Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A Tale of Victory: From London to Melbourne

It is the 22nd of October. Mehmet Durakovic and his Melbourne Victory squad welcome derby rivals Melbourne Heart to Etihad Stadium. The home team are fortunate to escape with a draw against the rampant Red and Whites.

A week later and it’s now the 29th of October. Arsene Wenger’s stuttering Arsenal visit Andre Villas Boas and his Chelsea squad at Stamford Bridge. A goal fest of epic proportions ensues, which results in a Van Persie hat-trick and a 5-3 loss to the Blues.

What could these two clubs, Melbourne Victory and Chelsea FC, nearly 17,000 km, hundreds of millions of pounds and a whole other English dialect apart, have in common?

Actually, quite a lot. At the basic level, both clubs don the colour blue. That’s hardly in the realms of impossibility. Try this on for size; both clubs have recently replaced managers. Again, not an uncommon occurrence in the cut throat world of football. Okay, how about this one? Both clubs have struggled recently, due to new managers attempting to transform the predominant style of play from reactive, counter-attacking football to a pro-active, possession oriented style. Well that’s hit the nail right on the head.

There are startling similarities between the situations of both Chelsea and Victory, who experienced unprecedented dominance and success under enormously influential managers, but have experienced somewhat leaner prospects in recent times.
The Special One
There are always two - a master and an apprentice:
If anyone needs reminding, Jose Mourinho was the most successful manager in Chelsea’s recent history. Mourinho won the Premier League title twice, a Community Shield, an FA Cup and two League Cups in the space of 2004-2007. Chelsea’s wealthy patron, Roman Abromavich, sacked Mourinho for failing to deliver the ultimate prize, the European Cup, and for failing to implement a positive and attractive style of play.

After a number of years, and countless pretenders, Abromavich has turned to Mourinho’s former protégé, Andre Villas Boas, to deliver on continental glory and beautiful football.

There are many similarities between Jose Mourinho and his erstwhile subordinate Villas Boas. To start with, both are quite young and Portuguese. They have worked side-by-side at some of the most prestigious clubs in world football; Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. They were both pupils of Sir Bobby Robson. Both are devoted to detailed, disciplined and manic preparation.  And clearly, both have spent one too many evenings taking notes from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (I mean the first season was alright, but afterwards it became way too formulaic).

But in terms of their football philosophies, the two innovators could not be further apart. Mourinho is the foremost practitioner of the reactive school of football. His incredible managerial triumphs were built on a foundation of a direct, physical and counter-attacking style. Do not misunderstand; Mourinho’s teams were never about thumping the ball long or assault masquerading as sport. But generally speaking, Mourinho’s preferred style was defensive; he sought to sit his team deep, break with pace and aggression, hitting his opponents on the counter attack. One of his most famous triumphs, for contemporary audiences enraptured by the pretty patterns of Catalonia’s midfield, was his Champions League semi-final victory over Barcelona. The second leg in particular is regarded as the best display of defensive football since the turn of the century.

In other words, Mourinho stood in stark, defiant contrast to managers like Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger and their philosophies of possession football. Indeed after that famous triumph, Mourinho remarked of Inter Milan’s performance; “I wanted to keep our defensive shape, so I let Barcelona have the ball”. A sentiment in direct antithesis to the creeds of Ajax, Arsenal and Barcelona, where possession of the ball is to be treasured and jealously guarded, not spurned so petulantly.
The Group One
Andre Villas Boas, despite spending the better part of a decade learning at Mourinho’s knee, is actually a disciple of Guardiola. Villas Boas believes in pro-active football, savouring possession and passing the opposition to defeat. For Villas Boas, to control the ball is to control the game.

The modern incarnation of ‘total football’ has been revolutionised by Guardiola and Barcelona. Intricate passing angles, thoughtful rhythms and the magnificence of creation has been married to iron discipline and physical determination. As Pep himself said, “I know we are a horrible team without the ball. Therefore, I instruct my players to get it back immediately”. Simply put; pressing. Win the ball back higher up the pitch, and the opposition is prevented from constructing attacks. Win the ball back faster, and there is no need to reset defensive lines. The team that imposes command of the ball has already won.

Pressing negates sitting deep as to press is to advance and apply pressure. But the whole formation must follow suit or the press is worthless. The forwards must press the opposition defenders. The midfielders must press their counterparts. And the defenders must press the opposition forwards, lest a player be left free to expose the formation. The necessity to keep the formation compact, dictates that the back-line must come high, leaving space behind that could be exploited. The security of the press therefore is underpinned by two notions; the retention of possession and the immediate pressure in the event possession is lost. Should the opposition win possession, and escape the press, there is no other protection. That is the dichotomy of Guardiola’s philosophy.

Mourinho believes the ball itself, or possession, is secondary. For Jose, space is the primary consideration. Command your defensive half, allow the opposition to keep possession. Let them pass themselves to death if they wish, but control the territory, and  the opposition can never threatan his goal. And they will make mistakes - to be human is to err after all. Pounce on the mistakes, evade the press with pace and exploit the space behind. For Mourinho, possession should not be the aim; it is a means to an end. And the end is to win.
The Silent One
From Portugal to England, from Scotland to Australia:
Just as there are similarities between Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas Boas, so too are their similarities between the Galacticos boss, and the former foundation manager of Melbourne Victory, Ernie Merrick. But while the commonalities for the former tend to be superficial, for the latter, they are substantative. Again, don’t misunderstand. Mourinho is a managerial genius, while poor Mr Merrick is spurned by the Victory fans, whose success was masterminded by the infamously stoic Scotsman. Both shared the letter ‘M’ as the first of their surnames. Both found their greatest successes outside of their homelands. And while Merrick was never known as a clothes horse, what he shared with Jose was a dedication to reactive, counter-attacking football and the opportunity to wield enormous, formative influence at their respective clubs.  

Mourinho inherited much of his Chelsea squad, but in a very real way, he built these players all by himself; John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Petr Cech, Didier Drogba, and in earlier years, Ricardo Carvalho, Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Claude Makele. Even now, in the new decade, Mourinho’s influence at Chelsea FC runs deep. His players have formed the foundation of every Chelsea triumph since the start of his reign, and every Chelsea triumph since his departure. But moreover, Mourinho’s direct, counter-attacking style has proven impossible to eradicate, despite the best efforts of Scolari, Grant, Hiddink and Ancelloti, all of whom found the task of transforming Chelsea’s style into pro-active, possession based football beyond them.

Merrick was in a very different, yet similar situation. The A-League had just been founded, and he had been given responsibility for building the squad for the then sole Melbourne club, the sports capital of Australia. Like Mourinho, Merrick’s preferred philosophy was of direct and counter-attacking play, prioritising shape and controlling space over possession. Like Mourinho, Merrick trusted to the principles of pace and physicality, and so he built his squad accordingly; Archie Thompson, Danny Allsopp, Grant Brebner, Fred first and then Carlos Hernandez after, and of course the brooding, fiercely aggressive, volatile and inspirational presence of Kevin Muscat.

Merrick’s preferred system alternated between a four and five-man backline, but in his heyday, featured Muscat as a sweeper, initiating the counter-attack, Fred/Hernandez as the trequartista laying on through balls, and Allsopp and Thompson in a target man/quick man strike partnership. Under Merrick, Victory always played on the counter, becoming the most lethal exponents of the art of springing an opposition backline. If you can remember back 30-something games, the last time Ange Postecoglou’s rampant Brisbane experienced a defeat was a 3-0 loss to Merrick’s counter-attacking Navy Blues. Perhaps that was Brisbane’s “semi-final defeat” which spurned them onto even greater feats.

That then, was Merrick’s system. Sit deep, absorb pressure, pounce on a mistake, break with pace. Reactive football certainly, but also wildly successful. Just as honours fell into Mourinho’s lap in his three seasons in English football, Merrick also won two league and championship Doubles, missing out on a third to a penalty shoot-out. Was that Merrick’s ‘Moscow’ moment, the failure to cement the final triumph which would have rendered his authority unimpeachable?
The New One
All good things must come to an end:
In another parallel, both Mourinho and Merrick were sacked in questionable circumstances. Ultimately the two managers failed to deliver continental glory and attractive football; they were punished for it, despite presiding over un-paralleled domestic domination.

Both managers were ultimately succeeded by former colleagues and subordinates. Chelsea went through an exhaustive list of managers before recently settling on Jose’s former opposition scout, while the Victory board, after examining a burgeoning list of applicants, settled on their former youth coach, Mehmet Durakovic.

Again, it is not uncommon for former subordinates to replace their fallen superiors, but in this case, the newer men both held radically different philosophies to their former mentors. As noted above, Villas Boas is an exponent of pro-active, possession football, in contrast to Mourinho’s preference for a counter-attacking, reactive style. Similarly, Durakovic is clearly a man who professes a preference to control the ball, while his predecessor Merrick was a manager who eschewed possession for defensive shape.

This brings us full circle, to the events of the past fortnight. Chelsea had recently suffered a 5-3 loss to London rivals Arsenal, who used the pace of their forwards Gervinho and Walcott, to expose Chelsea’s high backline populated by older and slower defenders. Melbourne Victory were fortunate in the extreme to escape their derby again Heart with a draw, with the sheer speed of Williams and Dugandzic causing problems for the Navy Blues high line.

The Visionary
Why have Chelsea and Victory struggled to adapt to new managers?
Villas Boas was hired on the basis of rejuvenating Chelsea’s ageing squad and transforming the predominant style of play from reactive and counter-attacking to pro-active and possession based. His current squad is reliant on his predecessor’s players, who have 
undeniably aged . The fundamental reason for the recent struggles of both clubs, is that the playing philosophies of the new managers represent radical departures from what the squad, largely unchanged, are accustomed or even suited to.

For Chelsea, the change in emphasis has manifested in increased pressing and playing a higher line. The problem is Chelsea’s backline against Arsenal, made up of experienced stalwart players such as Terry, Ivanovic, Cole and Bosingwa, was exposed for lack of pace.

A similiar phenomenon is being experienced at Melbourne Victory. Vargas and Leijer, the central defensive pairing, are still adjusting to playing a high line. Where before they would sit deep and defend, now they must come high and close down.

But for the Blues of Melbourne, the issue is much more complicated. The failure to replace Kevin Muscat, and his distribution out of the backline, could by itself prove disastrous to their prospects of a title challenge. But that problem is nothing to the total absence of passing ability in midfield. 
Due to that change from Merrick's preferred brand of counter-attacking/reactive football to Durakovic's attempts at implementing a controlling possession/pro-active style, the lack of a passing midfielder at Victory has become ludicrously exposed. Under Merrick, when the Victory played on the counter, the emphasis wasn't on passing; it was on speed and physicality. Under Durakovic, with an increased focus on building attacks, the emphasis on passing is much increased; indeed Durakovic is trying to make passing the central feature of his side.

How can the Victory implement a possession based style if they lack the sort of player in central midfield comfortable with or indeed even capable of retaining possession? The spine of the squad Merrick built, and the spine of the squad inherited by Durakovic are largely the same; to change the style of play so radically requires a thorough clean out, which has yet to happen.

For the Victory to be successful in the short term, will require Durakovic to revert to counter-attacking football. The best players in his squad are pacey dribblers, not dynamic midfield creators or passers like Karol Kisel at Sydney or Liam Miller at Perth. To continue to misuse the players at his disposal will almost certainly result in disaster.

On the other hand, with the advent of Ange Postecoglou's Oranje Revolution at Brisbane, it has become clear that Australian football is rapidly modernising and leaning towards possession play. Victory need to eventually change in order to avoid being left behind by the likes of cross-town rivals Melbourne Heart.

But to facilitate this will require an almost total rebuild of an ageing squad. The key players for the Navy Blues are in their early 30's, and clearly the pace which brought Victory so much success has gradually ebbed away. Does Durakovic, a manager lacking in experience, possess the right temperament, knowledge and instincts to direct this period of transition? Honestly, It remains to be seen.

Just to emphasise the uncanny parallel between the two clubs’ situations; Chelsea and the Victory have recently made two trophy signings over the summer; creative left wingers from overseas in Juan Mata and Harry Kewell, and pacey finishers from a domestic rival which has created an uncomfortable surfeit of strikers, in Fernando Torres and Jean Carlos Solorzano, who are crowding out Didier Drogba and Nicholas Anelka and Danny Allsopp and Archie Thompson. Again, Allsopp and Drogba can be broadly classed as physical target men, while Thompson and Anelka can be described as fairly versatile and speedy forwards.

There are some Australian pundits who would have you believe that the battle for football’s soul is being waged between the long ball and the short ball. They wave the term like a red flag, to stir up misplaced indignation, appealing to our baser emotions. In truth, the three-pass theories of Mr Charles Reep were discredited a long time ago. The ideological war in football is delineated along a different, more subtle, and indeed overlapping divide; between possession and shape, between reactive and pro-active, between Josep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, and perhaps for Australia, between the ascendant Ange Postecoglou and the departed Ernie Merrick.

Do you have any idea how long it took to find a picture of Merrick in a suit?


Hamish Alcorn said...

That was fantastic.

They pay people to write dribbling shit.

I hope someone will pay you to write football stories of this quality. Otherwise I'd fear that you won't do it for long.

Pass and Move said...

That's very generous of you Hamish, cheers.

On a related note, it IS a brilliant time to be a Roar fan.

Phillip said...

Phenomenal write up champ!

Being a Victory and Chelsea supporter, I initially laughed at the comparison. But the more I read through, the better it got.

Keep it up - this is my new favourite site :)

Anonymous said...

Brilliant article and fantastic read. I'll be coming back for more after that. Thank you.

Faithful said...

As usual PM - great analysis and a really great read!

My favourite football site at the minute.

Plus, you have catered to my two football loves - Chelsea & Victory.

Keep em coming!

CeeDee said...

My favourite football site too.
I feel a little torn....I support Victory and Arsenal. Still, this is better than Heart and Chelsea!

Keep up the good work.

Pass and Move said...

Thanks Philip for ploughing through until the comparison made sense. Appreciate your support, and help spread the word about Pass and Move

Pass and Move said...

Please do come back Anon, cheers for the support. PM's bread and butter is match analysis, so hopefully you can enjoy that just as much

Pass and Move said...

Cheers Faithful, thanks for banging on about PM on the victory forums, you've brought a lot of visitors with you and its appreciated. I would fear for Victory at this stage I'm sorry to say, could be a slaughter against Brisbane with that high line

Pass and Move said...

Thanks CeeDee, appreciate your support. Though I feel I should point out Heart are more like Arsenal than Victory :P. Cheers and help spread the word about PM

Phillip said...

Your welcome! I've Put it up on my Facebook also, so hopefully you can grab a few more visitors :)

What's your ideal Victory Lineup with the current team? How would you work the Victory midfield ?

Bela Guttman said...

A useful comparison. Another would be between Barcelona (or Brisbane locally) and Heart: Barcelona don't just control possession, they control possession and space - space through movement off the ball to either open space or occupy space. Heart control possession but don't seem to understand that possession without movement is futile if the goal is to win the game by scoring goals.

Pass and Move said...

Thanks Phillip.

Well if you've seen PM's Rd 4 Team of the Week, you'll know who's in my ideal midfield; Kisel and Miller, probably the best passing midfielders in the league. The issue with MVC isn't really the players. Broxham/Brebner/Celeski are far from atrocious. It's just that they are not the ideal midfielders for possession football. They are all more suited to defensive/destroyer roles. As I say above, MVC are finding it difficult to switch to pro-active play without passers in midfield. So for results short term, Mehm should switch to a counter-attacking game, which would mask their weakness in central midfield, and focus on MVC's strength, which are in the forward line.

Having said that, Moss/Faithful have suggested previously to use Hernandez as a passer. And I agree he has the skills, but perhaps not the temperament. Hernandez was never a hard runner/worker off the ball, and can be quite lazy.

In the long term, if MVC are to persist in trying to switch to possession oriented football, they need to recruit passers. Its as simple as that.

Pass and Move said...

Yes that's a good comparison Bela well spotted, and one PM has made before. Brisbane=Barca, Heart=Arsenal, especially with their defensive frailty

Faithful said...

Yeah - I'm scared to think of the potential damage Roar might inflict with our high line, and our lack of pace at the back.

Geez, really hoping I don't have to see a mirror image of an Arsenal breaking the lines against Chels, in our recent 5-3 thrashing.

But signs are looking ominous like you said. Eeeep!

Pass and Move said...

You'll be able to pick it in the first few minutes. If you see Vargas and Leijer push up....look away. Cheers Faithful. Have many of your mates read this piece?

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article! 10/10.

Great read, you're very knowledgeable and you explain it logically so that it makes sense. That last paragraph nails it right on the head.

"There are some Australian pundits who would have you believe that the battle for football’s soul is being waged between the long ball and the short ball. They wave the term like a red flag, to stir up misplaced indignation, appealing to our baser emotions. In truth, the three-pass theories of Mr Charles Reep were discredited a long time ago."

It's been really tiring hearing uneducated opinions from MV/Merrick/Scottish bashers over the last few years. Calling them hackers, "kick and run" tactics, long balls etc.

I tend to think of long balls as aimless balls that have kicked long to hope for the best (such as the main tactic in AFL), with no real thought into it, roll the dice and see what happens. Meanwhile the football displayed from Fred and Hernandez have been anything but. Skillful weighted passes and through balls on the counter attack have been very entertaining and successful for Victory fans over the Merrick years.

Good read and I look forward to future articles such as this one and post game analysis. I'm praying for Victory to avoid record breaking disaster such as displayed by Adelaide this weekend :(

JD said...

Great article, great read. Love seeing the further analysis of football in Australia. It's a real rarity so keep up the good work.

I'd just keep an eye out for typos etc. Being very harsh here but detracts a bit from the piece and your excellent thought and analysis when you spot a little typo that doesn't match up to it.

Superb blog though.
Mon Melbourne!

Pass and Move said...

Thanks Anon, appreciate your support. Personally speaking I disliked Merrick's style of play, but I always respected it's effectiveness. He was good at what he did - rapid and organised transition on the counter.

As to this weekend, if MVC play a high line, I'd look away. All the best.

Can I ask how you found out about this site?

Pass and Move said...

Cheers JD, appreciate your support. Can I ask how you found out about this site?

I'll try, but when you've just finished typing 2000+ words, the last thing you want to do is proof read. :)

Thanks again

FootballCore said...

Great article and I think if we cast our minds back to when Ange took over at Brisbane a lot of people were thinking what is he doing?

I'm not sure Melbourne will have the patience that was afforded Ange at Brisbane and I doubt that Mehm knows what players he needs to bring that type of football about.

A smart manager needs to play the system suited to the players, for me Melbourne don't really seem to have any idea what system they're playing, They are like Sheep without a shepherd... and could be led to slaughter at the weekend. Mutton anyone?

Pass and Move said...

Thanks for the comment FootballCore can I ask how you found this site?

You're right of course on every point. I'm inclined to think he's going to be afforded a lot of patience by the Board, because of the recent takeover. Time will tell.

Anonymous said...

Was Villas Bojas a youth team coach whose side came second last?

Pass and Move said...

Villas Boas used to work as Mourinho's opposition scout. He became quite famous because of a leaked dossier on Newcastle United which pretty much spelt out exactly how to beat them, from who to mark at set pieces, to which side to shove Michael Owen onto.

Anonymous said...

I guess alot of people at Melbourne are wondering how Mehmet got the job, considering his history. The belief is that his low salary offsets the team & subsequently Melbourne is paying for it (because blind Freddie can see we have the best squad in the league)

Pass and Move said...

Thanks for the comment Anon. It is a legitimate concern, to give the job to someone lacking in experience. Even Villas Boas, for all his youth, has several titles.

No offence meant, but I can't see too many departments of the squad where MVC hold a significant advantage over the rest of the league.

In GK: Covic's shot stopping is superb, but his distribution is wayward and slow.

In CB: Leijer's usually consistent but his form recently has been his best, even last season.

In FB: Rose and Behich are superior LB's, Franjic and Marrone and superior RB's

In CM: Brebner/Broxham/Celeski are all fairly defensive. Paartalu, Wehrman and Griffiths are better anchor men. Miller and Kisel are the best passing midfielders in the league.

In AM: Hernandez used to be the best, but has been nowhere near even his mediocre form. Carle and Broich are superior creative influences. And Sanchez seems better off the ball and will surely improve.

On the wings: Rojas has looked a very astute buy. But he is too young to have the burden of match-winning placed on his shoulders.

In ST: Van Dijk is a better target man that Allsopp, Berisha looks a faster quick man than Thompson, though the Blue No 10's quality is undoubted.

In all, MVC's best players are Kewell, Solorzano and Rojas. They're very good, but those 3 players alone don't justify the 'best squad' tag.

FootballCore said...

Pass and Move I found the site through twitter.

Anonymous said...

No offence either, but you have cherry picked players from different teams to justify Melb not having a great squad. If Melb was playing a best A-League XI every week then your argument would hold water.
Also, the three players you have picked as Melbourne's best have not performed up to a 'best' standard in the 4 games so far. My 3 would be Covic, Brebner (consistently under rated because he's a water carrier) & Thompson.
Furthermore, it is a stretch to label Allsopp a target man in the same vein as Van Dijk. Allsopp is alot more mobile & more willing to take players on (refer his season 2 semi-final goal against Adelaide where he took the ball from halfway & beat 4 players, as but one example).

Pass and Move said...

Yes you're right, my mistake. I took "best squad" to mean best player in every position, which is obviously not what you meant so sorry about that. I'm taking it now you mean "most well rounded" squad?

I still don't think MVC have the best overall squad either. That's obviously subjective, but I still think the MVC squad is top heavy, quality up front, not enough of it in central midfield and defence.

So yeah sorry about that, my argument was really faulty.

But c'mon, if Season 2 was the last time Allsopp took a player on instead of gormlessly waiting for an aerial ball, I think the shoe fits. And Brebner just isn't that good as a DM, relative to how other players are interpreting the position. To use my examples from above, Wehrman, Paartalu and Griffiths do the defensive job but also have a greater role in possession.


Shahanga said...

Just bothered to read this (hey, it was about Victory & Chelsea...). Nice work.
I don't support Victory so rarely watch their games (and unlike Brisbane they don't play in a manner that attracts me to view), but have recently seen a bit more of them, so having been giving their troubles some thought. It seemed to me that their signings looks like the sort that you might see proposed on a football forum. That is a bunch of quality players, but on closer examination they have virtually no common link and fit in with neither the manager's style nor the players who are already present. What do you think?
If I'm right it suggests that someone other than the manager has directed recruitment. (The alternative is the manager is so inept he doesn't know what his side needs). This combined with the strange sacking of Merrick and the short stay of "Frannie" suggests that the once best run club in the league has lost its way off the field. So the fans might scream for Mehmet's head but perhaps its the chairman who should quietly step aside?