Muscat’s shallow approach falls short against Sydney

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By , Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    Sydney FC beat an understaffed Melbourne Victory 1-0 to open their 2017-18 A-League campaign.

    With James Troisi, Kosta Barabrouses and Mark Milligan away on international duty, Kevin Muscat set a test of fitness for his team. Rather than address this predicament with some unlikely tactical adjustment, Muscat simply sent out his team to try and blow Sydney away early with industry and aggression. Sydney’s game-plan, on the other hand, relied on a relatively complex tactical system functioning coherently.

    When out of possession, Sydney resembled a 4-4-2, with Brosque and Bobo pressuring from the front, Milos Ninkovic and Adrian Mierzejewski flattening the midfield line as wingers, and a straight back four.

    Here are the attack and midfield snapped in this position. When Sydney had the ball, however, the central midfield pairing of Josh Brillante and Brandon O’Neill would often drop into a de facto full back position, depending on which wing the ball was shuffled out to.

    This allowed the actual full backs, Paulo Retre and Luke Wilkshire, to push forward up the flanks, which in turn allowed Ninkovic and Mierzejewski to slide infield, to the areas where their passing and dribbling could be applied more effectively.

    You can see in this sequence, as play progresses up the near flank, Retre settles into a winger’s position, with Mierzejewski flitting around the interior, and Brillante positioned in the full-back spot. Brillante ends up dashing back with Besart Berisha when Melbourne counter, with Retre tagging along behind the play. But the sequence demonstrates how potent Mierzejewski and Ninkovic can be in those tight middle areas; they thrive under the oppressive conditions that would shred most other players’ touch and poise.

    besart-berisha-bruce-kamau-melbourne-derby-victory-city-a-league-football-2016-tall

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    It was a system that required discipline and focus; one indulgent player roaming, and big holes would appear. It also made certain assumptions about the offensive abilities of the Sydney full-backs, assumptions that weren’t exactly safe. Neither Retre nor Wilkshire are particularly used to playing as, respectively, the left and right full backs. Their attacking skills pale in comparison to the first-choice Sydney players in those positions, Michael Zullo and Rhyan Grant, both of whom were missing from this game with fitness concerns. Retre, in particular, was guilty of a number of awful crosses, hit with a leaden foot.

    It also meant that O’Neill and Brillante found themselves defending the flanks when Melbourne broke on the counter. They conducted themselves well in these situations, by and large; they are two of the league’s most sensible, disciplined two-way midfielders.

    Melbourne’s tactical approach was built on stern, physical tent-poles; unsurprisingly, Kevin Muscat’s players were not shy in the tackle, or when flying into concussive aerial duels. The Victory dragged their opponents into combat; both teams committed eight fouls in the first half. The Victory made half as many passes as Sydney, and their most promising moments came on the break, with Leroy George, or Mitch Austin dribbling or sprinting their way into dangerous positions. As much as this played to those two players’ strengths, Berisha was rather isolated and pedestrian in the first half.

    Sydney scored early in the second half, and Arnold’s plan was on show in the build up. This time it was Wilkshire – acting more as a winger, and secure in the knowledge that O’Neill was filling his vacated full-back spot – that combined with Ninkovic and Mierzejewski, who were tucked inside. Wilkshire whipped in a venomous cross, and Alex Brosque fluffed the header, utterly free to nod home. Fortunately for Sydney, Thomas Deng flicked in a sumptuous, back-heeled own-goal. It was a lucky break for Sydney, but their approach play worked just as intended.

    Having been affronted by Melbourne’s muscular start to the match, by the hour mark Sydney were in full control, raiding into the Melbourne defensive third over and over, spinning a web of intricate passing. This is what Melbourne did in the grand final; burst out of the blocks, tackle hard and break quickly, and try and score early.

    They managed to do just that in the final, and it would have been a hard-earned, deserved win had they survived the penalty shoot-out. But the kind of energy and grit it takes to carry out and maintain a plan like this for 90 minutes is much easier to muster for the season’s ultimate match than it is the first game of the following season.

    Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold.

    (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

    Late in the second half, Melbourne were suddenly buoyed by a second wind; the intensity and bite of the opening stanza returned, and Sydney were rocked back on their heels. The Sky Blues were sitting permanently in their 4-4-2 defensive stance now, as Melbourne knifed down the wings. Arnold brought on the human elbow, Matt Simon, to inject a little zeal.

    Away from home, and with a narrow lead, Arnold was backing his team to grind this win out. Young Josh Hope, a Victory substitute, was stroking the ball around beautifully, instantly appearing a strikingly lithe and elegant player in possession. Muscat also brought on 17-year-old Christian Theoharous, a left winger of some reputed talent. Youth was garnishing this late surge, as the match entered the final five minutes.

    Sydney held on, desperately at times, and escaped with the win. Melbourne ended the match firmly on top, but the positive demeanour of the final throes should not disguise the limitations of their approach more generally. They finished dominantly, but their flat spell in the middle of the match – deflated by having not capitalised on their early pressure and bereft of other ideas – was their undoing. Muscat’s plan, understandable – justified, in fact – considering his absentees, will nonetheless have to be a little more complex than this if he’s to take points off Sydney this season.

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.