Dour, defensive and dominant: The keys to City

Tim Palmer Columnist

By Tim Palmer, Tim Palmer is a Roar Expert

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    Melbourne City have had a superb start to the season. They are the only side to record four consecutive wins, including an impressive derby victory over neighbours Melbourne Victory, and conceding just one goal in the process.

    They have shown great improvements in their defensive solidity.

    In contrast, under previous coach John van’t Schip, City were more notable for their tactical flexibility.

    Van’t Schip constantly changed the formation to get the best out of key players. For example, in 2016-17, with Harry Novillo and Bruno Fornaroli in devastating attacking form and Aaron Mooy emerging as Australia’s best playmaker, the coach switched to a 3-5-2 formation that freed his front three to play together upfront.

    Last season, with Tim Cahill and Fornaroli to fit in, as well as Fernando Brandan and Nicolas Colazo, Van’t Schip experimented with 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-diamond-2 and even a 4-4-2 that became a 3-1-2-4 in possession – but the team struggled for consistency.

    New coach Warren Joyce is a different kettle of fish.

    A former Manchester United academy coach, Joyce describes himself as “honest, competitive, meticulous on small details and enthusiastic”. In the first four rounds of the new season, it’s clear Joyce has worked hard on City’s defensive shape. Subsequently, they have developed a reputation for dour but effective football, having taken the third-least shots of any team but converting 18 per cent of these, wihch is fourth-best in the league.

    Without the ball, City defend in a 4-4-2 shape. The role of the front two, similar to Sydney FC and the Wanderers, is to take up narrow starting positions, positioning level with the opposition deepest central midfielder to prevent forward passes centrally from the centre-backs. The wingers tuck in alongside the central midfielders, in positions where they have the ability to press the opposition full-backs when they receive.

    While City’s defensive shape is similar to other teams in the league, they have used a cover shadow, which refers to the space covered (or blocked) by a player when they press an opponent.

    Cover shadows occur naturally when players are positioned on the pitch but are deliberately ‘used’ in pressing to block passing lanes and force the opponent into a certain pass, or area of the pitch. In the context of City’s defensive shape, in their central starting positions the front two cover shadow the opposition midfielders. If they move forward to pressure a centre-back, they check their shoulder as they start their pressing run to ensure they are keeping the central midfielder in their cover shadow.

    The two wingers must also be aware of their cover shadows when they press opposition full-backs. For example, if looking to force the full-backs to play backwards, the wingers will press from inside with an angle of approach where their cover shadow blocks a pass into midfield. If the City winger is looking to force the player inside, they will press from outside, keeping the full-back in their cover shadow.

    In both scenarios, the winger is pressing the ball diagonally, so they can block a pass with their cover shadow to make play predictable. When this happens, teammates move into a position where they can press the opponent about to receive and force a turnover.

    We can see all these aspects in the following scene. The front two (Stefan Mauk and Ross McCormack) are positioned centrally, blocking forward passes into the base of midfield. When Taylor Regan plays into Michael Marrone (Adelaide right-back), Nick Fitzgerald (City left-winger) presses with a diagonal run, using his cover shadow to prevent a pass into central midfield, forcing the play backwards.

    This time, when Isaias drops in and creates a three-on-two overload at the back in Adelaide’s favour, McCormack tries to use his cover shadow to block a pass into Regan and Isaias is able to find Regan with a chipped pass. As Regan drives forward, Fitzgerald adjusts his body position and the direction of his cover shadow to block a pass into Marrone and make play predictable.

    It is this moment, with the cue being Fitzgerald’s specific pressing run, where Osama Malik should be in a position to press the Adelaide midfielder on his first touch. As it turns out, he is unable to prevent his direct opponent playing forward on his first touch, so Adelaide can play forward quickly.

    It is telling that despite City making small mistakes in this pressing moment, they still win the ball back, with good numbers around the ball to press any pass between the lines. Generally speaking, they have defended well using this approach so far this season. That is primarily because Joyce has stuck to a consistent formula, asking the side to defend collectively with intelligent use of cover shadows – despite sometimes changing formation (as he did against Adelaide, switching to a back five after the red card).

    Sticking to a consistent XI has also helped the side find familiarity and cohesion with each other. There are players in the current starting team like Fitzgerald, Malik and Manny Muscat, who might not be the most talented players in the squad, but who will work hard and stick to their tasks. It is telling that Joyce is using Malik and Michael Jakobsen together in midfield, as it shows his priority is to make the side hard to beat.

    The epitome of the emphasis on energy and enthusiasm over craft and guile, and even star quality, is that Mauk – a hard-running midfielder who made his name with trademark runs from deep – is currently the #10, because of his discipline and awareness, which suits this defensive system.

    Mauk has barely made a dent going forward; in fact, overall, City have not impressed much in open play with the ball. Four goals have come from set pieces (including every goal in wins over Wellington and Adelaide), while two of Bruce Kamau’s three goals in the opening two games were deflections.

    Joyce says the style will evolve: “We have been organised and shown effort and enthusiasm, and we have to build on that and dominate the game more with the ball now.”

    Whether City can continue in their current winning form remains to be seen – hosting Sydney FC this week will reveal a lot – but nevertheless, Joyce has put a solid defensive foundation in place to build on this season.

    Tim Palmer
    Tim Palmer

    Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He has worked with the Socceroos in an analysis role, has completed the FFA B Licence, is currently a player in the Australian Deaf Football Team and coaches in the NSW NPL. You can follow him on Twitter @timpalmerftbl.

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    The Crowd Says (44)

    • November 1st 2017 @ 8:23am
      Bob said | November 1st 2017 @ 8:23am | ! Report

      Dour yes, Sydney FC set the boring tone last season and otehrs are starting to copy, it will kill professional football in this country as fans turn away in droves. attendances DOWN 10% and viewing DOWN 17%. The cancer started at Sydney FC and it is spreading through the game. the bling is junk and the game is dying.

      • November 1st 2017 @ 8:47am
        Redondo said | November 1st 2017 @ 8:47am | ! Report

        Sydney scored the most goals last season. So I guess the reason you think they’re dull is because they also conceded the least.

        What exactly would you like them to do differently – apart from losing to your team?

        • November 1st 2017 @ 10:48am
          Bob said | November 1st 2017 @ 10:48am | ! Report

          SFC = Dour, dull, no fans

          City = Dour, dull, no fans

          Copy cats

      • November 1st 2017 @ 9:01am
        Fadida said | November 1st 2017 @ 9:01am | ! Report

        “the game is dying”

        Even amongst a sea of absurd comments on this forum, this one stands out

        • November 1st 2017 @ 9:38am
          Redondo said | November 1st 2017 @ 9:38am | ! Report

          True – I got distracted by Bob’s intermittent problem with caps lock and didn’t read his final words.

          • November 1st 2017 @ 10:47am
            Bob said | November 1st 2017 @ 10:47am | ! Report

            Please let me invite you not to read ANY in future

            • November 1st 2017 @ 2:14pm
              Fadida said | November 1st 2017 @ 2:14pm | ! Report

              Future? According to you Bob there is no FUTURE!

            • November 1st 2017 @ 3:30pm
              Redondo said | November 1st 2017 @ 3:30pm | ! Report

              i TrIeD tO rEpLy bOb BuT tHe MoDs WoUlDn’T pUbLiSh My CoMmEnT.

              I pRoMiSe To NeVeR rEaD aNy MoRe Of YoUr CoMmEnTs!

      • November 1st 2017 @ 9:31am
        R King said | November 1st 2017 @ 9:31am | ! Report

        Fortunately Bob, you don’t understand the game, dour yes but fascinating just the same. I was absorbed as any die hard football fan would of been in watching AUFC battle it out with City.

        The numbers may be down atm, but lets see what they are come May 2018

        • November 1st 2017 @ 10:55am
          Bob said | November 1st 2017 @ 10:55am | ! Report

          Attendances are down 10% already, they will fall even further when the BBL starts, and then the AFLW starts, and then you have TV viewing down by 17% or almost 1 in 5 people that watched last year aren’t watching this year. but yes, please do wait to see what they will be like at the end of the season, i would say down by 20% on attendances and 30% on viewing. crisis, what crisis, nothing to see here, move along now, be a good little supporter and keep the faith, no room for critisism here, only blind optimism. You lot are like King Kanute trying to stop the tide, you think if you say everything is okay and shoot people down who disagree things will be okay – well things are NOT ok LoL let me say it again, crowds and viewing were down last year, crowds and viewing are collapsing this year COLLAPSING

          ( and what do we have to chnage this? dull and dour SFC, dull and dour City – Bahahahahaha)

          • November 1st 2017 @ 12:23pm
            Onside said | November 1st 2017 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

            Apart from individual team style ,(dull ,exciting, whatever is this seasons flavour)
            do you think playing the same team three times a season has a negative impact
            on overall support both at the game and TV.

            Are supporters ‘derbied out’.

            Notwithstanding, either real or imagined, Melb Citys stoic style ,if there were say
            sixteen teams in the A-League, and clubs played each other twice a year instead
            of the as now three, do you think that would increase overall support and interest ,
            and put less weight on discussing the negative approach of a couple of clubs.

      • November 1st 2017 @ 1:02pm
        Kangajets said | November 1st 2017 @ 1:02pm | ! Report


        If u find Sydney and city boring which I tend to agree , why not watch Newcastle or the mariners or even wsw who are far more attacking this season .
        The choice is yours . Otherwise watch the big bash or wafl . To each their own .

    • November 1st 2017 @ 8:43am
      Redondo said | November 1st 2017 @ 8:43am | ! Report

      Thanks again Tim – good analysis. One point, City have played 3 out-of-form teams in their first four games. I’m not sure their defence has been tested all that well. And they have not had to rescue a game yet either. When they have to attack this current team doesn’t look capable of doing much. If they do try to push forward more the defence is likely to fall apart. Malik and Jacobsen will likely rack up plenty of cards.

    • Roar Rookie

      November 1st 2017 @ 8:45am
      Stevo said | November 1st 2017 @ 8:45am | ! Report

      Nice analysis again Tim. The key is the difference in approach between Joyce and JVS. Joyce is pragmatic, has plugged our defensive weakness and rewarded good performance by picking the same players. Joyce has also instilled a never-say-die attitude and every player working hard for the team. And wears shorts to games 🙂 The complete opposite to the relaxed, Boss sneaker wearing, structure tinkering JVS who went for sexy football at the expense of defence. We know how that ended. A long way to go but looking forward to this Friday at AAMI.

    • November 1st 2017 @ 9:10am
      Nemesis said | November 1st 2017 @ 9:10am | ! Report

      Very interesting analysis, Tim. You’ve picked nice examples to validate your hypotheses.

      I watched this match in full. I thought AUFC were extremely good. They conceded an unnecessary penalty & a goal from a free kick. Some people suggested Izzo should have done better with the free kick from McCormack.

      Did you also notice AUFC creating huge number of chances? I think Galekovic was named amongst the City best players, which suggests he was highly involved in the game.

      Common sense tells me that, if a GK is highly involved in a game, it means the opposition are making lots of dangerous plays which have penetrated the outfield players & only the GK prevents a catastrophe.

      So, I’d be keen for you to explain how City’s “dour & dominant defence” allowed Mileusnic & Warland to have clear shots on goal? How did Blackwood get into the box, only to be blocked by a desperate lunge?

      Or, do we conveniently forget the attacking threats posed by AUFC because it doesn’t fit the hypothesis about City’s dominant defence?

      • November 1st 2017 @ 9:30am
        Fadida said | November 1st 2017 @ 9:30am | ! Report

        I thought you weren’t allowed to offer any analysis unless you were appropriately qualified Fuss?

        Which isn’t to say I don’t agree with your analysis……

        • November 1st 2017 @ 10:08am
          Nemesis said | November 1st 2017 @ 10:08am | ! Report

          You’re turned from a genuinely interesting poster with decent banter, to a PITA & high on the list of posers I have zero regard for and detest on this forum.

          • November 1st 2017 @ 2:36pm
            Fadida said | November 1st 2017 @ 2:36pm | ! Report

            I’m just pointing out the terrible hypocrisy that you repeatedly exhibit. On any matters pertaining to analysis of the NT you repeatedly tell us how unless your are qualified at international level you can’t comment on tactics and systems, including writing articles. Apparently we are allowed to only give facts, not opinions, and what is the point as the coach doesn’t read forums. It’s all a waste of time.

            What do I see this morning? You providing (good) analysis. But wait, by your own repeatedly laid out rules we have to ask, are you suitably qualified to coach at A-league level? No, then your analysis means nothing. Will Warren Joyce be reading your comments? No. We know there are 2 types of rules, one for you and one for the rest, and this is another example.

            It’s black and white in the world of Fuss; disagree and you are a poser, like multi sports and you are a casual fan not to be taken seriously, cross you and you are detested. Non negotiable rules that only one man can break. Throw in your famous lack of humour and self awareness and there’s your psychological diagnosis.

            • November 1st 2017 @ 4:02pm
              Nemesis said | November 1st 2017 @ 4:02pm | ! Report

              You really don’t get it, do you?

              I am not – not now, not ever – suggesting my football analysis is worth a dime.
              And I am not – not now, not ever – suggesting my football analysis is superior to Warren Joyce.

              By contrast, you think your football analysis is superior to Ange Postecoglou. You think your knowledge of the players’ conditioning is better than sports scientists who monitor the players.

              Of course I have opinions on football, but I fully understand the limits of my opinions. Each of us can think our opinions are the equal of any other fan – who has access to the same information.

              The problem for you is that you – & I and everyone on this forum – are totally ignorant about facts that are available to Ange. So, compared to Ange, our opinions are formed on ignorance.

              It’s absolutely ridiculous for anyone to pretend their insights on any topic are superior to people who actually work in a given field.

              • November 1st 2017 @ 4:41pm
                Fadida said | November 1st 2017 @ 4:41pm | ! Report

                And yet you think your opinion/analysis is worth posting, while at the same time admonishing others for wasting their time by analysing. Truly amazing, going back to that lack of self awareness so prominent in your personality type.

                Are my opinions formed on ignorance? No. Why? I have watched every single game that Ange has coached at NT level. I don’t need access to training sessions and sports science data because performances provide the true measure of their effectiveness. I’m assuming Brad Smith is brilliant in training. Do I care? No, because he’s poor in games. Consistently. Do I think I am perfectly entitled to analyse the performances of the national team on a public forum, in a way that is not personally attacking the coach? You bet.

              • November 1st 2017 @ 4:47pm
                Redondo said | November 1st 2017 @ 4:47pm | ! Report

                Guys – this is like a bad rom-com. Just accept you have irreconcilable differences, move on, and get on with the rest of your lives.

                I enjoy reading both your comments but all this slapping each other is very distracting.

              • November 1st 2017 @ 4:57pm
                Fadida said | November 1st 2017 @ 4:57pm | ! Report


                I shall be waiting for the next breach of Fuss’ own rules though. If you insist on making rules you have to enforce them.

                It’s fun!

              • November 1st 2017 @ 5:27pm
                Nemesis said | November 1st 2017 @ 5:27pm | ! Report


                As I said in my reply to the ignoramus Fadida: He’s morphed from a poster I could banter with to a poser for whom I have zero regard and find utterly detestable.

                I don’t read any of his comments, other than when he replies to my comments.

              • November 1st 2017 @ 5:56pm
                Fadida said | November 1st 2017 @ 5:56pm | ! Report

                Which fits in with your personality disorder Fuss. Black and white, for and against, nothing in between. I’m mature enough to take each of your comments on it’s own merits. Some are good points. You just keep adding more names to your blacklist, while trying to recruit new posters to your side. Until they show a difference of opinion and the abuse starts, again consistent with your personality type.

              • November 1st 2017 @ 5:33pm
                Realfootball said | November 1st 2017 @ 5:33pm | ! Report

                Handbags at 10 paces.

              • November 1st 2017 @ 5:42pm
                Redondo said | November 1st 2017 @ 5:42pm | ! Report

                Better check for concealed bricks

              • November 1st 2017 @ 5:58pm
                Fadida said | November 1st 2017 @ 5:58pm | ! Report

                Ha! Unless one has built the bricks oneself or have qualifications in the field of bricks, one is unable to comment on bricks.

      • November 1st 2017 @ 10:57am
        Bob said | November 1st 2017 @ 10:57am | ! Report

        what qualifications do you have to make such comments? are you a coach? if not please STOP like you tell everyone else to do

      • November 1st 2017 @ 1:44pm
        Onside said | November 1st 2017 @ 1:44pm | ! Report

        Nemesis, an issue with a large number of football supporters in Australia is that they, myself
        included, know nothing or very little about the game.

        I love football, been to EPL matches, HAL grand finals but have never played the game, as I
        was weaned on AFL. (then VFL)

        My sons, grandsons play football , love it,know it,can discuss tactics, field positions , all that.

        When I watch a game live, I do not see subtle positional changes , they always escape me .

        On TV I rely on commentators to point out was must be obvious to the more knowledgeable.

        I can watch a game live, then watch a TV replay to see and be told what actually happened.

        I managed under age teams as one son grew up, but coaches were well meaning dads who
        had no skills and no knowledge of the game.

        At the time there were no games on FTA TV , kids went home to watch ,The Broncos play.

        I watch the A -League on TV , live a two hour from Brisbane, so can’t go to games (see a few)

        It seems that most HAL crowds are quite young, or have a large proportion of young supporters.

        The future of the A-League will flourish with the yet unborn children of these young supporters.

        The reason is that they will grow with the game in their blood, knowledgeable, informative and
        dads will take their children to football matches.

        In time some of us will be lucky enough to watch a Berisha play and say ‘if you think that lad is
        good, you should have seen his father’

        I find these articles to be educational and informative. I learn stuff.

        The largest number of contributors on this site, like me ,can easily offer opinions on the politics
        of the game , a romantic view of its future, two divisions , FFA management etc, but struggle to
        contribute to discussions about tactics, positional play, or say the advantage of one formation
        over another, as,despite their obvious passion for football, they were not brought up on it at home

        Watching football is the best fun you can have with your clothes on.


        • November 1st 2017 @ 2:04pm
          Redondo said | November 1st 2017 @ 2:04pm | ! Report

          Well said Onside.

          I reckon very few football fans can spot the tactical subtleties for themselves – even those who think they can mostly can’t.

          I certainly depend on good commentators to keep me up to speed as a game unfolds. I am in awe of managers like Mourinho and Guardiola who adjust tactics on the fly and mostly get it right. That’s why I love articles like this – I usually learn something.

          One thing I’ve found is it’s actually easier to work it out for yourself if you are at the game. You can watch the whole field and the coaches and see what everybody is up to. You should do the two-hour drive – I do almost double that for every home game. But I am probably certifiably insane.

          • November 1st 2017 @ 2:28pm
            Onside said | November 1st 2017 @ 2:28pm | ! Report

            Which region do you live in Redondo. I’m north Sunshine Coast with the
            infamous Bruce Highway to negotiate. It’s two hours each way .

            Throw in parking etc and it’s an endurance test,especially night matches.

            Distance is why in part regular supporters bemoan that finals crowds do
            not attend games through the season. Its that many supporters live outside
            the cities and can only get down for a special occasion.

            So if Brisbane Roar sneak into sixth place, or there’s a knock out match for
            sixth place …..then book me a seat.

            • November 1st 2017 @ 2:33pm
              Redondo said | November 1st 2017 @ 2:33pm | ! Report

              I’m lucky – I have good roads to take me to Sydney FC games. I also have somewhere to stay so I don’t do all the driving in one day.

              But I reckon I’d have a crack at 2 lots of 2 hours in one day. Some people at Sydney games spend 2 hours each way on public transport to get to games.

              • November 1st 2017 @ 3:15pm
                Kangajets said | November 1st 2017 @ 3:15pm | ! Report

                I try to go every week

                But I’m an hour an a half each way for jets home games and

                2 1/2 hours each way for mariners home games . Hoping my son remembers it fondly when he is older .

        • November 1st 2017 @ 2:15pm
          Nemesis said | November 1st 2017 @ 2:15pm | ! Report

          Really enjoyed reading that, Onside.

          I think you’re being too hard on yourself. The truth is, when you talk to coaches & players, that much of the recent analysis of formations & structure is totally over-analysed & does not reflect the fluidity of a game.

          Analysts seem to cherry pick certain moments of the game to suit their predetermined analytical hypothesis.

          This discussion by Tim Palmer is excellent; no doubt. He has clearly explained how certain moments played out on Friday evening.

          However, over 90 mins of football that match, I can easily point to many examples where the MelbCity defensive structure did not do the job as Tim described.

          It doesn’t mean Tim is wrong. It just means we can’t make blanket statements that “this is what happens with Melb City’s defence”.

          It’s not. It’s what happens in certain moments with MelbCity when it performs the way their coach wants it to perform.

          • November 1st 2017 @ 2:19pm
            Redondo said | November 1st 2017 @ 2:19pm | ! Report

            True Nemesis – and that’s why great coaches have plans B, C, D etc.

            As they say ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’.

            • November 1st 2017 @ 2:29pm
              Nemesis said | November 1st 2017 @ 2:29pm | ! Report

              Not sure about that. I’d say there are coaches who have multiple plans but other coaches have 1 plan that they know, if they execute it perfectly, it will work.

              Ange seems to be this type of coach. I’d say Guardiola, Klopp, Wenger also have a basic plan/philosophy that doesn’t vary.

              Mourinho, by contrast, seems willing to change the plan to get the result.

              I recall a fascinating UCL semi-final in 2010: Barcelona (Guardiola) vs Inter Milan (Mourinho).

              In the away leg, Inter won 3-1. They played good football & were helped by the volcano in Iceland which prevented Barcelona from flying, so they had to endure a bus trip to Milan.

              Anyway, in the away leg at the Camp Nou, Inter Milan played a dour defensive structure. Because Barca had the Away Goal, if they won 2-0, they would qualify for the final.

              Barca tried & tried to get through but Inter kept them out.

              Barca never changed the plan. But, I think the reason they didn’t win was not because the plan wasn’t good. Just that the plan wasn’t executed with the precision that was required.

              • November 1st 2017 @ 2:40pm
                Redondo said | November 1st 2017 @ 2:40pm | ! Report

                Guardiola has a consistent style but he’s not afraid to change formation or player’s positions during a game. Same applies to Barca – there’s some great analysis of that on other sites.

                I can’t remember who they were playing, but I swear Man City went long-ball for about 15 minutes in one game this season to avoid opposition pressing.

              • November 1st 2017 @ 3:17pm
                Kangajets said | November 1st 2017 @ 3:17pm | ! Report

                Absolutely sometimes the long ball is needed to break up the press . It’s the variation in attack and possession that make some teams more watchable then others .

              • November 1st 2017 @ 3:34pm
                Fadida said | November 1st 2017 @ 3:34pm | ! Report

                More watchable, and also more successful. If an opponent knows that you like to play from the back but have the variety of being able to counter the press with a longer ball in behind they will find it much harder to stop you playing.

                Of course some coaches will insist they play from the back no matter the game situation, or how successful the tactic is proving….

            • November 1st 2017 @ 5:53pm
              Onside said | November 1st 2017 @ 5:53pm | ! Report

              A carbon dated football cliche , ‘every goal is a defenders mistake’

    • November 1st 2017 @ 9:17am
      Buddy said | November 1st 2017 @ 9:17am | ! Report

      Quite often you see a strong team grind out results and play flowing and attractive football when the situation allows. There have been critics aplenty of MC since they became part of the City group and I doubt that it will ever stop, at least not before they have won the 3 domestic trophies, the Asian Champions League and the World Club Championship once they qualify. The team is clearly a work in progress and still has its shortcomings. How Adelaide didn’t score in the last fifteen minutes last week remains a mystery. I swear it was nothing to do with how MC were performing and more like players not wanting to upset their old friend Eugene!
      I’m hoping that MC turn the entertainment switch on at some point though as irrespective of all other considerations, I want to be entertained by the two teams I am watching. It isn’t just about goals either. I sat and watched the MLS play off between Atlanta and Columbus which eventually went to penalties but how it finished 0-0 is anyone’s guess but it was entertainment and drama all the way earlier this week.

    • November 1st 2017 @ 5:06pm
      Fadida said | November 1st 2017 @ 5:06pm | ! Report

      A rom-com? More like the two guys from the Muppets!

    , ,