Last season, City conceded only marginally fewer goals per game, on average (1.63), than Adelaide and Wellington did (1.70). Those teams finished ninth and seventh. They conceded more goals per game than Western Sydney, a team that finished two places below them and – like City – were bounced from the first round of the finals.
As last season rolled into the later rounds, City’s scorelines tended to spill haphazardly toward one extreme or the other; in fact, from Round 19 onward, City paired rollicking four-goal wins over Newcastle and Wellington with ballooning two or three-goal losses to the Sydney clubs, all while sprinkling the occasional 3-2 win or 5-4 defeat into the gaps in between.
Only Central Coast had more games than City conceding three goals, and only Sydney had more games scoring four goals or more. Inconsistency is the bedfellow of such a teetering approach, and it was no surprise City could not match the steady, compelling momentum Sydney FC and the Melbourne Victory towed into the grand final.
New City manager Warren Joyce, a man who was met in the Victorian capital by high expectations and relatively little fanfare, has immediately got to work to rectify all of this. As with most managers starting afresh at a new club in a new league, the defence has been the first port of call.
It makes sense to do this; not only is Joyce aware of Sydney’s powerful march to the title last season – which was largely fuelled by their historically mean defence – but City already have a vast array of attacking weapons, an arsenal that doesn’t need immediate attention, if any at all. Naturally, this perspective was rocked and dizzied by Bruno Fornaroli’s long-term injury in pre-season, but luckily Bruce Kamau has stepped up potently in the meantime.
So, even from the small two-game sample size we’ve seen so far, it’s clear City are a different team defensively. Having played Brisbane, and then their city rivals Victory in the first two rounds – two teams who finished above them last term, and who have ambitions of a finals place this term – City’s new cast-iron back line has been seasoned by two capable opponents, and is already setting them apart, alongside champions Sydney, from the rest of the league.
City and Sydney are the only teams to keep a clean sheet over the opening two rounds. City and Sydney are first and equal-second respectively, for goals conceded. According to Fox Sports’ stats, they are second and third for shots conceded, and first and second for shots on target conceded. It takes more shots-per-goal (18) to score against City than any other team so far.
City are first for effective tackles and second for interceptions, all while placing third-bottom and second-bottom for clearances and blocks, implying that the considerable bulk of their defensive actions are taking place in safer areas of the pitch, where the opposing team can’t feasibly shoot. They’ve committed the second-most fouls so far too, although that might be less the result of some new-found tenacity, and more the result of 50 per cent of their game time coming under the heat of an incendiary derby atmosphere.
This rise to the top of most of the defensive counting stats has happened in spite of Joyce changing his starting defence from week one to two, flux that’s usually counter-productive for defensive chemistry. Against Brisbane, Michael Jakobsen was stationed at left-back, but for the derby he was moved into central midfield, playing beside Osama Malik.
We saw pretty early why the robust Dane was inserted into the heart of things, when he was made the victim of a scything Carl Valeri tackle, just a few minutes into the match. Jakobsen got up, shook himself off, and jogged away. Jakobsen is a hardy centre back; he played all his games last season there for City, and while there are advantages to playing a defender in midfield, there are also clear limitations.
Here, just a few moments after the Valeri tackle, Jakobsen initiates a promising City counter with a stern tackle of his own. One pass releases Kamau, and you can see Jakobsen, at the top of the screen, hustling up to join the attack. The ball eventually rebounds to him, free and clear inside the box, and he scuffs his shot badly, showing all the finishing prowess of a centre-back with altitude sickness.
Still, for all that he lacks in attack, the Dane is City’s best defender; it’s no surprise that, last season, when he missed consecutive games for the first time – three of them in December – City conceded as many goals in those three matches as they had in the previous seven.
Almost as eye-catching as Jakobsen’s midfield berth against the Victory was the willingness of City’s attackers to drop back and defend with vim and vigour. Kamau, Fitzgerald and Mauk – three young, fine Australian attackers with no shortage of energy – all were seen scurrying back, tracking Victory midfielders, to a degree above and beyond that of a normal forward. Here, both Kamau and Mauk – with the latter tracking an off-the-ball Mark Milligan halfway down the park – help in double-teaming Victory midfielders alongside Jakobsen. Only a very questionable tackle stops City from launching another counter. They did this all evening.
So, it meant that whenever the Victory made progress up the pitch, they were eventually met by, at least, the back four and one of either Malik or Jakobsen. More usually it was both the central midfielders, and then one or two of Fitzgerald, Kamau or Mauk tracking back. Here’s a fine example; as the Victory cleanly make their way up, you can see the urgency in the City players to chaperone them. The move ends with the attack heavily outnumbered, Fitzgerald and Kamau patrolling the edge of their own penalty area, and Leigh Broxham smashing a shot high and wide.
City’s plan was intended to keep the Victory at arm’s length, and it largely succeeded. According to the A-League’s stats, the Victory whipped in a staggering 35 crosses to City’s seven and enjoyed 60 per cent of the ball. And yet City had nearly as many total shots, and three times as many shots on target as the Victory. Even when the Victory were snorting and pushing hard for a go-ahead goal in the second half, City didn’t crumble, and kept their shape and focus under immense pressure.
City won the game because they made more of their smaller share of possession, and worked hard to neuter Victory’s time on the ball, keeping them insulated from the most dangerous areas. Berisha couldn’t manage a shot on target, making very little impression all evening, and the Victory managed just two shots on target as a team. Joyce’s side put in a disciplined, pragmatic, team-wide effort, the kind of display we really didn’t see – especially defensively – very often from City last season.
Of course, City still benefited from some fortunate moments, and are still weak in certain areas; Kamau’s winner took a lucky deflection after a wonderful solo run, and Manny Muscat – worried for much of the night by the play of Leroy George – still looks a slight liability at right-back. City, naturally, would argue this doesn’t even come close to righting the scales of fortune when Fornaroli – and, to a lesser extent, Fernando Brandan – are still out convalescing.
There were large periods of the derby when City were blunt and listless in attack, and Joyce will hope that these periods won’t linger for as long once his injured stars are back. City’s derby approach wasn’t particularly complex, and some would argue that it’s fairly rudimentary, retrogressive even.
But the stark truth of it is that City relied heavily on their own defensive fortitude to win this derby, under duress; last season, this was something you would have advised heavily against. Now, under Joyce, this seems a much more secure position for City to take, and their start to the season says as much.