Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Melbourne Heart 2011-12 Season Preview

2010 witnessed the birth of what could grow to become one of the fiercest rivalries in Australian sport, with the inception of Melbourne Heart to the A-League. The inaugural Melbourne Derby saw the unfancied Heart emerge triumphant against the more established Victory, and the baptism of fire of fierce young fullback, Aziz Behich. The latest meeting between the two clubs heralded an ignominious end to the illustrious career of Victory captain Kevin Muscat, with his horrifying mauling of electric Heart winger, Adrian Zahra.

To differentiate themselves from their navy blue counterparts, Heart waged a concerted campaign with emphasis on two aspects; a community oriented approach and European sensibilities. While claims of closer ties to grass roots football are hard to quantify, a style infused with possession based and expansive football is there for the red half of Melbourne to enjoy.

It's fair to say that most of the media felt, given the quality of Heart's roster on paper, that van't Schip underachieved in failing to reach the finals last year. But it's important to remember the constraints they operated under; the full playing group was only together for 2 weeks prior to the season and it showed; the squad only won its first game in Round 5 and started to gel around Round 10. van't Schip was never able to deploy his strongest XI; Aloisi, Sibon, Skoko and Terra spent more time on the time on the treatment table than on the pitch.

Ajax legend John van't Schip faces a vastly different challenge in the club's second season; the retirements of Aloisi, Skoko and Sibon, and the departures of Beauchamp and Heffernan, mean the Heart have probably set a record for the youngest club to ever undergo a major re-building of the playing roster. These senior and experienced professionals have been replaced by young, vibrant, and above all, versatile attackers. Fred and Mate Dugandzic, erstwhile of Victory, David Williams of the defunct Fury, and Maycon and Germano of South America. Fred can be easily categorised as an orthodox trequartista, but the others are able to play anywhere in an attacking trio. Heart has recruited well in the off-season; while they did not bring in a marquee name, their signings have been focused, as opposed to the seemingly haphazard approch of their deby rivals.

Matt Thompson
van't Schip will probably set out the Heart in an expansive 4-2-1-3, with Fred pulling the strings behind an attacking trio. Two decisions he made early in his tenure at Heart are particularly illustrative of his tactical philosophy, which is influenced heavily by Ajax. The first was replacing experienced leftback Heffernan with the then young and promising left winger, Aziz Behich. van't Schips 4-3-3 prescribes the wide forwards cut-in to support the lone striker; hence the width in the formation is provided by the fullbacks advancing. Dropping a nominal winger into the leftback berth ensures attacking verve, speed and crossing ability. The second was prioritising assured attacking midfielder Matt Thompson in central defence, over the two stalwart presences of Simon Colosimo and Michael Beauchamp. The latter has already departed in search of game time, and the former has been stripped of the captaincy and looks set to leave. van't Schips preferred brand of possession football requires reliable and accurate passing out the back, which using a nominal central midfielder the heart of defence ensures. The use of Behich at leftback and Thompson in central defence bears similarities to Arsene Wenger's conversion of Ashley Cole, then a promising left winger, and Pep Guardiola's use of Mascherano or Busquets in the backline, both nominally defensive midfielders.

If Colosimo does indeed leave, apart from the obvious emotional fallout, it does leave Heart's backline looking frail and lacking in defensive bite. Simon was fierce at the back, compensating for the occassional lapse by Behich or Thompson, and whatever his personal issues with the manager, he was an inspiring leader.

Danger Men: van't Schip seems to be looking to Fred to be the heart of Heart. The potential partnership to be formed between him and Terra looks particularly appetising; Terra dropping deep or pulling wide, Fred bursting forth to exploit space, a la Messi and Fabregas. In Behich and Marrone, van't Schip can lay claim to the best pair of fullbacks in the league; only Rose and Franjic are arguably superior. But I think David Williams will become the emerging star in Melbourne. Pacy, aggressive and with an eye for goal, I expect his diagonal runs from right to meet plenty of Fred's slide-rule through balls.

LATER ADDITION: There have been conflicting reports as to what is Jonathan Germano's preferred position. A few weeks ago, PM was under the impression it was in central midfield, but there has been recent conjecture that he is a winger. It's probably more likely he plays as a CM, given he was van't Schip's last signing, and he had already brought in 4 attacking players.  

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