Melbourne Heart 2-2 Wellington Phoenix: Merrick keeps with pacy front two even after red card

Wellington twice took the lead, but were twice pegged back by the Heart.

The starting line-ups
The starting line-ups


John Van’t Schip made one change from last week’s loss to Newcastle, as Harry Kewell returned to the starting line-up for the first time since the start of February, meaning David Williams shifted wide left in the 4-3-3.

Ernie Merrick kept with the diamond formation he’s favoured in recent weeks, using Stein Huysegems as the central attacker behind Roy Krishna and Tyler Boyd.

Both sides were attacking well in an entertaining opening thirty minutes, before Ben Sigmund’s red card exaggerated the existing tactical battle.

Huysegems picks up Germano

There were three key issues in the frantic opening half an hour – firstly, Huysegems was given key instructions to pick up Jonaton Germano when the Heart had the ball. Since returning to the starting eleven at the start of 2014, Germano has become Van’t Schip’s preferred option as the deepest player in the midfield triangle, and he did an excellent job dropping between the centre-backs to help play the ball out from the back in the recent derby against Melbourne Victory.

Here, though, Huysegems stuck tight to him whenever Heart had the ball deep inside their own half. When the ball was played beyond the initial pressure, however – often with the centre-backs hitting long balls towards the front three, or Massimo Murdocca rotating with Germano to collect short passes – Huysegems was effectively absolved of defensive responsibility, and so was free to sit high up the pitch along with Boyd and Krishna in a position for counter-attacking.

Wellington counters

This was the Phoenix’s most obvious attacking strategy, and even before Krishna opened the scoring the threat of the front three – particularly the pacy Boyd and Krishna – was obvious, especially when Jason Hoffman and Ben Garuccio, the Heart full-backs, got forward down the sides, which opened up space on either side of Rob Wielaert and Patrick KIsnorbo in the channels.

The goal is the best example – the ball is played forward quickly from a turnover, and Krishna is able to drive directly at Patrick Kisnorbo 1v1, getting the better of him on the outside and finding space to shoot low past Andrew Redmayne.

Later, Boyd had a similar chance, when Kisnorbo handballed the goal-bound shot – the latter should have been off, and Wellington 2-0 up – they weren’t counter-attacking particularly often, but were being remarkably effective when the opportunity arose.

Heart attack through Kewell

Meanwhile, if the Phoenix were relying on counter-attacks, then the Heart had a successful pattern of play of their own – bringing Kewell short in front of the two Wellington centre-backs, thus creating space in behind for the wide players to drive into. The key combination was between Kewell and Williams – five minutes in, the latter latched onto a clever through-ball when Sigmund was drawn to Kewell sitting between the lines, which created a space between the Wellington centre-back and full-back Michael Boxall, but had his subsequent shot blocked.

Seven minutes later, Kewell again dropped off between the lines, but this time the pass came from centre-back, with Kisnorbo picking out Williams’ diagonal run with a slightly overhit through-ball over the top: Williams, though, managed to pickpocket Boxall and square it for Mate Dugdanzic, who blazed a shot directly in front of goal over the bar.

Sigmund has always been keen to stick tight to deep-lying forwards, and Kewell’s tendency to drop deep when playing as a centre-forward played right into the Heart’s hands – something that probably encouraged Van’t Schip’s somewhat surprising decision to move the in-form Williams away from the central position he’s played excellently in recent weeks.

Kewell passes received and combination with Williams v Phoenix

It’s probably worth noting, too, that the Heart also looked dangerous when these two players got on the ball for another reason – Williams twice received passes wide on the left and dribbled inside for powerful shots on goal, while Kewell also dropped off into very deep positions (close to Germano) and hit two excellent balls over the top for the attackers to chase. The equaliser came from Dugandzic’s strong strike off a corner rebound – not reflective of the key attacking patterns, but fair based on the Heart’s ability to create chances.

Red card

Then, towards the end of the half, two Sigmund fouls – both on Kewell, although only the first was because of Kewell’s movement between the lines – lead to the red card, and the game’s decisive moment.

Merrick switched to a 4-3-2 at half-time
Merrick switched to a 4-3-2 at half-time

Changes after red card

However, the dismissal didn’t drastically change the game’s pattern, but instead, rather accentuated it – Wellington continued to emphasise their counter-attacking, while the Heart continued to have more of the ball, working it forward positively into the final third.

In fact, Wellington’s system was actually quite suited to a numerical disadvantage – not in the sense going a man down was beneficial, but because of how they had the ‘freedom’ to continue counter-attacking, something that had obviously already been working well.

Indeed, in the ten minutes directly after the red, both Krishna and Boyd had chances when carrying the ball forward quickly with their pace into the same inside-left channel in the penalty area, both drawing a good save from Redmayne.

That probably encouraged Merrick into his rather bold half-time change – withdrawing Huysegems, introducing Matthew Ridenton into the centre-of-midfield, and keeping with the defensive reshuffle that had taken place after the red card, with Muscat now at right-back and Boxall partnering Andrew Durante in the centre.

Bringing Ridenton into the fray maintained Wellington’s midfield three across the centre so that the ‘outside’ midfielders could slide across to the flanks and help protect the full-backs from overloads, without leaving gaps through the middle.  Most importantly, though, keeping with a 4-3-2 meant Boyd and Krishna remained high up the pitch. They often drifted out towards the flanks to press the full-backs, but also to target the space left by Garuccio and Hoffman when they motored forward – like they had in the first half, the two pacy Phoenix forwards worked the channels down the outside of the centre-backs excellently, with sporadic support from players in deeper positions.

Krishna and Boyd passes received v Heart

The goal came from Boyd picking out Krishna with a fine diagonal pass, picking out the latter’s run off the shoulder of Garuccio, which allowed him to go around the outside and towards goal with his pace – Boyd got forward to score from the initially parried shot.

Broadly speaking, too, the Phoenix were remarkably positive – considering they had 10 men – without the ball, not dropping too deep as might have been the temptation especially when they ahead.

Heart chase game with extra man

Van’t Schip reacted immediately to going behind, pulling off the peripheral Engelaar for Nick Kalmar in a fairly simple like-for-like swap. Kalmar, though, had a significant impact on the Heart’s passing, sitting deeper in the midfield triangle and hitting probing passes towards the flanks, helping keep the attacks moving quickly.

Van’t Schip’s other substitutions, though, had little impact on the game – Stephen Mauk replaced Germano in the midfield, while Iain Ramsay played largely the same role as Dugdanzic when he came on for the final fifteen minutes, although he went left (with Williams to the right).

The Heart’s second equaliser came from a penalty – again, like the first goal, not particularly reflective of their most common pattern of play. In fact, for periods in the second half they actually struggled to play it forward, struggling slightly perhaps under the pressure of having to take the initiative – they weren’t as many opportunities to counter-attack, and little space was being opened up when the Phoenix went forward because they were attacking through the front two.

Indeed, the Heart’s best chances in the second half came when they could attack quickly, rather than after long periods of possession – like when Kalmar dispossessed Cunningham near halfway, and burst forward all the way into the box to spurn a shot wide of the near post.

End notes

Lots to discuss here in what was one of the more interesting tactical battles of the season. The game started with an extremely open, entertaining half an hour, where the Heart looked promising working attacks through the Kewell-Williams ‘false 9-wide forward’ combination, as well as getting those players on the ball in dangerous positions in attack. Wellington, though, threatened with their pacy counter-attacking, working the channels excellently and causing Kisnorbo and Wielaert problems all match.

This was the second game of the weekend where the team with an extra player struggled to take advantage of their numerical superiority – but where Brisbane quite amazingly out-possessed Sydney, Wellington were threatening on the counter-attack, thanks to Merrick’s bold decision to play 4-3-2. This freed up Boyd and Krishna to be outlets in wide positions at transitions, a combination that proved decisive for their second goal.

Heart, meanwhile, will be disappointed they didn’t make the most of the 10v11. This performance suggested they’re at their best when able to attack space in behind with their pacy front three – particularly with Engelaar off his game, they lacked incisiveness with their passing when dominating possession for long periods.

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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