Having beaten Sydney – by the skin of their teeth – in extra time last weekend in the semi-final, by playing reactive, counter-attacking football, it was assumed Melbourne would have to modify their game-plan against Newcastle.
Sydney made 642 passes against the Victory in their semi final; Newcastle made less than half that in theirs against Melbourne City. Sydney’s calm, yawning possession, their neat, sober passing, would now be replaced by Newcastle’s break-neck transitions, long balls, and wilful ceding of possession; two teams could hardly have more different attacking gaits. Surely Melbourne would emerge a different team in the final, right?
Well, no, in fact they came out with an even more distilled defensive approach, operating almost entirely on the counter, and defending as a team with clenched teeth and steeled nerved. They had as little of the ball as they did in the semi-final, and took fewer shots, made fewer passes and fewer crosses, blocked more shots, and passed in the opposition half with a rate of accuracy nearly 20 per cent worse than they did against Sydney.
This is not to say Newcastle played in any way like Sydney had. O’Donovan won a free kick within five minutes, racing onto a long lofted pass, testing the will of Thomas Deng. The Newcastle air raids had begun. Newcastle aimed long balls a number of times in the opening stanza, targeting Leigh Broxham. Broxham is not a statuesque aerial presence, and Jason Hoffman was seen clambering all over him in one instance, fouling the Victory utility in the process. This appeared to be a concerted tactical effort, at least in the early stages, to test Broxham in the air.
The wings were set alight with activity. Newcastle were playing with what on paper looked like a midfield three, but settled into a pairing of Riley McGree and Steven Ugarkovic holding dutifully in the middle, and Vargas stepping forward and drifting liberally out to both wings.
Melbourne’s midfield pairing, Carl Valeri and Terry Antonis, were also positioned even more reservedly, largely marshalling and roving, and funnelling balls out to Leroy George and Kosta Barbarouses on the wings.
Only James Troisi was offering central penetration by dribbling or passing in the first half, the rest was happening exclusively out wide. Of course, this makes perfect sense; these teams have thrived this season on sudden transitions, and the wings are a much more accommodating environment in transition. Set pieces – like the one Melbourne were wrongly allowed to open the scoring from – were important too, and frequently occurring, with scything challenges to stop break-neck wing play coming thick and fast.
Newcastle were continually going to Dimi Petratos on their left wing, and he was flourishing, combining well with Johnny Koutroumbis, and occasionally Ronny Vargas. The Victory were doing the same with Leroy George on their left flank, who was also linking up neatly with Troisi. In this way, the teams were mirroring one another.
It seemed as though Merrick’s side, playing at home and buoyed by a vocal, partisan crowd, were almost forced to take the initiative. But Merrick’s caution was still present, and in the first half his midfielders were only advancing when progress has already been made – or possession won after a long ball – on the wings.
McGree and Ugarkovic would creep up the middle, off the ball, to receive lay-offs from their wide players. Only rarely did they run with the ball from deeper areas, leaving themselves open to being dangerously out of position if dispossessed. Let others do the risky dribble-work, and join the attacking fray only when the time is right; this was the brief. Even so, Melbourne were looking frightening at times on the counter, with George and Barbarouses the main bogeymen.
The rhythm of the match, then, meant Berisha and O’Donovan were relying almost entirely on the invention and accuracy of others to get involved. Both had clearly been told to stay centrally, to avoid muddling with things out wide, and to wait, poised, to finish once the ball was centred. Berisha finished the match having touched the ball just twice inside the Newcastle box. O’Donovan’s frustration would manifest horrifically, late in the match.
Newcastle were giving Melbourne a stern test though, and Lawrence Thomas showed why he’s the league’s goalkeeper of the season, making four outstanding saves to deny Newcastle an equaliser. His ability to save low-down on either side, and then spring up to meet a follow-up shot is remarkable. A sequence that finished with an astonishing lunging save to deny Hoffman, flinging his body in the way of a close-range shot, was the pick of his efforts on the night.
Essentially, having snatched the lead early – the quickest A-League Grand Final goal ever, in fact – Melbourne were relying almost totally on their defence. Newcastle are at their best puncturing through defences that have overextended; Melbourne’s was anything but, set in a dug-in stance for most of the night, with the full backs rarely venturing too far forward, and the central midfield pair shielding the back line well.
Kevin Muscat identified his assets in attack – namely, the pace and directness of his wingers on the break – and drained his team of anything extraneous to that, diverting it into the defensive cause; if you weren’t defending, you were one of of the counter-attacking bolters, with almost nothing in between.
Even the bolters weren’t excused from the dirty work – Barbarouses finished with seven times as many successful tackles as he had shots. Muscat knows a thing or two about defending with grit, and he expected just that from the bulk of his team.
It was enough to win, thanks to Thomas’s heroics, and the VAR’s generosity in awarding the goal. The second half saw Melbourne retreat even further into their defensive third. Newcastle tried hard, but their strengths – pace in transition, quick interchanges between players, their ability in the open field – were all dulled by Melbourne’s staunch defensive retreat.
Their long balls were ineffective – over and over Thomas Deng was seen rising with majesty to power away clearing headers. Melbourne employed all the darker techniques of gamemanship. The time ran out, and Thomas, victim of a horrific tackle from O’Donovan, who crashed his studs into the goalkeeper’s jaw in added time, was the hero. He won the Joe Marston Medal.
Melbourne’s approach was the archetypal away performance, and was ideally employed as such, with their fans outnumbered 4 to 1 in the stadium. Muscat forced the opposition to play in a way to which they’re unaccustomed, a way they’re not designed for; this is exactly what a good manager does.
On another day Jason Hoffman scores from close range, and indeed on the night Melbourne’s goal should have been chalked off; this would have undoubtedly changed how Melbourne carried out the remainder of the match.
Ernie Merrick said as much after the match. But it wasn’t, so it didn’t, and Muscat’s team executed their game-plan perfectly. Reactive football, especially against a team not used to taking the initiative, can get results in crunch, one-off matches. It was ugly, but Melbourne secured the ultimate result here.