In recent weeks we have seen a more pragmatic approach from Melbourne Victory. Kevin Muscat has made some subtle yet noticeable tweaks to the side he inherited from Ange Postecoglou. Both wingers, who were previously able to ‘cheat’ defensively are now required to drop back into midfield without possession. Muscat has also tested out a new shape with a three man midfield, as opposed to the two in the 4-2-2-2 formation. But perhaps the biggest deviation yet is Victory’s sudden willingness to take fewer risks when playing out from the back.
In the last two Asian Champions League matches, against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Yokohama F. Marinos, this change is easily demonstrated by looking at the number of times goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas opted to distribute the ball long.
Against Jeonbuk last week Thomas had a pass completion rate of 63.9 per cent. This dropped further against Yokohama to 47.9 per cent. Those numbers are in stark contrast to the role Thomas was asked to perform in his two appearances under Postecoglou.
In his two appearances under Postecoglou, Thomas achieved a 92.3 per cent pass completion rate against Melbourne Heart and a 90.7 per cent against Brisbane Roar.
When Postecoglou arrived, Thomas was his first choice goalkeeper due to him being the more comfortable of the two keepers available at playing out from the back. His ability and willingness to do this fitted in with Postecoglou vision for Victory. By playing out from the back, the opposition were encouraged to press. In a sense, Victory used the ball as bait to draw the opposition forward. Once this was done, there was spaces in behind and Victory, through the vertical nature of their game, were able to release the wingers in behind.
This made it near essential for Victory to play out from the back, and in the two games under Postecoglou, Thomas only played the ball over halfway twice. Comparatively, under Muscat in the Champions League, Thomas has done so 30 times.
This change is not only evident in the Asian Champions League. In his three A-League appearances, Thomas has distributed the ball over halfway on 23 occasions.
Whereas it would have been rare sight to see the goalkeeper waving players forward and going long from a restart under Postecoglou, it has become a regular occurrence under Muscat.
Under Postecoglou, the matter of playing out from the back is a simple matter of risk and reward. Take the below example, from Postecoglou’s first game in charge (with Thomas in goals).
Here, despite having three opposition players in the box, Thomas played the ball short to Mark Milligan (who was also being pressured). Milligan, instead of playing ‘no risk’ football, bisected two Melbourne Heart defenders with a straight pass to Leigh Broxham. Broxham, under pressure from two Heart players, played it back to Milligan who dinked a pass to Archie Thompson.
By doing so, Victory was able to eliminate six Heart defenders with one pass. Thompson’s first touch then took out a seventh defender and allowed Victory to break into space.
The reward is simple: successfully play out and eliminate multiple opposition defenders whilst having space in behind them to attack into. As captain Milligan explains:
“We try to play a certain way, and we have a certain discipline to the way we do things. We like to bring teams to us, so that we can open them up in behind.”
But it was also risky. Should possession be lost (using this example) there are six opposition defenders in advanced positions ready to pounce.
For Postecoglou, the reward outweighed the risk. For Muscat, it appears he is less idealistic.
Perhaps taking the goals conceded against Sydney FC (x2), Melbourne Heart and Guangzhou Evergrande (and the subsequent media criticism) to heart, Muscat has decided that the risks are just too great to unwaveringly play out from the back.
His more pragmatic solution is minimise the risk and only play out where possible. When it is not on, Thomas has shown a clear tendency to wave his defenders forward and ‘pump it long’.
But just like playing out from the back is a matter of risk and reward, so is not playing out.
Considering that the average height of the starting forward line against Yokohama was 175cm, is the alternative of going long much better? Of the 23 ‘longer’ balls over halfway, only three found a Victory player. So in order to relieve the defensive pressure, Victory effectively turned over possession which invited more pressure onto them. Catch 22.
When asked on Fox Sports whether he had a ‘Plan B’, Muscat answered his ‘Plan B’ was to make ‘Plan A’ better. Postecoglou held that view and took it as a cue to improve how his side plays out from the back, making them more efficient and looking to reduce costly errors.
Has Muscat’s ‘Plan A’ changed? Has it now become about playing a lower risk style of play out from the back?
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