Is Kevin Muscat evolving as a coach?

Is Kevin Muscat evolving as a coach?

By any measure, Kevin Muscat is still an apprentice in his chosen trade. Melbourne Victory remains the one and only team where he has worked as a coach, with four years as an assistant to four different managers preceding his elevation to head coach as Ange Postecoglou’s successor.

Despite this relative inexperience, Muscat guided the team to a premiership-championship double in his first full season, and an admirable second place finish behind history-makers Sydney FC in 2016-17.

There is, therefore, on paper sound logic behind the Victory’s decision to extend his contract for another two seasons.

Perhaps one of Muscat’s great achievements has been the stabilisation of the club. It is easy to forget, as aforementioned, that prior to his appointment the club moved quickly between several coaches and playing styles. Postecoglou, for example, was the successor to Jim Magilton, and it is hard to think of two coaches more ideologically opposed.

The Muscat years, by contrast, have been settled. The club has a stable behind-the-scenes infrastructure, a clear identity and are financially secure. Part of this can be linked to the coach’s ability to organise his staff and players – a skill evident both on and off the pitch.

The Victory have a clear playing style. They are aggressive pressers, able to smother teams high up the pitch, and energetic counter-attackers. Four of their five goals in their last game against the Mariners, for example, came from five passes or fewer, with the fifth goal resulting from six passes.

The clearest example of the team’s strategy, however, is that dominant 3-0 grand final win in 2015. Sydney FC were suffocated by the Victory’s high energy defensive pressure, and conceded three goals on the counter-attack.

Off the pitch, the squad also has a defined identity. Muscat clearly prizes competitive players, epitomised by the everpresent Besart Berisha, Leigh Broxham and Carl Valeri. The likes of Kosta Barbarouses, Mark Milligan and Jason Troisi have also been key to the side’s winning mentality and tactical approach in recent years.

Of course, stability can also breed familiarity, and Muscat’s most significant weakness is probably his lack of evolution.

There has been an over-reliance on previous strategy and recruitment, which has not always been effective. The likes of Troisi and Milligan, for example, have not been standouts in their second spells at the club this season, while Berisha and Barbarouses have had downturns in form too. There is also the creeping feeling that Muscat’s constant use of a 4-2-3-1, and his emphasis on dominating transition moments, makes the team slightly predictable in possession.

This is not an issue when the individual quality of Leroy George can blow teams away, as he has on occasion this season, but is evident against well-organised defensive teams such as Sydney FC.

The Victory’s recent revival, after a dismal six-game winless start to the season, has two plausible explanations.

Firstly, with the Asian Champions League adding to the team’s physical demands at the turn of the New Year, it is likely the squad’s conditioning program was designed to have them peak at this point of the season, coinciding with both the continental travel and the tail-end of the A-League.

Secondly, and more tangibly, has been the addition of Terry Antonis, combined with Rhys Williams’ good form. Both players add a new dimension of play that Muscat has not necessarily had in the past.

Antonis is effective at receiving passes in positions between opposition defenders, able to protect the ball and face forward under pressure. Conversely, he is capable of playing clever forward passes to the feet of Victory’s attackers between the lines. This penetration is in contrast to the more conservative distribution of Valeri, Milligan and Matias Sanchez, who tend to drop in front of defenders into positions where they can receive in more time and space, but less dangerous areas of the pitch.

Similarly, Williams has improved Victory’s playmaking at the back. His superlative assist for Christian Theoharous’ goal against the Mariners was an extreme example – a bending, diagonal ball from one side to the other to release the winger in on-goal. Williams is typically not quite so spectacular, but still effective in simplicity. He can find players positioned between the lines with short forward passes, and is capable of breaking multiple lines with laser-like balls to the feet of Berisha and Troisi.

This passing range is critical, because it means the Victory can play through teams they try to press them high up the pitch, as well as break down those that defend closer to goal.

This raises intriguing questions. Were Williams and Antonis recruited because Muscat recognised these weaknesses in his squad, or simply because they were available? The answer would hint at Muscat’s propensity for evolution, an attribute that will be critical in the next few years.

Intriguingly, the person who seems to have the greatest influence on Muscat as manager, Postecoglou, has stumbled in the past because of his incessant focus on evolving. It is possible, in reaction, Muscat tries to avoid changing things too quickly. There is a fine line between stagnation and progress, however.

Melbourne need to find a balance between natural evolution, and change for the sake of change – something which the reappointment of Muscat, rather than searching for an upgrade, suggests the club is aware of.

Kevin Muscat has great potential as a coach, but he must still develop in his role in order for the Victory to go forward.

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