A-League tipsters were thrown another curve ball over the weekend. This time around it was the 2019-20 elimination finals, where the higher placed teams were humbled in two entertaining and compelling fixtures.
This is my analysis of the Victory’s recent loss to Western United.
The unlikely setting of Bankwest Stadium was the venue for Grant Brebner’s Melbourne Victory coaching debut. He took on Mark Rudan’s Western United, who were hoping to complete the clean sweep against Victory in their first season. This was the first game either team had since the resumption of the A-League season, only getting out of quarantine on the day of the game.
With Melbourne Victory suffering from the losses of Ola Toivonen, Jakob Poulsen (who wasn’t really playing much anyway), Tim Hoogland and Lawrence Thomas, Grant Brebner had to make a few alterations. Andrew Nabbout led the line, with Birkan Kirdar, Marco Rojas and Elvis Kamsoba behind him in support. Adama Traore and Storm Roux played as fullbacks, Leigh Broxham and Migjen Basha played in midfield while Aaron Anderson made his debut in central defence next to James Donachie. The goal keeper was Matt Acton, deputising for the soon-to-depart Lawrence Thomas.
Mark Rudan also had a few departures, with Panagiotis Kone and Dario Jertec not returning, but was able to select the same starting XI as their previous game before suspension. Besart Berisha played up front with Max Burgess and Alessandro Diamanti flanking him, Connor Pain and Josh Risdon provided width from wing back and they had a strong central block of two central midfielders, Steven Lustica and Sebastian Pasquali and their three centrebacks; Tomoki Imai, Andrew Durante and Tomislav Uskok.
Western United’s attack: Find Diamanti and Burgess in between the lines
Melbourne Victory positioned themselves fairly high in a 4-1-3-2 shape, with Kirdar joining Nabbout on the front line, Broxham stepping up into the midfield, and Basha covering in between the lines. This structure aimed to prevent Western United from building from the centre, with central passing lanes cut out, and Lustica and Pasquali covered quite closely. Instead, Western United built up play by circulating the ball from side to side between their centrebacks and to the wing backs.
The goal of Western United’s build-up play was to find Diamanti and Burgess, who had free roles, and were given license to roam across the width of the pitch between the lines, and often coming short to disrupt Victory’s defensive scheme. To offset the narrowness from Diamanti and Burgess coming inside, the wing backs would push high up the pitch to provide width. They combined well with Diamanti and Burgess, and provided extra attacking thrust, often joining Berisha on the forward line or in the box.
This created some difficulties for Victory’s defensive cover. As the key dangermen, Diamanti and Burgess needed to be closed down whenever they came into dangerous positions. On the left, this often meant Donachie stepping out of the defensive line to close down Burgess and stop him from turning. This would leave a gap in the defence, so Basha would slot in behind him to cover the vacated space. On the outside, Pain would push up, meaning that Roux would have to track his run instead of helping out with Burgess.
The two Western United build-up targets are Diamanti and Burgess, with the Victory structure aiming to stop balls into them. The wing backs also push up to prevent the Victory fullbacks from double-teaming them.
This didn’t always work.
Burgess comes over to the inside left channel, dragging Basha with him, and when he receives the ball, Donachie steps up to challenge. The wing back Pain makes a diagonal run into the space vacated by Donachie, and receives the ball, leaving a two-versus-four situation at the back as Anderson and Traore have to shift over to cover. The ball is unfortunately delivered to the only spot where Traore can win the ball – a bit shorter and Berisha gets a free header, a bit longer and Risdon gets a free header, and a bit deeper and Diamanti receives the ball in space.
On the other side, Diamanti provided a different kind of a direct threat, preferring instead to drop deeper or peel out wide and then look inside for passing options. With Diamanti out wide on the right, the space could instead be found slightly more centrally, in the inside-right channel, with Risdon, Lustica and sometimes Imai popping up into space. Diamanti could also look centrally, playing crosses into the box or switch the play out to Pain on the opposite flank.
The third big threat was straight down the middle through Berisha, whose goal-scoring ability means that defences are often sucked in by his presence. He seemed a bit off the pace, and wasn’t able to threaten too much with his movement. Here’s an example of the threat he introduced.
While Berisha was offside in this instance, his direct run draws both centre backs. As the ball is played, Diamanti is ready to receive a knockdown while Burgess runs into the space opened up by the defence.
Surprisingly, despite their early dominance, they only managed to get two shots (one of which was a goal) in the first half – both of which came from a slow defensive response to creative set pieces.
Melbourne Victory’s attack: Counter and play direct
Western United defended in a shape resembling a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1. The reason it varied was mainly due to Diamanti, who at times would support Berisha in pressing the centre backs, but at other times, would drop slightly to help cover the flank. It looks like he has a bit of a free pass to not track back, which is fair – at 37 you’d much prefer him to conserve his energy for attacking, while it’s also be beneficial to have him further forward to help transition into attack after winning the ball back. This meant that at times there was space that could be found on the left hand side, where Diamanti might be expected to track back.
Western United coped with this by having Risdon push up high to support when they pressed, but otherwise the defensive coverage depended on the central midfielders shifting over to the right to cover. Additionally, because Victory didn’t have a striker who consistently stayed central, the centre backs (often Imai on the right) could come out of the defensive line to assist.
When Western United defended in a 5-3-2 shape, there was space available if he didn’t track back. The ball was unfortunately not played to Kirdar, who took up a great position to take advantage.
Victory, however, couldn’t take advantage of this. Their central midfielders were hesitant to push up (maybe scared of Diamanti and Burgess on the counter), while Rojas (stationed on the left) would attack more directly and found himself more often on the shoulder of the defence, looking to run in behind. He threatened for Victory’s best chance of the game in the sixth minute, making a run from Imai’s blind side to receive the ball in behind the defence.
Their main attacks were in this manner: long balls in behind for Nabbout, Rojas and Kamsoba, skipping the midfield altogether. While they were able to find these passes, they proved to be fairly ineffective – none of the Victory attackers could really compete for early crosses (especially against three centre backs), and they frequently had to wait for support, by which time the Western United defence could recover and stamp out attacks in numbers.
It was a pretty standard Victory attack in the third minute. Victory skipped playing through the midfield, and played the ball long for runners in behind. This only had limited success.
Second half: Melbourne Victory start positively but can’t break down Western United
Melbourne Victory attacked with greater impetus with the start of the second half. Brebner switched the positions of Kirdar (shifted to the left) and Rojas (into a central attacking midfielder role), and instructed his two central midfielders to get more involved in attacks by pushing further forwards, and for the first 15 minutes they looked threatening. They managed to overload the centre, which meant that they could play the ball intricately between themselves in the space just outside the box. With the wide players coming inside, the responsibility came to the fullbacks to provide width.
The 52nd minute showed an excellent example of their positive change after halftime.
As Victory attack down the right, they commit the two central midfielders over to the flank. Basha has moved forward to attack, and cleverly flicks the ball on to Rojas, who has a pocket of space vacated by the central midfielders sliding across. Nabbout makes a good run that pulls the defensive cover over with him, and Rojas gives the ball to Kirdar, who slots the ball into the overloading Traore (unmarked because of Diamanti as covered earlier). The cross ends up taking a deflection which takes it just slightly away from Rojas, who again made an excellently timed run.
Immediately after that piece of play, Kamsoba was withdrawn for the debutant Luis Lawrie-Lattanzio. He moved to the left, with Kirdar switching flanks to the right. He provided a more direct option, always looking to make a run into the box and provided a target for crosses from the right, but he too struggled to challenge the three centre backs. He had some decent movement off the ball, but his first few minutes included a couple of poor touches and passes, and it was this that led to the passage of play that resulted in the second Western United goal.
After the second goal, Western United defended deeper, which made it difficult for Victory to bring the ball forwards effectively. While their players could combine outside the box, they couldn’t find the penetrating pass through the crowded Western United defensive line. Even after Brebner injected some energy through substitutions, it looked like the game was petering out. Victory managed to get the goal from the quick corner, but that wasn’t enough to get Victory back into the game, as Western United slowed the pace of the game down. It was a bit surprising that Mark Rudan didn’t consult his bench to help manage the game, with players like Burgess and Pain looking fairly exhausted towards the end of the game.
Melbourne Victory’s attack: No penetration for chance creation
Victory’s problem continues to be their ability to penetrate defences. While Nabbout is an interesting player who likes to have a lot of freedom to do what he wants, at times it can imbalance the team. In this game, for example, he roamed from his position to help progress the ball, coming short to link play, running the channels, coming deep and turning to attack directly, and most obviously, shoot whenever he was afforded any space. That’s not necessarily a criticism of him – it’s just his natural game and style of play – and when it works, it works. In this game though, it didn’t. It meant that often nobody would be attacking the box aside from the 1.68-metre tall Rojas against three centre backs, who no longer had a striker to mark. Rojas would make runs with excellent timing, but it seemed that no Victory players really had the passing ability to thread the needle.
While Victory managed to get shots away, a telling stat was that out of the 11 shots that Victory took, six of them were from outside the box, while the shots from inside the box were not taken from particularly good positions or opportunities.
Melbourne Victory’s shot map shows shots were of low quality, with a total of six coming from outside the box.
Meanwhile, Western United’s shot map shows shots with significantly better positioning and quality.
It’s a bit unfair to be so harsh on a Victory attack that during this game was underpinned by youth and has also seen the loss of Ola Toivonen, but Victory has lacked fluency in the final third for most of the season.
Grant Brebner has a huge rebuilding job ahead of him for next season, and one of the first questions he must ask is whether he wants to base the team around Andrew Nabbout.