While Melbourne Heart have gone on an incredible run of seven wins from eight games that has seen them move up into second spot, one of the most impressive features has been John van ‘t Schip’s ability to shift formations mid-game in order to wrestle control of a match.
This has particularly been evident in the past two games, in the Heart’s wins over Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC.
In both, the Dutchman has shown how adaptable his side has become, switching between a three or four man defensive line in order to gain control of each match.
This is the type of tactical flexibility that Guus Hiddink made famous in his time in charge of the Socceroos, and one we haven’t always come to associate with the A-League.
Let’s start at AAMI Park.
At the start of the Derby, it was clear that the Heart were pushing Aziz Behich forward, into a position on the left side of midfield.
It was ostensibly a three man defence featuring Adrian Madaschi in between Michael Marrone and Brendan Hamill.
But the Victory, with an experienced trio in Archie Thompson, Harry Kewell and Carlos Hernandez leading the front line, where able to expose this thinned out rearguard.
Thompson, in particular was very clever at exposing the space in behind Behich, often peeling out to the right to pick up the ball and stretch the Heart defence.
This led to Hamill being pulled out to the left, creating some space for the Victory trio to work in.
Without enough Heart pressure on the ball higher up the pitch, the Victory had the better of the opening periods, able to hit Thompson early, in space. This tactic lead to the opener, Thompson exposing the room between Hamill and Behich.
By then van ‘t Schip adjusted to a four man back-line, sending Behich back to his nominal position at left back.
By moving to a back four, and having a man spare, the Heart were able to control the Victory’s front three for much of the remainder of the match.
In and around all this, Matt Thompson went to work, and the Heart cruised home.
Fast forward six days and we’re at the SFS. This time van ‘t Schip has started with a back four, with Marrone and Behich the fullbacks and Simon Colosimo coming into central defence alongside Madaschi.
With Wayne Srhoj out, it meant a move into the holding midfield role for Hamill.
Van ‘t Schip had reverted to a more traditional 4-3-3 for this one, up against Vitezslav Lavicka’s 4-4-2.
However, it was the home side, with the overload in midfield, who controlled the opening exchanges.
Enter van ‘t Schip. About 25 mins in, the match a stalemate, he made his move, shifting Behich and Marrone forward, into midfield, and moving Hamill into his defence.
From a 4-3-3 he went to a 3-4-3, with Madaschi splitting Colosimo and Hamill at the back.
Marrone, meanwhile, went to the anchor midfield role.
The logic was clear. With only two Sydney attackers, Bruno Cazarine and Dimitri Petratos, van ‘t Schip only needed three defenders, leaving on spare.
And, by moving to four across the midfield, he had evened up the numbers in the middle.
It worked a treat. Terry Antonis, afforded so much space in the early going, able to pick his passes, suddenly had more pressure confronting him.
Now it was Fred, Thompson, Behich and Marrone on top.
In control at the back and in the middle, it was time for the pacey front three to go to work, and Sydney’s cumbersome back four, detached from their midfield, were no match for Rutger Worm, Mate Dugandzic and Eli Babalj.
While not much fun for the Sydney and Victory faithful, van ‘t Schip’s work over the past fortnight has been a Christmas gift to those of us who have longed for more tactical flexibility in the A-League.