. This meant a recall for David Williams, who played on the right, while Harry Novillo moved to the left. There was also a new pair of full-backs, with Paolo Retre and Jonaton Germano on the right and left respectively.
City’s formation change
Van’t Schip has been something of a formation tinkerer this season, having used 3-4-3, a 4-4-2 diamond and 4-3-3. This 4-2-1-3 (it could also be called a 4-2-3-1) was most similar to the preferred 4-3-3 formation. The crucial difference was that the triangle was flipped, so rather than Erik Paartalu playing as a lone holding midfielder, here he was in a double pivot alongside Aaron Mooy. Koren was slightly further ahead, as a #10. Both Mooy and Paartalu sat quite deep, looking to protect the defence even when City had possession in the final third.
This meant, along with the wide players tracking back into deep positions, City always had numbers behind the ball and were successfully able to clog the midfield zone – crucial, as the Phoenix play quite narrow and look to construct attacks through the middle. Despite the centre-backs having a relatively large amount of time on the ball, Wellington found it difficult to play penetrative forward passes.
This dictated the slow-burning nature of the first half, with the best chances coming from set-pieces (Novillo came close off a corner, and McGlinchey hit the bar from a free-kick) rather than open play.
Early on, City had two promising counter-attacking opportunities when Williams sprinted in behind Manny Muscat – the second saw Andrew Durante called into action with a fine block.
After that, however, City struggled to transition defence into attack effectively. There were three reasons for this: firstly, Wellington got behind the ball quickly (with Muscat much more cautious going forward after the first five minutes); secondly, the compact nature of City’s defensive structure made it difficult for them to quickly find a player in space; and thirdly, the first pass upon winning the ball was always very cautious. City seemed to be focusing on making sure they didn’t become vulnerable to the counter-counter, and so looked to retain possession rather than play a risky forward pass.
Germano finds some space
Wellington defended in an unusual assymetrical shape, with Burns, a right-winger on paper, pushing into a very narrow position on top of Patrick Kisnorbo – with left-winger McGlinchey, by contrast, defending deeper and closer to the opposition full-back. This is a pattern we’ve seen throughout the season, where the Phoenix deliberately allow the opposition right-sided centre-back to have the ball.
The narrowness of Burns, however, meant Vince Lia, the right-sided central midfielder, was covering both the right-hand side of midfield and the right flank by himself. When Connor Chapman switched the ball across field towards Germano, then, it meant the left-back had time to carry the ball forward before Lia was able to slide across and close him down. Throughout the first half, Germano was the ‘freest’ City player, and got into some good positions to support the attack.
Another benefit of this was that it allowed Novillo to drift inside – he had two decent efforts from long range.
Thankfully, the game opened up in the second half. Both teams seemed willing to push more players forward in attack, which had the flow-on effect of creating more space on the counter-attack – Burns became far more involved.
A good example of this was when Riera played a quick forward pass to Bonevacia, who received a pass behind the Mooy-Paartalu pivot for what felt like the first time in the game – the Dutchman’s pass in the behind nearly created a goal via Burns.
Increasingly, however, City’s area of strength when attacking down the left became the game’s prominent feature. Germano got forward twice in the space of two minutes to send in two dangerous crosses on his right foot – Kennedy just missed connecting on the first, then flicked a header off the second just wide.
City’s momentum was building, however, and they scored twice from two straightforward counter-attacks.
Merrick brought on Kenny Cunningham and Alex Rodriguez in chasing the game, moving Burns upfront and switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Their response was minimal, though, with City comfortably closing out the game.
“To Melbourne City’s credit they put us under a lot of pressure and they closed down our midfield,” Merrick said post-match. “[They] came here with the right attitude, they competed all over the park, they pressed us and stopped our midfield.”
City have become quite reactive in the second half of the season, with John Van’t Schip opting for a consistently defensive approach despite experimenting with new formations. Here, in a 4-2-1-3, City were able to prevent Wellington from dominating the midfield zone, with Mooy and Paartalu doing a good job shielding the defence and forcing the Phoenix wide.
This, combined with the defence sitting deep and minimising the space for Wellington’s wide players to run in behind, meant the first half was tepid and low on chances. When the game opened up more in the second half, City were able to find joy down the left partly thanks to Wellington’s unusual defensive shape – although it was two simple counter-attacks that lead to the two goals.
Top of the league in March, Wellington’s season has ended with a whimper. While Merrick was flexible with the formation, his side probably became too predictable – the narrowness of the midfield diamond, along with the tendency of the wide forwards to make runs inside, meant they lacked width, and several teams had success in the latter part of the season defending deep and narrow, removing the space for the likes of Bonevacia, McGlinchey, Burns and Krishna to work in.
An alternate option upfront, such as an out-and-out central striker like Joel Griffiths, probably wouldn’t have gone amiss, and Merrick bemoaned the lack of a ‘Plan B’ post-match. Jeremy Brockie had been out of form for some time, but a player of his attributes was sorely missing from the squad. This was particularly noticeable in Wellington’s meek attempt to chase the game here.
City, meanwhile, progress improbably to a semi-final against Melbourne Victory. Their defensive approach here was simple but effective. However, they remain a fairly limited side, and despite their progression to the next stage, are not in the same calibre of the other semi-final teams.