Sunday, 13 October 2013

11 points on Victory 0-0 Heart

Honours even at the Etihad Stadium, after a fairly tentative game between the two Melbourne rivals. Billed as the return of 'turncoat'/'saviour' Harry Kewell, it was instead Postecoglou's Victory which provided the more tactical interest.

Heart's overarching strategy was fairly transparent - Aloisi set out his charges in a 4-2-1-3 to absorb pressure, and then hit back on the counter, using the pace of Williams, Mebrahtu and Dugandzic, to latch onto through balls sent into space by Kewell. 

Kewell, presented with the No. 10 shirt, was explicitly deployed in a trequartista role, with a remit to supply the forward trio. Though this is a job he would not be unfamiliar with, it is also one he has never been consistently charged with before. At Leeds, Liverpool and Galatasaray he was exclusively used as a left sided attacker, as a second striker at Victory, and as a primary striker at the Asian Cup, his last most consistent period in the national team. 

Hoffman was somewhat of a liability at fullback, but Victory were never able to capitalise on his sporadic lapses. 

Generally speaking, Heart were unable to implement their counter-attacking strategy effectively. The first ball out of the defence was often wayward - a damning indictment of the Red and White centre backs and midfield pivot. Kewell was never able to find enough space to launch attacks, partially due the presence of Broxham. And the three forwards exhibited poor decision-making in the final third, with wayward passes and dallying on the ball. 

To rectify this bluntness in attack, Aloisi might either persevere and hope cohesion comes in time, introduce a static target man to hold up the ball and lay off to the wide forwards, or push Kewell into the forward trio, either inverted on the right or as a striker using his experience to hold up the ball for midfield runners. Williams and Dugandzic have displayed intelligence in their positioning in the past, so only the role of Mebrahtu is in question. 

Victory's formation by contrast was highly idiosyncratic. Pre-match graphics depicted a vanilla 4-4-2 but the reality of Postecoglou's system was unusual. It was almost a South-American 4-2-2-2, but with a striker on the wing and a midfielder often taking up the highest position. 

Pain was stationed wide on the left and given orders to cut inside and dribble at make-shift fullback Hoffman (delivering a reasonable Cristiano Ronaldo impression - or if you like, Aiden McGeady/Andre Schurrle). 

Archie Thompson was stationed very wide on the right flank - he consciously positioned himself on the outside of Heart leftback Behich during phases of play, and rarely ventured inside, but neither did he motor for the by-line and deliver crosses. Postecoglou was seemingly wary of Victory playing too narrowly with Pain inverted, and utilised Thompson to stretch the play. 

Troisi too was strangely utilised. A player possessing a reputation for versatility, it was hard to define his exact role. Usually taking up an inside left position, he was not advanced enough against the opposition centre backs to be considered a striker, nor wide enough to be considered an auxiliary winger. 

Mitch Nichols role was perhaps the most fluid of the four Victory attackers. Nichols of course, established his reputation under Postecoglou at Brisbane. In the wake of Matt McKay's departure, Nichols carved out a place for himself at the head of the Roar's midfield triangle; in the Barcelona metaphor, Nichols was roughly analogous to Andreas Iniesta. In this match though, Nichols was given something close to a free role - whereas in Orange he would burst forward from midfield, in Navy Blue, he had license to float all over the final third. Strangely, considering his positional history, he seemed reluctant to involve himself in the midfield pell-mell. Nichols in fact spent the majority of the match as the furthest forward attacker, in advance of Troisi, Pain and even nominal striker Thompson. It could be argued that Postecoglou was attempting to deploy Nichols as a false nine, but the implementation was neither definitive nor particularly effective. A more conventional line-up, with Troisi at right wing, Thompson performing in his regular No. 9 role, with Nichols in the hole as  No. 10, might have been more effective. The Heart centreback partnership was particularly disciplined in dealing with Nichols, holding their position instead of being drawn upfield. Van't Schip brilliantly deployed Alex Terra as a false nine to devastating effect against Victory; Heart weren't caught out in turnabout. 

Victory weren't necessarily playing with fluidity in possession; it was more a case of players swapping positions between phases of play, and imbuing that position with a different flavour depending on their abilities and experience. 

All in all, Victory depart this match with more questions that answers. Nichols was their brightest performer on the night, but Postecoglou is seemingly uncertain of how best to deploy him. Aloisi on the other hand faces a straightforward to-do list; having settled on a counter-attacking style of play, it is now about fine-tuning the forward line for maximum effectiveness. To go on a brief tangent, it is a little sad to see Heart abandon the Dutch influence of ball retention instilled by van't Schip in the club's foundation season. The two Melbourne sides have essentially exchanged position on the stylistic divide of football. 

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