Melbourne City’s fluid formation in build up

Melbourne City have utilised an intriguing back four/back three hybrid formation this season, with great tactical flexibility when playing out from the back

John van’t Schip has always been a coach willing to utilise different systems. In his second managerial stint at Melbourne City alone, he has used 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2 diamond and 3-52. This season’s unorthodox back three/four hybrid formation has been his boldest experiment yet.

Style of play

Before considering formation, it is important to understand Melbourne City’s overall approach this season. They dominate possession, but it has a territorial intent. City aim to control games in the opposition half.

A lot of teams have seen us play, we like to play high…teams are now sitting in and waiting to hit us on the counter-attack

Bruce Kamau

Without the ball, City press high in the opposition front third, and counterpress aggressively. City’s overall style is reminscient of the Pep Guardiola school (high possession and high pressing with an emphasis on penetrating the opposition effectively) which is logical, given Melbourne City’s place within the City Group hierachy.

System without the ball

Melbourne City’s formation is most easily understood when the opposition has controlled possession of the ball. It is a 4-4-2 formation, with the wide players tucking alongside the central midfielders. When Bruno Fornaroli and Tim Cahill play together upfront, the former sits slightly deeper. Cahill will press high on opposition centre-backs, and Fornaroli picking up the deepest midfielder.

Melbourne City starting positions without the ball (4-4-2 system of play)

System with the ball

With the ball, though, City morph into something far more unorthodox. The right centre-back in the back four becomes the deepest midfielder (a #6) when the team has possession. This player, usually Neil Kilkenny (but sometimes Osama Malik) pushes forward into a right-of-central position, moving into pockets behind the opposition’s first pressing line. The left-sided centre-back (normally Michael Jakobsen, but recently Ruon Tongyik) splits to the edge of the penalty box.

The full-backs play assymetrically. The left-back (Josh Rose) positions high and wide, level and outside with the opposition first pressing line. The right-back (Connor Chapman, Manny Muscat or Ivan Franjic), by contrast, plays deeper and narrower, practically as a right-centre-back.

Starting positions for Melbourne City’s build up in possession (assymetrical 3-3-4 system of play)

City do not always use this 3-1-2-4/4-4-2 hybrid. In their last two games against Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar, for example, they utilised a 4-3-3. This illustrates Van’t Schip’s tactical flexibility.

However, the focus of this article is the different methods City utilise in the hybrid formation in order to build up play. In accordance to their overall style of dominating possession, City build up from deep positions so they can attract an opposition press, theoretically creating space higher up the pitch between the lines or behind the last defensive line.

Typical build up

With build up typically starting from the goalkeeper, play often starts with a pass to either the left centre-back or to the right-back, positioned on the edge of the penalty box. City have a clear preference for progressing into the middle third through central areas, so the build up typically aims to find Kilkenny facing forward behind the first pressing line. To achieve this, City often need to shift the opposition press to one side, to create space on the other side to then play a vertical pass into midfield.

For example, Melbourne Victory attempted to press high upon the first pass out of the goalkeeper, with the wingers stepping forward to press Tongyik and Franjic with an angle of approach to prevent passes into the full-backs. This would force the next pass backwards or inside, which Troisi (the #10) would press. Berisha, the #9, supported the press by closing down from the side from his central starting position.

Melbourne Victory’s front third press v Melbourne City

Against this kind of high press, City try to circulate across to the opposite side, as they successfully do in the video example below.

While in the example below Kilkenny is the player who initiaties the switch across to the left, City do often utilise the goalkeeper to circulate. This means that if the opposition winger steps forward to press the far-side centre-back, then the goalkeeper can play a lofted pass over the top to the full-back.

The City goalkeeper can play the LB if the opposition winger presses high

The goalkeeper can also play longer balls into the front four if the opposition have a high defensive block. Bouzanis tries to find the feet of the wide players, or play aerial balls for Cahill and Fornaroli who look to win the second ball.

Central midfield rotation

City sometimes utilise a positional rotation in their build up. This involves the right-sided central midfielder, usually Luke Brattan, rotating out into a wide position. This often occurs when the build up starts on the left-hand side and is circulated to the right centre-back, which is the cue for Brattan to move wide.

Assuming the opposition winger presses on the player in possession, and remembering that the right-winger pins back the opposition full-back, this rotation means the opposition midfielder must either follow Brattan out wide, or else he can receive free of pressure past the first line of pressure.

Sometimes, with Brattan providing the width, the right-winger may move inside. This potentially opens up a vertical passing lane from the right centre-back into the winger, although as many opposition full-backs defend tightly and man-to-man, it can be difficult for the winger to receive away from pressure. Alternatively, the near-side #9 (usually Fornaroli) can drop into space between the lines (especially if the opposition midfielder follows Brattan, creating that aforementioned vertical passing lane).

If Brattan is not positioned wider, then he plays inside. This in turn means that Kilkenny drops back in front of the first pressing line to return to the ‘usual’ centre-back position (giving the goalkeeper a passing option to his right), with the right-sided defender shifting higher up the pitch to become a right-back.

Goalkeeper as 11th outfielder

Another pattern in build-up involves the goalkeeper pushing up the pitch into the space created on the right-hand side by the movement of the right centre-back into midfield. Dean Bouzanis has recently been preferred ahead of Thomas Sorensen even after the former Stoke City keeper returned from suspension, due to Bouzanis’s ability to distribute the ball more accurately under pressure.

Particularly when City face opponents that defend deep, Bouzanis will move forward into the position normally occupied by a right centre-back. This can be seen in the video below when City faced Perth Glory, a team who sat back in a 4-4-2 defensive block, allowing City to build up in their own back third.

This is something new assistant coach Michael Valkanis has clearly brought to the club, given that he was coach of the Adelaide United youth team that previously utilised this tactic. This was covered in-depth by this website in an interview with Adelaide’s goalkeeping coach, Robert Matosevic.

Adelaide influence

In fact, Melbourne City’s system this season bears many of the hallmarks of a formation used by Josep Gombau in his last season at Adelaide United. Having spent the bulk of his first two seasons drilling his side in the mechanics of a 4-3-3 modelled on the traditional Barcelona style, Gombau began to search for alternate solutions to use against teams that had grown too familiar with his favoured 4-3-3.

He came up with a 3-4-3 (diamond midfield), where Isaias played a dual role much like Kilkenny’s – a centre-back without the ball, a #6 at the base of the diamond. The two major differences between the City and Adelaide hybrid systems are City’s assymetry, and their use of two strikers rather than an overload of midfielders, because Van’t Schip has both Cahill and Fornaroli at his disposal. However, the guiding principles and positional movements within the systems are very similar.

This can presumably be attributed to the arrival of Valkanis, something squad player Connor Chapman hinted at in saying that “He’s [Valkanis] got a lot of knowledge about the game and he’s brought a lot into the club”.

Creating chances

When in the middle and final third, City attack primarily through wing-play. With the wingers always maintaining full width, there are always opportunities to circulate the ball wide to create 1v1 situations with the defender in front. Kamau and Brandan are both capable of dribbling past defenders, where they then look for crosses into the penalty box. They can also cut inside into shooting positions.

If City play centrally, it is to the feet of either striker (usually Fornaroli), who receives with his back to goal and looks to bounce passes back to the midfielders. This has the purpose of drawing the opposition last defensive line narrower, in turn creating more space in wide areas for the midfielder to then look to circulate for a 1v1 situation.

Another method of chance creation is from the full-backs (the left-back or right centre-back/right-back) moving forward to support the attack. As the wingers maintain full width, these runs are often made down the inside channel. Either the City full-back will cross from this inside channel, or, if the opposition full-back has to step forward to press, they can play passes to the winger on the outside to drive forward into space.

End notes

The debate about whether this is a system that truly gets the best out of Melbourne City’s players is for another time (as there are question marks about their ability to defend counter-attacks, and about their organisation when defending for long periods) but there is no doubt this hybrid system creates many interesting tactical possibilities.

It is important to recognise that the fluid formation would not be possible without City having a good grasp of the principles that underpin it, namely the intent to dominate possession and territory, and pressing high upon turnovers. Furthermore, the players must have a collectively strong understanding of the need to occupy certain zones as the ball is circulated, evidenced by the smooth positional rotations on the right-hand side where anyone of the right-back, right central midfielder or right-winger can provide the width during build up.

In a league dominated by straightforward 4-2-3-1 systems, City’s 4-3-3/3-1-2-4 is a refreshing tactical talking point.

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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