A-League preview: False nines or false dawns for Victory?
Archie Thompson of Melbourne Victory FC and Seb Van Den Brink of Perth Glory FC. AAP Image/Martin Philbey
Tipping the A-League on its head wasn’t enough for Ange Postecoglou, it seems. Now he’s reaching even further into his bag of tricks, and Melbourne Victory fans should be very, very excited.
If you’ve seen the critically-acclaimed Christopher Nolan film The Prestige, you’ll understand that Postecoglou – himself somewhat of a tactical magician – has always had more up his sleeve.
Every magic trick consists of three parts, the film says – the ‘pledge’ (or the set-up), the ‘turn’ (where the magician makes an ordinary object do something extraordinary), and the ‘prestige’ (the scarcely-believable, mind-blowing conclusion that makes you believe in magic).
His tenure with the Brisbane Roar was his ‘turn’. When he arrived, they really were just another A-League team.
When he left in April this year, he left behind a high-pressing, possession-commanding beast named ‘Roarcelona’, with three pieces of silverware in the cabinet and a club on the verge of an Australian football dynasty.
But Postecoglou is not a man to rest on his laurels. The awesome Roar was one thing, but he now wants to stun his audience once again with an audacious – and in some ways, illusionary – new tactic.
Now he’s got his heart set on what would be the perfect prestige – the false nine system, so often seen as football’s holy grail in this post-Guardiola era.
It’s often described as a 4-6-0. The mere mention of that formation is enough to frighten Socceroos fans into psychosis, given Pim Verbeek’s disastrous gamble at the 2010 World Cup.
But the false nine couldn’t be more different. That was toothless. This is lethal.
In a nutshell, Victory will be doing away with set positions in the front third this season. Throw out everything you think you know about football. There will be no designated striker.
The idea is to confuse opposition defences – who, without a traditional striker near them, will have nobody to mark – and flood the middle of the pitch with four central players and two advanced wingers.
Then, Postecoglou will be relying on the fluid movement of South American recruits Marcos Flores and Guilherme Finkler to provide most of Melbourne’s forward thrusts.
Flores and Finkler will take turns either dropping deep to collect the ball, or embarking on the kind of aggressive runs that you would expect a proper striker to make.
Jonathan Bru and either Jimmy Jeggo or Leigh Broxham will hold, while any two of Archie Thompson, Marco Rojas, Theo Markelis, Julius Davies or Isaka Cernak will play in the wide roles, looking to exploit the space that this system proposes to create, and then cut in to become a goalscoring threat.
The only teams that play like this with any sort of regularity, and to any great effect, are Barcelona and the Spanish national team – easily the best club and international sides going around at the moment.
Why only them? Why hasn’t everyone else cottoned on, if it’s so bloody sophisticated and brilliant?
Because it’s actually quite difficult to pull off, and something of a risk. You need high-level, intelligent players with a deep understanding of each other for it to work perfectly.
Barca and Spain make it look so easy because the nucleus of these teams has been together for a long time – Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Busquets, Messi (just for Barca, of course), David Villa, take your pick. They’re practically family.
Flores and Finkler, however, have been training together for a couple of months at best.
We already know that one is an excellent player and the other has shown glimpses of potentially equal talent, but is that enough to execute the false nine to the level required? Are they good enough, smart enough?
When it doesn’t work, it can be excruciating to watch – it becomes a loop of possession with zero penetration, as if just keeping the ball for an extended period of time will prompt the referee to start clapping and award a goal.
But when it does work it is breathtaking. After what Postecoglou achieved in Brisbane, it would take a very brave man to say it’s beyond him.
However, don’t be surprised if it takes Victory the full campaign to get it right.
When the Roar lost five games in a row last season, he was not afraid to change his formula – he brought in a back three, and it worked in jolting his side back into business. Job done.
If things go wrong, if it takes longer to get this going than he thought it would, then Postecoglou has the knowledge and flexibility to tweak and adjust until they’re back on the right track.
As giddy as this all might make Craig Foster, the false nine is just one half of the equation. The other half is defence, and that’s where Victory are equally likely to come unstuck.
Mark Milligan and Adrian Leijer are capable centre-halves and both can play with the ball at their feet. But if one is injured, or Milligan goes away on international duty, their depth is not great.
Then there are concerns over both fullbacks – Adama Traore is terrific, but can get dragged out of position quite easily, while Spase Dilevski has battled fitness problems his whole career.
But like when he started at Brisbane, the great Postecoglou wants you to judge him a year from now.
This is about setting up Melbourne Victory for a dynasty of their own and bringing the latest tactical trends in world football to our shores.
Very rarely are sequels any better than the original. This one, however, might just be an exception.
All of a sudden, the shady era of Durakovic, Kewell and Balbo feels like a million years ago.
Prediction: Top six.
In: Mark Milligan (JEF United, Japan), Marcos Flores (Henan Jianye), Theo Markelis (Vicenza, Italy), Guilherme Finkler (Criciuma, Brazil), Adama Traore (Gold Coast United), Sam Gallagher (Central Coast Mariners), Jonathon Bru (Moreirense, Portugal), Spase Dilevski (Adelaide United).
Out: Harry Kewell (released), Ante Covic (released), Carlos Hernandez (released) and Grant Brebner (released), Matthew Kemp (retired), Rodrigo Vargas (released), Tom Pondeljak (released).
Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard that is the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. He is a Port Adelaide fan by birth, as painful as that has been recently. He's now sports editor of The Area News in Griffith, NSW.
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