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Cellar dwellers to top of the table: Dissecting Melbourne Victory's season so far

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Roar Rookie
11th January, 2022
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We’ve reached the first ad-filled drinks break on Melbourne Victory’s 2021-22 campaign, a quarter of the way through what promises to be a much improved season for the four-time A-League Men champions.

After back-to-back seasons of disappointment, finishing tenth and dead last respectively, the Victory sit on top of the league after playing seven matches. Admittedly a number of other clubs have played fewer games, but Tony Popovic’s side has had an extremely bright start to a new era at the club. You can also throw in four more wins in the FFA Cup to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 2016-17.

I’ll touch on that extraordinary Cup run later, but to start let’s take a look at the A-League Men action.

Victory have won four, drawn two and lost one match. The squad’s depth has been tested, and so far they’re passing with flying colours. They’ve fielded 21 players in total thus far, including 17 different starters, and are yet to field their strongest 11.

This is an almost entirely new team compared to last season, with Popovic’s strategy being out with the old and in with the new, and he’s added a Perth Glory flavour to his Victory side. A total of five former Glory players have signed with the club – Jason Davidson, Chris Ikonomidis, Matthew Spiranovic, Jason Geria, Nick D’Agostino – joining Jake Brimmer, who also had a stint in Perth under Popovic.

(Photo by Mackenzie Sweetnam/Getty Images)

It’s been a return to old ways for the Victory. They’re playing a game style that may not completely resemble the days when Kevin Muscat was at the helm, but it does serve as a little reminder. They’ve got their passion back, finding ways to grind out results with that dogged spirit we were so used to seeing before the past couple of seasons. They lead the league in tackles convincingly and are scoring freely, with 12 goals in seven matches, something Muscat’s Victory did plenty of.

Despite being the league leaders, they haven’t bossed the matches they’ve played. In fact Victory are averaging only 46 per cent possession and 13 shots per match, per FBref.com. They also sit ninth in terms of shots on target per match. They do, however, lead the way in goals per shot and goals per shot on target in the league, so the Victory are finding ways to score from good chances.

Victory have beaten Western United twice this season, a team that have otherwise won every other league match they’ve played. Their other wins were over Adelaide in a fiery Original Rivalry and Brisbane in a clinical 3-0 performance. Their only loss, to Perth, was significantly affected by a red card to Rai Marchan in the shadows of halftime. The score was nil-all at that stage and Victory went onto lose 3-0.

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The Melbourne derby was a spectacle for Australian football, the 2-2 draw played in front of almost 20,000 fans the highlight of the A-League Men season so far.

Last Saturday night was a big missed opportunity against Adelaide at home, Victory conceding a stoppage-time equaliser and uncharacteristically wasting chances to put the game away before then. They were, however, missing several starting players for that match.

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Let’s take a look through the Victory side.

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In goal, Ivan Kelava has made a big impact to start his Victory career. The fans adore him and he adores the fans. There have been question marks on his ability, but I think the big Croatian has been okay, making some good reflexive saves. His distribution hasn’t been great, and you get a little worried on set pieces, but his positives outweigh his negatives. Interestingly he’s yet to concede a goal in a first half all season.

The Victory back four are much improved compared to last season, which doesn’t say too much considering they conceded 60 goals in 2020-21, but it has been a big step up.

There was the thought that Popovic would play a back five with two wing backs as he has previously in the league with Perth, but the back four has worked well for Victory. Roderick Miranda looks a fantastic addition in the centre back position, winning duels and playing out from the back with composure and class. He’s made only one noticeable mistake the whole campaign, an air swing that led to a goal against Western United in Round 6, but he’s also scored a winning goal against the same opposition in the season opener, so the former Wolves defender has won me over.

Matthew Spiranovic has made a welcome return to football, playing a few league games despite some recurring injury troubles. Leigh Broxham and Brendan Hamill have also filled in at centre back, showcasing Victory’s depth.

Jason Geria has held down the right-back position all season, while Jason Davidson has been brilliant in left-back despite some injury troubles and also serving a red card suspension. Stefan Nigro is there as a fullback replacement, so too Leigh Broxham and Jay Barnett filled the left-back role well against Adelaide on Saturday night after the Victory were depleted due to injuries and COVID protocols.

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The midfield has been very solid, and Jake Brimmer has most impressed me. He’s been the standout in Victory’s resurgence to the top of the league. He was their best player last season, scoring five goals and picking up five assists, but in 2021-22 he’s gone to another level.

Brimmer runs Victory’s midfield and is the perfect link from their two defensively minded midfielders, Josh Brillante and Rai Marchan, to the front three. He also loves a set piece, finding three assists from a dead-ball situation already this season. The Victory players look to get him on the ball when they build attacks, and more often than not he delivers for them.

Brimmer would leave significant hole if he weren’t in the side, but otherwise the Victory have handy replacements all over the park. Broxham can also play Mr Fix-It in that central defensive midfielder role if required, but Brillante and Marchan have been ultra-impressive.

The front three have been riddled with injuries and changes, yet despite the instability they’ve managed to score goals and get results. Victory’s biggest signing in Chris Ikonomidis hasn’t had the start to the season he’d hoped for, starting in only two matches. Marco Rojas has looked good when he’s been on the park, picking up four assists, but he’s averaging only 47 minutes in the six games he’s played.

Ben Folami, probably the third player in line in terms of wingers behind Rojas and Ikonomidis, has been the most consistent contributor out of the three for Victory. He has only one goal contribution for the season, a terrific header against the Roar in Round 2, but his attacking flair and willingness to take players on has been fantastic to watch. He is very strong on the ball and can whip in some brilliant crosses that so far haven’t been rewarded as yet.

Francesco Margiotta and Nick D’Agostino have been very serviceable strikers, scoring six goals between them in seven matches. Margiotta is class on the ball and has a wider passing range than D’Agostino, whose strengths lie more in his pace on the counterattack and making smart runs in behind.

In addition, Nishan Velupillay has been a find on the wing for Victory and will cause problems for opposition sides off the bench. And then there’s still Robbie Kruse, who’s averaging only 15 minutes a game in the six he’s played. Clearly he’s no longer a starter, but he’s more than handy to have as a substitute.

Nick D'Agostino

Nick D’Agostino (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

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There have been plenty more players to get a run in the FFA Cup games, and it’s quite remarkable that Victory are still alive. They firstly had to play a qualifier just to make it into the competition, and that game was delayed so much due to COVID restrictions at the time there were calls they should forfeit the match if they couldn’t play. Once the match against Perth was finally played, Victory won on penalties 4-3.

They then beat Adelaide City with a 96th-minute penalty winner in the Round of 32 and defeated the Gold Coast Knights 2-1 in the Round of 16 after an extra-time winner.

Then with a win over Adelaide United in the quarter-finals, another tough 2-1 away win from behind, somehow Victory are into the semi-finals. They’ll play the Phoenix at home, originally meant to be this week, but with COVID cases running through the Wellington camp that fixture will be delayed.

It’s a lot to take in with the season only just getting started, and there’s plenty more to look forward to for Melbourne Victory fans. Hopefully COVID doesn’t ruin what seems to be a fascinating A-League Men season.

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