Melbourne Heart 0-1 Wellington Phoenix: Mifsud gets in behind, but Heart struggle to convert chances

The Phoenix scraped a second win of the season in a clash between the league’s bottom two sides.

The starting line-ups
The starting line-ups


John Aloisi made one change from last week’s derby against the Victory, with Patric Gerhardt replacing the suspended Patrick Kisnorbo.

Ernie Merrick is without Paul Ifil long-term after the forward’s nasty Achilles injury, so Jeremy Brockie started upfront alongside Stein Huysegems in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with Kenny Cunningham and Vince Lia to the left and right of Albert Riera in the midfield trio respectively.

This was a poor game – lots of shots, granted, but the quality of the game was reflected in the quality of the shooting.

Formation battle

Wellington’s new system has made their recent games more interesting from a tactical point of view, compared to most A-League games, which are generally simple 4-2-3-1 v 4-2-3-1 battles. However, with the diamond, it becomes 4-3-1-2 v 4-2-3-1 (as was the case v Mariners and v Sydney) – theoretically, Wellington should dominate through the centre with a numerical advantage, but be vulnerable in wide areas with their lack of natural width high up the pitch.

The first thing to consider, though, is that these are, both on the table and in terms of quality, two of the weaker sides in the competition, and on the whole, this game was scrappier and more direct than most A-League games. Neither team is particularly concerned with controlling games through possession, either, and were happy to play more on the break and go long when necessary.

Heart width, target right

In the opening minutes, Wellington’s lack of width, however, caused them significant problems defensively – in short, the Heart repeatedly had space in wide areas, and had lots of opportunities to cross into the middle. You can argue about the efficiency of crossing, and certainly, the Heart put in 28 balls with only two being statistically ‘successful’, but it still helped build momentum.

Indeed, the job of the Wellington centre-backs was very simple: compete in aerial duels…

Durante and Sigmund aerial duels v Heart

…and make penalty box clearances.

Durante and Sigmund clearances v Heart

A lot of the Heart’s crosses came from the right, particularly in a ten minute spell between the 25th to 35th minute period when they repeatedly targeted the channel between Andrew Durante and Manny Muscat. There were a variety of factors behind this bias to the right – first, Hoffman got forward on a few occasions, while Cunningham’s tendency to burst forward from the left of the midfield diamond left space exposed when the ball was turned over, but the main reason was Michael Mifsud’s movement towards the right. He peeled off the shoulder behind Durante to receive balls in behind, targeting the space behind Muscat, and created a fine chance for Williams by squaring a low ball across the face of goal that the left-winger spurned.

A few minutes later, he created another half-chance with a near-identical ball, and drew a yellow card from Durante when the centre-back dragged him by his shirt to prevent the striker from breaking in behind. It was somewhat reminiscent of Mitchell Duke’s performance against Adelaide United earlier in the season – another example of a central striker working a particular flank to get in behind a high line.

Mifsud passes received and crosses v Phoenix

High lines

That last example is also pertinent to the other main feature of the first half, which was the high defensive lines. Both sides pressed high up the pitch, the by-effect of that of course being that the defence must push up to keep the side compact – in the case of Wellington’s 4-4-2 diamond, where two strikers play high up the pitch, the pressing starts more ‘naturally’ in those areas, but inevitably opens up space in behind the back four. A good example of Wellington’s closing down was when Hernandez hit the post after Huysegems dispossessed Kalmar high up the pitch.

The high line, meanwhile, was first obvious seven minutes in when Brockie had a fine chance in front of goal that stemmed from a simple ball hit over the top of the Heart defence. Both sides were getting attackers in behind, though and all of Mifsud’s aforementioned movement down the right was linked to him being able to run in behind the Phoenix defence on the counter-attack. Harry Kewell’s typical movement into deep positions to receive passes to feet is useful in this regard – it invites the two wide attackers, particularly Williams, to dart inside towards the centre, giving the side another striking threat.

Second half

After the interval, the momentum changed again, with the Phoenix dominating possession and creating a few chances, mainly through set pieces. Also, it seemed like Aziz Behich was under instructions to get forwards more, with Aloisi perhaps encouraged by the space vacated down the side by Wellington’s diamond – the left-back popped up twice inside the penalty area after the break, and his fierce shot at the start of the half was one of the Heart’s better chances.

The key shift, tactically speaking, came from Wellington, who sat deeper to prevent being caught out in behind as they had in the first half, and retained possession better – something Merrick was particularly pleased about post-match – for long spells, which in turn allowed Hernandez to play slightly higher up. In fact, the formation morphed slightly towards the 4-3-3 Merrick used earlier in the season, with the front three effectively absolved of defensive responsibility without the ball and positioning themselves in space at transitions – that helped them become more effective on the counter.


Most of the substitutions were relatively insignificant – Bertos came on in place of Cunningham, while Aloisi brought on Iain Ramsay for Williams in a straight swap.

The lone goal came through Tyler Boyd, a 72nd minute substitute for Jeremy Brockie, driving past Behich and cutting back a fine ball for Huysegems to tap in. This wasn’t a particularly ‘tactical’ goal, although Boyd did seem keen to work that right hand side when he came on. Besides, the introduction of fresh legs can sometimes be a simple, yet effective way of increasing your attacking threat.

At 1-0 down, without a win in sixteen games this season, Aloisi had to go for it, promptly withdrawing Behich when introducing Golgol Mebrahtu and Andrea Migliorini (the latter in a straight swap for Kalmar), and pushing Ramsay into an aggressive left-back role. While the attacking nature of the change can’t be questioned, it’s worth questioning why Behich, the more attack-minded (and in this game, effective) full-back was withdrawn, even if Ramsay is more comfortable on the left having featured in that position previously for Adelaide.

End notes

Merrick suggested post-match the Heart were the better side, but made mention of how strong his side was against Aloisi’s cross-heavy strategy. Although they were certainly comfortable against lofted balls, the Phoenix did struggle with Mifsud’s low crosses when the striker got in behind down that right-hand channel, and Williams really should have given his side the lead from the number of chances created via this pattern of play.

Heart and Phoenix shots

When Wellington lowered their line in the second half, though, they grew into the contest. Things like momentum, quality of finishing and luck are difficult to discuss on a tactics-based site, but it’s difficult to debate Aloisi’s problems without reference to them – their approach did appear one-dimensional in the second half, and although each side had alternating periods of dominance, this was an even game.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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