Melbourne Victory’s recent record against Sydney FC is incredibly poor. They’ve lost the seven matches against their traditional rivals, with 27 months passing since their last Big Blue success.
Sydney captain Alex Brosque probably is not far off the mark when he says “psychologically I’m sure it will be playing on their minds…I know they’ll be thinking about it as much as they’ll try to forget about it.”
How can Kevin Muscat’s team change their mentality against Sydney and ensure their progress to this season’s A-League grand final?
The first consideration is remembering that in many games between these two rivals, the games themselves have actually been very close – five of the seven losses were by a one-goal margin, with another decided by penalties. They may not be able to beat them, but Victory can certainly can compete with Sydney.
A key tactical factor in this competitiveness is pressing. Perhaps Muscat’s biggest strength is his ability to coach an aggressive, high-intensity press. This has been a theme of his tenure and of this particular match-up, going back to that 2016 grand final when Victory suffocated Sydney in an emphatic 3-0 win.
Besart Berisha, who opened the scoring in that game, is often the ringleader of the defence at number 9. Bobo aside, there’s no other striker in the competition that defends as intelligently as Berisha, but even the Brazilian can’t match the Albanian’s sheer work rate.
Berisha, always fired up for big occasions, constantly closes down opposition centre-backs at top speed – but crucially, he always presses on an angle that knocks out passing lanes to the opposite centre-back.
This keeps the opposition build up contained to one side of the field, and is a cue for Victory teammates to step forward themselves to try and win the ball back. Often, the no.10, James Troisi, will move towards the ball carrier, while keeping the opposition defensive midfield in his ‘shadow’ as he presses the ball.
The winger closest to the ball makes a similar movement, closing down the ball while closing the line of pass to the fullback.
That means the player on the ball can have up to three opposition players moving towards him, and all nearby passing options knocked out. The skill to apply pressure on the ball, while knocking out a passing lane, is critical – it means one player can essentially occupy two opponents, and enables a team to apply collective pressure high up the pitch.
‘Collective’ is a key word, because Victory’s pressing is only effective when the whole team works together, understanding the specific cues to either win the ball, or stop a team playing forward.
That’s the other side of Muscat’s excellent defensive coaching – his team knows the triggers that might make a press ineffective, and know how to quickly change tact to stop the opponent playing through them.
Part of this is the back four dropping off quickly to reduce space in behind if the opposition looks to play into these areas – something Sydney have done on occasion in the past by pushing their energetic fullbacks high up the pitch.
Inevitably, Victory’s pressing will be a key feature of Saturday’s semi-final. Muscat knows that in spite of results, his team can unsettle Sydney with their pressing. In fact, that has been a recurring theme of Sydney’s poorer performances this season.
Suwon Bluewings, for example, defended high up the pitch in their 2-0 away win in the Asian Champions League, while Newcastle Jets, even with ten men, still managed to cause Sydney problems by closing down high up the pitch in that magnificent match in the Hunter.
Therefore, while Brosque suggests the Victory will hoping to forget about past results, it might be worthwhile for Muscat to ensure his side doesn’t forget that past performances might hold the key to semi-final success.