On Friday night the third and final Melbourne derby was played out, with the game ending 2-1 to Melbourne City.
Melbourne City may sit second in the A-League, but they have fallen far from their early-season form.
After losing their last two games to arguably their two biggest rivals this season, with one sharing the stadium and the other being the only team ahead of them in the league, people are starting to question City’s winning mentality when it comes to big situations.
But a big reason they didn’t win those games is that they haven’t been able to get star striker Jamie Maclaren into the game. Maclaren has scored 45 per cent of Melbourne City’s goals, with an astonishing ten goals in just eight games.
But before we can talk about how Jamie Maclaren can get involved in the game, I’m going to set the scene of the previous two games.
The Melbourne derby
What an occasion it was. Melbourne Victory were clear underdogs and Melbourne City had the chance to finally stamp their dominance on the city. On top of that, Sydney FC’s draw earlier that day against Wellington Phoenix gave them the perfect chance to close the gap – if they had won, it would have been a measly three points to separate the sides.
However, City froze and never really looked dangerous going forward and struggled to control the game. The final score was 2-1, but it could have been more for Victory, with Andrew Nabbout spurning countless opportunities to put his side further ahead.
City could not find Jamie Maclaren in good areas and he lost interest in the game, not managing to even come close to troubling goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas throughout the game.
Top of the table clash
The game was set up perfectly for City. After taking the lead via a strong Connor Metcalfe header in the 22nd minute, Rhyan Grant then lunged in on Nathaniel Atkinson in a potential leg-breaking challenge. The referee gave the on-field call of a yellow card but changed it to a red after instructions from VAR.
Now 1-0 up with an extra man in the 25th minute, things had fallen perfectly into Melbourne City’s hands. However, a scramble in the box allowed Adam Le Fondre to equalise and the Sky Blues went on to stunningly grab all three points via a Kosta Barbarouses trademark goal.
Yet again Maclaren wasn’t visible during the game and wasn’t able to make his trademark runs in behind the defence.
But why has he been put out of the past two games?
Problem: the lack of service to Jamie Maclaren
Jamie Maclaren is one of the best, if not the best, marksman in the A-League. Despite not scoring in his past two games, he has still scored a ridiculous ten goals in just eight appearances. But he does have weaknesses.
He struggles to get touches on the ball against low lines of defences as he always looks to make runs in behind. However, three of the four teams that have beat Melbourne City in the A-League this year all played with low lines of defence, those being Perth Glory, Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC. This left a considerable gap between the midfield and defence line, but Maclaren couldn’t utilise that gap to his advantage.
Unlike other strikers, such as Adam Le Fondre or Ola Toivonen, he doesn’t feel comfortable running at his marker from central positions as he struggles to create spaces and find a forward pass.
With Toivonen it’s because he lacks pace and makes up for it in different ways – he is tactically very intelligent, and Marco Kurz has set up Melbourne Victory so that when Toivonen has the ball the wingers make aggressive runs around the fullbacks in behind.
But with Le Fondre it’s because when he gets the ball in a central position he always has another striker who makes a run. He can play that ball, but if he doesn’t, the run creates space for him to run into.
Since Maclaren is the only striker in the formation, one of the centre-backs simply meets him and jockeys while the two full-backs and the other centre-back form a backline of three.
But what if a change of formation allowed Maclaren to create these spaces, meaning he became comfortable against lower lines of defences?
Solution: change of formation
Instead of playing a 4-2-3-1 Erick Mombaerts could change his formation to a 4-4-2. It would be similar to what City played against Newcastle Jets last December, when Adrian Luna was pushed up to almost be alongside Maclaren in what almost became a 4-4-2.
In this formation and team Adrian Luna would become the most important player. He would be in charge of the midfield playmaking responsibilities, but first and foremost his job would be to create spaces for Jamie Maclaren and confuse opposing defences. This would mean when a defence plays a low line that he would push to make runs in behind when Maclaren gets the ball, forcing the centre-backs to drop, giving Maclaren space to work towards. He would then drop at the last second, meaning he would gather the ball hopefully near the edge of the box.
This would mean Maclaren could continue his run, finally getting in behind of the defence. Luna could either play the one-two, or if that wasn’t on, either shoot or hold up the ball while other players arrive.
But against low defensive lines Luna could also pick up the ball in between the defence and midfield of the opposing team and has the quality to play Maclaren in behind should the pass be on.
Melbourne City has developed clever tactics in defence and midfield, but their midfield to Maclaren combo just isn’t clicking at the moment.
Next up they will be facing Western United, a team with another deep defence, and this would be the perfect time to execute a change of formation to allow Maclaren to bounce off someone the way Le Fondre did last year with Alex Brosque and does this year to some extent with Kosta Barbarouses.
But is it possible for Melbourne City to get Jamie Maclaren firing again?