Twelve months ago in an interview with Simon Hill, Ange Postecoglou was asked whether his Melbourne Victory would play the same style of football as his extraordinarily successful Brisbane Roar:
“The game is constantly evolving, and although we’re not trying to copy Spain or Barca, we are going to try some different things in our system that will be good to watch. We have a responsibility at Victory to play attacking football, and we’ll do that. If we get it right, we’ll have a good shot at being successful, and people will see what we’re trying to do is a little bit different.”
The result was a rather effective interpretation of the modern “false nine” system with Marcos Flores and Gui Finkler (when fit), providing a highly entertaining partnership and dynamic forward play from Archie Thompson, and last season’s Johnny Warren medallist, Marco Rojas.
This season it seems Victory have already moved on, into a completely striker-less system. Some will try to give it a name, call it 4-2-2-2 or 4-2-4 or even 4-6-0, but thinking in terms of lines does not give it the justice it deserves. We were given a glimpse at how the new approach is progressing, when Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool came to town last Wednesday night. With five key players missing, Victory looked exciting and aesthetically pleasing to the football purist. There was small distances between players, crisp passing, extended passages of ball retention, and electrifying attacking movements.
In the series ‘The Flow of Football’ I stated that:
“In order to progress, we should think in terms of movement and volume. Movement allows fluid freedom but, for those so inclined, can also be harnessed into rehearsed moves. The Germans use the word ‘raumdeuter’ which translates to ‘investigator of space’. For players like Bayern’s Thomas Muller, and to a slightly lesser extent Australia’s Tim Cahill, forerunners of the future game who are experts at exploiting debilities in the opposition through unorthodox movement rather than by sticking to a traditional position. Maybe that is the vital point, ‘Der raumdeuter’ does not align himself with any known task, instead being a term representing freedom from binding labels or immutable positions. The player is equally adept at clearing space for others to play in, and exchanging roles with those around him, as he is at materialising seemingly out of thin air at the back post. A completely unanticipated enigma, capable of delivering the most crucial blow.”
What if we got it wrong and it is not the players themselves who are ‘Der Raumdeuter’? What if the coach is the space investigator? In a salary-capped league, finding advantages over others, however miniscule, can be difficult with everybody so evenly matched. Most modern teams like to have their defensive line set and solid, so one possible way to gain an advantage could be to drag those players out of their comfort zone, creating dangerous spaces to exploit. Most A-League central defenders (forgive me if I am generalising here) are tall, strong and slightly cumbersome. This does not lend itself well to turning, accelerating and chasing pests; that slip behind them if they get sucked out of that organized defensive line. It seems Postecoglou will set his team up to create and use that space. Using the Liverpool friendly, I will explore just how they appear to be coming along and the key elements of their game plan.
What if we got it wrong and it is not the players themselves who are ‘Der Raumdeuter’? What if the coach is the space investigator?
First Phase: Getting out of the back third
Marcelo Bielsa, and new Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino, use the term Verticalidad, or verticality. This means moving the ball from back to front as quickly as possible through short, sharp passing moves rather than direct passes to numerically disadvantaged forwards. That means the man in possession should always have at least three vertical passing options close by. The most important thing to consider is the angles provided to the ball carrier at any given time. A player should have a vertical option to his left, his right and through the middle as often as possible. Victory’s new overloaded central midfield allows this to happen in close proximity to the ball. Shorter passing distances also means that there’s less chance of error and higher rates of ball retention.
In this instance, Billy Celeski started where Jesse Makarounas appears in the image, then left the space, and brought a Liverpool player with him. Makarounas then dropped into the space created by his teammate. Crucially, all of Victory’s midfielders are stationed to the side and slightly behind their direct opponent (“off the shoulder”), ready to receive the ball on their furthest foot, and face forwards. Allowing all four midfielders to rotate and roam, while remaining close to the ball, creates a 4v2 or 4v3 scenario in the middle of the pitch. This allows Victory to regain comfortable possession and set up to get the ball past Liverpool’s midfield line.
Once Victory had comfortable possession, their midfielders would push higher up the park. Leigh Broxham and Celeski positioned themselves either side of Liverpool’s central attacking midfielder (Jordan Henderson), and slightly in front of the two deeper midfielders (Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard). This meant that Henderson often found himself not contributing at all defensively unless he was pressing Adrian Leijer or Nick Ansell. It also meant that Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard were now occupied by the two midfielders directly in front of them. This was the perfect situation for Jimmy Jeggo and Makarounas to then find pouches of space behind Liverpool’s midfielders.
Second Phase: Middle third domination
The reason for finding space behind Gerrard and Allen was twofold: it allowed Victory to get the ball out of the back third quicker and more efficiently, but it also forced Liverpool’s central defenders to make a crucial decision: to stay in their defensive line not marking anybody or to make themselves feel useful by stepping out of line and applying pressure to Jeggo and Makarounas.
More often than not, when the ball went to one of Victory’s wide attackers, Jeggo or Makarounas found space behind Liverpool’s midfield, as Andre Wisdom or Martin Skrtel stepped forward. A simple combination between Andrew Nabbout and Jeggo above put the Victory winger into the space behind Wisdom, highlighting the danger posed by stepping out of line.
The problem for Liverpool’s defenders was that if they didn’t step out to press Victory’s advanced midfielders, Allen and Gerrard had to perform duel roles.
The positioning of Broxham and Celeski was crucial. They often received the ball in front of Allen and Gerrard but acted solely as bouncers, used to drag Liverpool’s midfielders forward away from Jeggo and Makarounas. Receiving the ball in front of their opponents enticed them to come and press the ball, after which Victory’s midfielders would simply bounce it back to a teammate (usually Leijer or Ansell) who was facing forward. This action opened a vertical channel through to Jeggo or Makarounas, now unmarked due to the uncertainty of Liverpool’s defenders. It was brutally simple but Liverpool didn’t really have an answer apart from relying on the individual quality of their players.
Third Phase: Creating goalscoring opportunities
Once the attacking midfielders found themselves on the ball facing forward, the outside-to-in runs from the wide forwards Connor Pain and Nabbout kept Liverpool’s defence facing and moving backward, creating an even larger gap between themselves and their midfielders. If the wingers’ runs weren’t properly tracked, Victory tried to slide the ball behind Liverpool’s defence, unleashing the pace and power of Pain and Nabbout.
When Victory had controlled possession in wide areas of their attacking third, rather than relying on crosses and getting numbers into the box early, they used the opposite wide forward (Nabbout in this case) as a decoy to attract the attention of Liverpool’s defenders, and keep them deep inside their own penalty area. The ball carrier always had close support, and space became available between Liverpool’s deep defensive line and their recovering midfielders, for the Victory’s midfielders to sneak into.
The first 40 seconds of this video shows a nice passage from Victory featuring many of the aforementioned movements and concepts. Ironically, Steven Gerrard performs the same movement in a slightly different situation to score the first goal soon after.
Defensive Set Up
The defensive set-up was quite simple from the Victory whenever Liverpool was in comfortable possession at the back. It was a 4-4-2 shape set up in the middle third of the pitch with the two attacking midfielders at the highest point of the block. Crucially, Victory was content to let Liverpool’s central defenders possess the ball under little to no pressure, unless they carried the ball forward. Makarounas and Jeggo were more concerned with Liverpool’s central midfielders Gerrard and Allen, who often came very deep to pick up the ball.
The wingers (Pain and Nabbout) blocked any passing lane between the ball carrier and Liverpool’s wingers (Jordon Ibe and Raheem Sterling, respectively), while maintaining a visual on Liverpool’s advanced fullbacks (Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique, respectively). Due to the congestion in the centre, and their inability to hit any of their three outnumbered forwards with longer passes, Liverpool were often forced to play the ball to one of their fullbacks who was subsequently ambushed by a Victory winger upon their first touch.
Preparing for the new season
Playing this way requires a tremendous amount of technical quality, as well as, attacking midfielders who are capable of scoring (like Gerrard did) when they find themselves in the dangerous positions they create. After the recent departures of Rojas, Marcos Flores and Celeski, Victory are currently on the lookout for players who fit the bill, and it looks like Paul Trimboli, Postecoglou and co. will only settle for special players to fill those crucial roles. Impending signings, the return of Finkler and Adama Traore, coupled with a talented youth squad means that Victory will be extremely attractive to watch, but most importantly highly dangerous to play against this season. It seems Postecoglou is again reinventing the wheel just as he did at Brisbane. It is fantastic to see an A-League coach not only playing to win, but innovating and looking for ways to entertain the fans.