Despite being Australia’s ‘bling’ club, Melbourne City have somewhat flown under the radar this season.
They have been efficient if not spectacular, finishing a respectable third in Warren Joyce’s first regular season at the club, and now securing progress to a semi-final against Newcastle Jets after a 2-0 win over Brisbane Roar.
The nature of that preliminary final victory was somewhat representative of City’s overall season, and their tactical approach.
Joyce was focused primarily on organisation and structure, typified by his use of two centre-backs (Osama Malik and Michael Jakobsen) in midfield. In the first part of the season, the focus was on being hard to break down. The side defended in a disciplined 4-4-2 shape, pressed as a unit and defended collectively. That suited players like Stefan Mauk and Nick Fitzgerald – hard-working, functional attackers who could do the defensive duties first, and provide some attacking ability second.
Over time, City have become steadily more forward-thinking, but still in that same vein of organisation and structure.
Their usual attacking pattern, for example, involved the central midfielders rotating into wide areas, the full-backs moving higher and the wingers coming inside – effective nonetheless, but more about clear roles and tasks rather than creativity and inspiration.
That is possibly why the emergence of Daniel Arzani has been particularly thrilling. If City are straight lines, Arzani is a wriggle and a curve. His ability to dribble past defenders is sensational, and was key to City’s semi-final win.
On the right-hand side, up against Ivan Franjic, who was determined to stick tight and prevent him from facing forward, Arzani constantly got into dangerous attacking positions with a clever turn of pace. He was often able to dribble past Franjic’s pressure, and get to the byline to deliver cutbacks into the penalty area.
He was City’s main source of creativity, and it was only through a combination of poorly timed runs from other attackers into the box, and some inconsistent finishing, that the home side did not take the lead earlier.
Arzani has provided an x-factor that might otherwise be missing in Joyce’s general cagey gameplan. While the additions of Oliver Bozanic and Dario Vidosic have provided more of an attacking spark, and the use of Luke Brattan as the sole holding midfielder at the base of the midfield triangle is similarly encouraging, their overall system emphasises moving the ball slowly from one side to the other, ensuring that players are in position to stop a counter-attack if the ball is turned over.
There is, of course, nothing fundamentally wrong with this, as Joyce is entitled to play however he thinks gets the best out of his squad, but it does mean Arzani is key to breaking teams down – particularly opponents that are similarly focused on stayed organised, as Brisbane were.
What is encouraging is that Joyce seems to be spurring Arzani on to perform better each week.
Unlike other talented youngsters, who often have a breakthrough season, Arzani improves with his dribbling each week – making better decisions about when to take players on, and becoming more effective with his repertoire of skills. Additionally, he’s learning to combine effectively with other attackers, with one particular combination with Bruno Fornaroli inside the box leading to an excellent chance in front of goal.
There is also a noticeable difference in his physique, which has given him the strength to compete and last longer in games.
That is the benefit of having an experienced hand like Joyce in charge. He knows how to push young players to improve, and has helped create an environment at City that gives players both the responsibility to be professional, but also the tools to succeed, with Nathaniel Atkinson another beneficiary of this.
City have not been spectacular, but they didn’t necessarily need to be to achieve success this season.
Yet there remains the nagging feeling City can still improve. They remain reliant on the individual qualities of their star attackers to score goals. It also feels like we should expect a side with their resources to be more entertaining.
In spite of this, Warren Joyce has created a solid, robust team that can compete consistently in the league. It remains to be seen if solid and robust, garnished with an Arzani, is enough to achieve major success.