Melbourne Victory won the A-League Grand Final with a dominant, comprehensive win over Sydney FC.
The two teams were unchanged from their respective semi-finals, with Kevin Muscat keeping Leigh Broxham at right-back despite the return to fitness of Jason Geria. Archie Thompson was on the bench for what he may be his last ever game for the Victory.
The only minor question mark for Sydney FC was at right-back, but it was no surprise to see Sebastian Ryall start ahead of Rhyan Grant, with Jacques Faty and Matthew Jurman partnered together at centre-back.
This game started with a foul by Marc Janko inside the first twenty seconds, which rather set the tone for what was to come. There were 37 fouls in this game, making it quite a scrappy, stop-start affair.
The main reason for this was because Melbourne Victory pressed very aggressively on Sydney’s back four. This has been a feature of several Victory games this season but it was especially pronounced here, and defined the scrappy, stop-start nature of this final. They regularly closed down Sydney’s back four and midfield two energetically, with Besart Berisha working tremendously hard upfront to lead the press – at one point covering nearly 60m to try and win the ball high up.
A key element of the pressing was Mark Milligan’s energetic closing down on Milos Dimitrijevic. The Victory midfielder looked to prevent Dimitrijevic from receiving the ball facing forward, often moving quite high up the pitch to close him down. Dimitrijevic struggled to influence the game – his pass completion rate, 66%, was his worst of the season.
Further back, the Victory full-backs stuck quite tight to their direct opponents. This meant when Sydney’s wingers drifted inside, as is their wont, they were unable to receive the ball facing forward as they immediately came under pressure from Daniel Georgievski and Leigh Broxham. A foul by the former on Chris Naumoff summed up their intention, while the second goal stemmed directly from this tactic, with Broxham dispossessing Brosque before playing in Barbarouses.
Sydney defensive reshuffle
An injury to Jacques Faty early on in the game meant a defensive reshuffle for Sydney, with Ryall moving centrally and Grant on at right-back. This, combined with Jurman’s head injury, which seemed to be causing him significant problems, meant Sydney felt very disorganised at the back – not as confident when defending, not as composed when playing out.
For example, in the first fifteen minutes, the entire Sydney team completed just 8 passes, in contrast to Victory’s 51. It took Sydney until the final fifteen minutes of the first half, a period in which they nearly tripled their pass completion rate, to have any sort of period of controlled possession.
The Victory’s best chances came when they dispossessed Sydney’s midfielders and defence high up, and attacked quickly. In fact, when the Victory had the ball in deep positions, they struggled to construct attacks, with Sydney’s front two making it difficult for the centre-backs to progress the ball forward.
Therefore, somewhat paradoxically, the Victory were actually better in attack when Sydney had the ball and they could press, which says everything about how dominant this particular aspect of the game was.
The half-time break gave Arnold the chance to rejig his side tactically, but the Victory again came flying out of the blocks – they created two good chances immediately after the break. The second half as a whole, however, was calmer and less frantic than the first. The Victory seemed to tire (unsurprisingly, given the work they got through in pressing) and Sydney had more periods of controlled possession.
Smeltz on, Sydney go 4-4-2
Shane Smeltz came on for Chris Naumoff on 52 minutes, with the switch to a 4-4-2 formation being Arnold’s typical substitution this season when chasing the game.
The problem with the 4-4-2 is that it means Alex Brosque must move wide. As Janko and Smeltz are both typical #9s, staying high up the pitch in attacking moves, this means Sydney lose that ‘link’ between the midfield and attack. Therefore, in in this shape, Sydney’s attacking play is much more centred down the flanks, with the two strikers looking to get on the end of crosses from wide areas. Unsurprisingly, their best chance of the second half, Janko’s header, came from this method.
In truth, however, the formation switch probably did more harm than good. Sydney’s major tactical problem was that they were being pressed so tightly in midfield. Removing Brosque from that #10 position, where he was sometimes able to receive passes between the lines, meant that Sydney struggled even more in this zone.
On 75 minutes, Terry Antonis came on for Tavares – but again, it wasn’t so much the personnel, as it was the sheer pressure from the Victory. This was summed up by the second goal, where Brosque was pressured by Broxham (an example of the full-backs sticking tight to the wingers), from which the Victory quickly counter-attacked and scored. This put the game beyond doubt, and sealed Melbourne Victory’s Championship win.
In what was meant to be a close game, this was all about the Melbourne Victory. They were the stronger, more dominant side, gaining a foothold early on with their pressure which prevented Sydney from establishing control of the ball. It’s difficult to remember any significant moments in the game from any of the Sydney front four, as their defenders and midfielders simply couldn’t get the ball to them.
“We dominated the game and suffocated [Sydney] whenever they had the ball,” said Kevin Muscat post-match, “forcing them into so many errors. It was just fitting that we ended with three goals because we’ve scored so many this season.”
The Victory have been effective and efficient this season, turning more shots into goals than any other team in A-League history. They have played a flexible, modern style of football, capable of creating slower, possession-based moves as well as quicker, more direct counter-attacks. Defensively, too, they can switch from a high pressure approach – so effective here – to a more cautious, defensive style.
Overall, they are a very complete team, and are deserving Premiers and Champions.