With a finals place all but secured for the second time in their history, there has been significant improvement from Melbourne City following their dismal finish last season. While the oil riches haven’t lead to immediate success, the squad overhaul that was badly required has begun well, with good recruitment over the last twelve months. With the City Football Group’s reach off the field, and as more players are added to the squad over the next twelve months, the improvement is bound to continue.

Coach John van ‘t Schip has created a strong system, albeit one perhaps overly reliant on its midfield, that has at times been able to dominate games against the league’s best.

Structurally, there are no glaring weakness to take advantage of in Melbourne City’s defensive set up. Following early season troubles, Dutchman van ‘t Schip made important adjustments to the way that City defended – the key result being that the side is no longer left as exposed by its fullbacks moving high up the field in attack.

The midfield provides a strong platform for the side, and is without doubt the most balanced component of the team. Erik Paartalu provides the solid defensive base with calm and accurate distribution from deep, since his return from injury Robert Koren has provided the attacking outlet, while Aaron Mooy links everything together with his talent going both ways. Of midfielders (positions defined by Squawka) who have played more than 180 minutes this season, he has made the tenth most assists per ninety minutes (p90), the most key passes p90, and the third most tackles p90.

Despite the strong platform the midfield provides, there are two overarching issues that are heavily affecting the side in its current form though. Firstly, they are failing to maintain their intensity for 90 minutes, too easily inviting pressure from the opposition as the game goes on. And secondly, despite the performances in the middle of the park, their record in both boxes has been poor.

Fading from games

Melbourne City are fast starters. They will regularly approach games from kick off at great speed and with high intensity, pressing the opposition up the field, looking to disrupt their opponent’s game but also launch fast counter-attacks immediately after winning the ball back. Early in the season, before the signing of Josh Kennedy, this allowed them to make the most of the pace in a forward lineup regularly consisting of three of Damien Duff, David Williams, Mate Dugandzic, Iain Ramsay and James Brown.

The opening twenty minutes against Brisbane was no different. An early goal was followed by waves of intense attacks and a threatening approach that was ultimately unable to deliver a second goal. But after the opening exchanges, where City looked to dominate the match and dictate it’s tempo, they slowed down. Preferring to sit deeper and cede possession, they invited Brisbane onto them and allowed them to dictate the pace of the game.

In the opening twenty minutes of the match City made 13 tackles and five interceptions at a rate of 0.9 per minute. In the following 70 minutes, they made 24 tackles and six interceptions at a combined rate of 0.43 per minute. Effectively, their intensity and ability to recover the ball from Brisbane halved after the first 20 minutes.

This desire to start each game strongly and impact the scoreboard in the early stages followed by a reduction in intensity and desire to sit back and invite pressure has been a pattern throughout the season.

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The % of Melbourne City’s goals that have been scored during each period of the match.

An incredible 24% of City’s goals have been scored in the opening 15 minutes of their matches – the closest behind them being Sydney with 14%. However, consistent with their tactics and the way their style adapts after the opening part of matches, they score only 15% of their goals between 16 and 30 minutes and are yet to score in the 15 minutes before half-time. Aided by the break, they are able to lift their intensity in the second half and a more consistent share of the goals they score are spread throughout the second 45.

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The % of the goals Melbourne City has conceded during each period of the match.

However, as their ability to press and attack with speed is reduced after the opening minutes, so is there their ability to hold out the opposition. Melbourne City are amongst the best at stopping the opposition early in the match, and again immediately after half-time, from creating meaningful chances at goal. However, as the game wears on, a growing percentage of the goals City concede are scored.

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Melbourne City’s goal difference per period of the game.

Overall, Melbourne City’s goal difference this season is neutral. However, there is a clear pattern of scoring goals early in each half, followed  by conceding them later on.

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Running shot count for Melbourne City v Brisbane.

Although they held on to take all three points on Saturday, the match was another example of Melbourne taking an early lead, intensifying the pressure but then losing momentum and allowing the opposition to work their way back into the game. With City sitting deep and increasingly allowing Luke Brattan to single-handedly exert control of the game, Brisbane were the dominant side in the second half. The home side were largely restricted to counter attacks as the visitors dominated possession. Although City were able to defend deeper having taken the lead, Brisbane were the dominant side for so much of the match, and a draw would not have been an undeserved result for the visitors.

Instead, it was the third time Melbourne City took all three points from the reigning Champions this season, and the second time they’d scored early before defending deep after early goals on the counter-attack to Williams and Dugandzic were the catalyst for a 3-1 win at Suncorp in November.

Looking to quickly take the lead before defending and relying on your counter-attacking abilities is not inherently a poor tactic. The issue for Melbourne City has been that they become so withdrawn that they are unable to wrestle momentum back during a game, and allowing the other side to easily dictate proceedings. It is also important that they do score first and early, as maintaining the intensity is not possible for 90 minutes. Although the tactic worked here, City have not been as fortunate all season. On five occasions they have dropped points from winning positions.

Poor at both ends

The second major issue hampering City’s efforts this season has been their poor return in both penalty boxes. Since Round One, Melbourne City have had the most shots of any side, the second most shots on target and the second most shots from within the penalty area. However, they’ve scored only the sixth most goals.

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Attacking efficiency in the A-League this season.

Although they have created nearly five more efforts on goal per game than their local rivals Melbourne Victory, this City side has required twice as many shots per goal, scoring only once from every 10.5 chances. As a comparison, all other teams currently in the top six, require no more than eight shots per goal that they score.

From a defensive perspective, Melbourne City have conceded the third fewest shots and shots inside the area, and the fourth fewest shots on target. But again they are ranked sixth – this time for goals conceded.

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Defensive efficiency in the A-League this season.

Although they concede the third fewest shots in the league, City require the fewest shots hit at them to concede a goal – with the opposition scoring for every seven shots they take.

The overall approach of the team is good. They attack quickly and with intensity at the start of games to pile pressure on the opposition before looking to defend their leads and sit deeper as the match wears on. Their ability to carry this out is, to an extent, reasonably good too. They create lots of shots and they don’t concede many. The issue is that in both penalty boxes they are not performing.

Ultimately, the rebuilding that van ‘t Schip and the club are undertaking is still a work in progress. The additions of Paartalu, Mooy, Koren and Jacob Melling have seen a well-balanced midfield put together, however there is yet to be enough of an overall to the forward and defensive stocks. Duff proved an excellent creator, but was never going to be relied upon to deliver goals, and while Kennedy is certainly a shrew addition, it will take time for the side to become accustomed to his style and it may not be until next season that the return is truly seen.

In the meantime though, City have simply been under performing in front of goal. Unable to take their chances and convert attacking dominance into goals, they have been consistently guilty of poor finishing. Between Duff, Williams, Ramsay, Dugandzic and Brown there has been a return of only nine goals, with one coming from the penalty spot. None of these players have a history of being consistent or elite goal-scorers – Williams has the best A-League record of a goal every 361 minutes. The only considerably great goalscoring record from a Melbourne City (or Heart) player in the last three seasons was from a player more accustomed to playing a deep midfield role who went on a freakish run of scoring over less than half a season, including an effort from halfway.

At the other end of the field the story is similar. Between Andrew Redmayne and Tando Velaphi, City have saved only 64% of the shots on target they’ve faced this season – 7% below the average of the last two seasons. They’ve struggled to field a settled back four with form, injury and suspensions all having an impact at various stages.

The rebuilding of the squad has certainly begun, yet it is important to remember that before the riches of Manchester City arrived, this team finished bottom of the ladder last season. A club cannot be completely overturned in one season, and City have made important steps in the last year, with a number of important signings that have boosted the midfield and more recently with the signing of Kennedy, the attack.

With a solid foundation to build upon, continued good recruitment can lead to another improved season next year from the Australian arm of the enormous City Football Group.