Six rounds in and Melbourne City are top of the A-League table, with Jamie Maclaren firing on all cylinders.
The team has a visibly different atmosphere to that under Warren Joyce last season, when the team’s stagnant football of sideways passing frustrated even the most patient of supporters.
Now Erick Mombaerts, fresh with his Men In Black glasses and slick hairstyle, has given the City faithful some hope with a new brand of exciting, attacking football.
A key change in the system, which you might briefly have heard while tuning into Fox Sports commentary, is that City’s fullbacks regularly come inside into the midfield area rather than playing wide as most would do.
These ‘inverted’ fullbacks, akin to Pep Guardiola’s use of Oleksandr Zinchenko in sister club Manchester City, is a rare tactical innovation in the A-League that has already befuddled teams, with rivals yet to come up with a response to the unusual change.
What’s key to this system is that both fullbacks never come inwards at the same time. If Scott Jamieson, City’s left-back, moves into midfield, Scott Galloway will be out on the right giving the team some much-needed width.
This means that when the team is building play from the back they are effectively passing between three defenders with the opportunity to go wide provided by the opposite fullback. Using three players to pass in the early phases of possession is beneficial as it means that they will rarely be outnumbered by an opposition press – there should always be an option to pass to.
As you can see in the example above from Melbourne City’s recent match with Brisbane Roar, after Roar press the centre-backs, Jamieson quickly makes himself an option, and with space to run he moves even further to Galloway’s side of the field.
Once the ball is into the opponent’s half, the fullbacks are given a bit more freedom to either push inside or stay near the touchline depending on the situation. When they do come into the middle it can become very confusing for the opposition defenders, with them unsure who should be tracking the run.
Usually, a fullback will be covered by the winger or widest midfielder. This is already a difficult task since wingers can be sometimes reluctant to track back, but it becomes even harder if they come into the midfield. Suddenly the opposition are forced into making multiple decisions which need to be made in a split second.
Will the winger follow his marker inside or should they leave it to the central midfielder to continue tracking? Or should it be the fullback who goes forward while the winger tucks in to the back four temporarily?
Against Wellington Phoenix, Galloway made a dart inside and all three players that could have cut him off failed to make the correct choice, giving the 24-year-old the time to launch a shot from outside the box with his weaker foot to give his team the lead.
Granted, it was an unlikely position to score from and it won’t happen every game, but it came from a tactical manoeuvre that left Phoenix dumbfounded.
On the other hand, should the defender decide to follow the run of the fullback, it creates an opening for the wide forwards, usually either Craig Noone or Adrian Luna, who are comfortable coming inside to become a playmaker or out on the flanks to put in a cross.
In this excerpt, Scott Neville sees that Galloway is moving inside after receiving the ball and ditches his marker, Noone, to stop the run. That gives plenty of space for the English forward to receive the ball, and although his cross eventually faltered, it shows the trade-offs that defenders are forced to make because of the movement of the inverted fullbacks.
Another additional benefit is that playing with a third player centrally in possession gives more freedom for the midfielders to roam forward. Josh Brillante and Connor Metcalfe especially have benefited plenty from the change as they can now attack without worrying about holding the fort.
That’s why Mombaerts can name a side without a traditional defensive midfielder, as his fullbacks tend to operate in that space if the team are caught in transition. At Sydney FC Brillante would typically stay back for that reason, but he’s been surprisingly effective in the final third, even assisting a goal in their high-scoring loss to Brisbane.
Although there’s plenty more to Melbourne City than just playing with inverted fullbacks, Mombaerts has clearly reinvigorated the team, and if they continue to confuse opponents with new innovations, they could be leading the table for a much longer time.