Melbourne Victory go man-for-man in the midfield zone

Melbourne Victory changed the structure of their midfield against Brisbane Roar – how successful was it?

This season, Guilherme Finkler has been ever-present in the Melbourne Victory starting XI, starting 22 games this season, only missing five over the December period with a knee injury. When fit, Finkler is undoubtedly the Victory’s #10, linking the midfield to attack with intelligent movement between the opposition lines to find space, and always looking to provide creativity with penetrative passes into the attacking players.

Finkler is one of the most fascinating players in the league to watch off the ball. He constantly drifts towards wide areas or into deep positions to find space, as shown by the graphic to the right. When he is closely marked, his movement drags away opposition defenders and creates space for other players to move into – for example, the forward run of a deep-lying midfield player like Mark Milligan.Finkler passes received v Mariners

In that period where Finkler was out with injury, Muscat originally elected to play either Fahid Ben Khalfallah and Archie Thompson, both traditionally wingers, as the central attacking midfielder. This changed the dynamic of Melbourne Victory’s attack, because both were more direct than Finkler with their passing. Thompson, in particular, often looked to hit ambitious first-time through balls over the top, as well as darting forward more frequently than Finkler into goalscoring positions.

In the match against Central Coast Mariners at North Sydney Oval, for example, Khalfallah repeatedly knocked passes over the top for Besart Berisha. On a poor pitch, however, many of these were unsuccessful – so Muscat switched Thompson into the #10 position, who too played directly than Finkler had done, skipping past a challenge before quickly playing Berisha in behind for the opening goal.

Without Finkler for the game against Brisbane, Muscat opted to select what on paper seemed a very defensive midfield trio, using Mark Milligan, Leigh Broxham and Carl Valeri together in midfield for the first time this season. The suspicion was that Muscat was going to use the 4-3-3 formation that his predecessor, Ange Postecoglou, sometimes preferred – so rather than playing with one #10, they would play with one holding midfielder and two advanced midfielders.

However, Milligan was simply playing as the #10 in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. In a creative sense, this seemed unusual, but it became clear that his primary job in that role was to man-mark Luke Brattan – an instruction also given to Valeri and Broxham, who man-marked Thomas Broich and Matt McKay respectively.

With Frans Thijssen having switched Brisbane Roar to a 4-2-3-1 formation, this meant the midfield triangles were perfectly aligned – the individual battles in this zone were very clear.

Victory man-mark Roar in midfield

Or, to draw it up more visually…

Melbourne Victory manmark Brisbane example

Man-marking in midfield is a tactic we have seen from the Victory (and many other clubs) this season. The primary benefit is that it makes the defensive responsibilities of midfielders straightforward – they have a direct opponent, and look to stick tight with them when without the ball.

Like in many games this season where man marking has been a feature, this tended to scrappiness, as the midfielders struggle to get on the ball without coming under immediate pressure. In this game, the Victory midfield defended very energetically and combatively, closing down quickly to prevent them from facing forward on the ball. There were lots of fouls early on as result of this, with both Broxham and Milligan booked after half an hour of play.

Interestingly, the man-marking wasn’t completely strict. For example, when Brattan dropped in between the two centre-backs to create a back three, Milligan did not follow him all the way upfield. Perhaps by instruction from Thijssen at the break, Brattan seemed more aware of this in the second half and looked to position himself much deeper than he had in the first half, with Milligan letting him run free when Brattan moved into the back four.

Broich passing chalkboard v VictoryValeri, by contrast, was more dogged in marking Broich. This meant sometimes when Broich pushed high up, Valeri looked like another a centre-back, and at other times, when Broich dropped into a deep, left-sided position close to Brattan, Valeri would follow him upfield. Tellingly, Broich completed only two forward passes in the first half, as illustrated by the graphic to the left.

Importantly, the Victory midfielders were disciplined with their marking. If their direct opponent moved into a wide zone, they were ‘passed off’ to a teammate, with the Victory midfielder remaining in a defensive position in front of the back four. This ensured the shape of the side remained balanced and that the Victory didn’t leave gaps in the midfield zone. It follows on from the earlier discussion about Milligan, because if he had followed Brattan all the way upfield, it would have left a large distance between him and Valeri/Broxham that would have been difficult for the latter two to cover.

Inevitably, however, Brisbane were sometimes able to exploit this man-marking simply by one player getting the better of their opponent (a qualitative advantage). A clear example of this is Brisbane’s goal, when McKay darts forward (past Broxham) into the box – he’s left completely unmarked, and scores with a low shot.

With the score 2-1 to Victory at this stage, however, Frans Thijssen made the interesting decision to introduce Steven Lustica for Jean Carlos Solorzano. This meant that Broich moved to the left-wing, the position we’re used to seeing him in. On paper, this was very logical – with Valeri now marking Lustica, when Broxham was drawn forward towards McKay, it opened up a pocket of space behind him that Broich could move into, creating an overload in the midfield zone (a quantitive advantage).

With the three Victory midfielders occupied by their direct opponents, there was space for Broich to drift inside into behind Mahazi (subbed on for Geria, with Broxham going to right-back)

Here is another moment in which Broich was able to move infield to overload the Victory in midfield.

Broich extra midfielder example two

On paper, however, the Roar actually got more joy from another type of quantitate overload, occuring when Luke DeVere moved forward into the midfield zone from centre-back. This caused problems in particular for Milligan, who was concerned with Brattan – so when DeVere carried the ball forward, Milligan either had to decide between occupying Brattan, or moving across to close down DeVere (remembering that Valeri and Broxham/Mahazi were occupied with Lustica and McKay).

When DeVere carried the ball forward from centre-back, it created an overload in midfield that Victory's man-marking struggled to deal with
DeVere carrying the ball forward caused problems for Victory’s man-marking in midfield, as is clear here by the fact Milligan has had to move across from Brattan to close down DeVere

For all this, however, Brisbane didn’t create many genuine chances in the second period. They had problems with execution, and weren’t helped by the fact the Victory gradually became quite defensive – they didn’t push as many players forward, and were comfortable holding onto their one-goal lead.

Nevertheless, this was an opportunity to see an alternate tactical setup from Muscat, who has remained fairly constant with his side’s shape and approach this season. The major alterations have come when Finkler is absent in that no.10 position, with the use of Milligan higher up creating a different dynamic to their approach both with and without the ball.

Defensively, here, it helped them stop Brisbane’s midfielders from dictating the flow of the game. Therefore, this may be a different solution for tight matches in the finals series, when the Victory may need to focus on breaking up the opposition’s attacking play.

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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