Melbourne Victory further solidified their credentials as favourites to win the A-League, beating an in form Wellington Phoenix side 2-0 despite numerous absentees.
Melbourne Victory fielded a weakened starting XI after suffering injuries and suspensions in their midweek loss to Perth Glory in the FFA Cup. Adrian Leijer and Daniel Georgievski were both suspended after receiving second yellow cards, while Mathieu Delpierre and Besart Berisha both suffered injuries during the loss.
That meant Mark Milligan and Leigh Broxham had to play in a makeshift back four, with the other centre back Nick Ansell also out injured. Rashid Mahazi made a rare start, partnering Carl Valeri in central midfield.
Wellington Phoenix made two changes to the side that counter attacked ruthlessly against Newcastle Jets in a 4-1 win. Thomas Doyle was replaced by Louis Fenton, with Manny Muscat moving to left back, and Jeremy Brockie was dropped to the bench in place of Vince Lia in midfield. That allowed Wellington to line up in a 4-4-2 Diamond, with Michael McGlinchey and Nathan Burns as wide forwards.
Wellington’s Asymmetric Midfield
The easiest label to place on Wellington’s shape is a 4-4-2 Diamond, however during the defensive phase, it’s best described as a 4-1-4-1. This was because of the defensive tasks given to midfielders Roly Bonevacia, Alejandro Rodriguez and Lia.
When Victory were building up from the back, Bonevacia had a strict role to mark Valeri, while Rodriguez was tasked with pushing forward onto Mahazi. Lia, who played on the right side of the diamond, would shift back and forth between a central position and pressing Dylan Murnane at left back. This movement, coupled with McGlinchey dropping wider than Burns, gave Wellington’s defensive shape an asymmetrical feel.
The aim of this system was to block passes into midfield and make it difficult for Victory to play out from the back. However Mark Milligan, Victory’s best passer of the ball, went unpressured in this system. This turned out to be the key feature of the first half, as Milligan was able to receive possession in ample space to carry the ball forward into midfield or to play incisive passes under little pressure.
In the opening 25 minutes of the match, Victory were able to play through Wellington’s defensive shape on numerous occasions. The first example of this came in the 3rd minute.
Here, Bonevacia (circled) man-marked Valeri, preventing him from receiving possession. When the ball was played into Mahazi, Rodriguez pressured from behind, making it impossible for Mahazi to face forward. As the ball moved across the pitch, Lia pressured Murnane, again forcing him backwards.
But when the ball moved back across the backline, Milligan was able to receive possession and under no pressure carry the ball forward. He then pinged a 50 metre cross field pass straight onto the laces of Fahid Ben Khalfallah. From the next pass, Archie Thompson was able to receive possession in the box and his shot on the penalty spot was blocked. The move was illustrative of Milligan’s exquisite range of passing.
In the second example, with Broxham in possession, Bonevacia again marked Valeri and Rodriguez marked Mahazi. As Broxham shaped to pass to Murnane, Lia came across to apply pressure. Broxham changed his mind and under no pressure carried the ball forward.
Comfortable on the ball, he was then able to split McGlinchey and Rodriguez and pass to the advancing Scott Galloway at right back. Galloway passed up the line to Kosta Barbarouses who was able to easily beat his marker in a 1-v-1, cut into the box and shoot into the side netting.
The third and final example used to demonstrate how Wellington looked to defend, and how Victory played through it, came in the build-up prior to Victory’s first goal.
With Murnane in possession, Lia again closed down the ball, forcing the pass to be played backwards. Bonevacia, circled, man-marked Valeri. When Broxham passed across the backline, Milligan was able to receive possession with ample time to face forward, carry the ball forward and play a perfect chipped pass over the top for the advancing right back Galloway.
Victory, once in the final third, were able to drag Wellington’s system out of shape and switch the point of attack. Ben Khalfallah eventually won the free kick which lead to Gui Finkler’s goal.
Below is a video with examples of Wellington’s defensive system in the opening 23 minutes.
Wellington Make Changes
Victory went into the half time break with a one goal lead. The score should have been 1-1, but Nathan Burns failed to finish his one-on-one chance in the dying moments of the half. Despite this late chance, Wellington’s game plan wasn’t working – too often Victory were able to play through their system and they offered little on the counter attack – so coach Ernie Merrick decided to make a change.
Merrick brought on Jeremy Brockie for Rodriguez and Wellington moved to a 4-1-3-2 defensive shape, with McGlinchey and Brockie up front and Nathan Burns playing on the left of the midfield three.
When possession was regained for Wellington, Burns would look to burst in behind Victory’s back four as McGlinchey played a ‘No.10’ role in between the lines.
With this substitution Wellington were now able to apply pressure on Victory’s centre backs without losing a numerical advantage in the centre of midfield.
When Broxham was in possession, Brockie would apply pressure and McGlinchey was able to pressure Mark Milligan who had previously been free.
This positive substitution helped Wellington to see more of the ball in the opening stages of the first half. They were able to play the majority of the opening 15 minutes in Victory’s half of the pitch and were able to get into the final third on a number of occasions.
But despite this improved start to the second half, they were unable to create anything of note from open play and their positivity left spaces for Victory to counter attack.
Victory catch them on the break
Victory’s potency on the counter attack was evident early after the break. Albert Riera received a yellow card in the 48th minute after dragging back Archie Thompson on half way. Manny Muscat had been in possession in the final third but gave it away cheaply with a misplaced back pass, forcing Riera to foul Thompson.
Later, Barbarouses was able to fizz in a dangerous cross on the right. That again came after Muscat gave away the ball cheaply to Finkler, this time on half way. Finkler passed to Barbarouses who had sprinted into the space behind the advanced left back.
Substitute Connor Pain would later go on to add a second goal for Victory after Wellington lost possession in the final third. It was again a counter attack that caught Phoenix out as they chased a way back into the match.
“Again, make one mistake [with the ball] and we pay a hefty price at the other end,” Merrick said in reference to Pain’s goal. “When you’re playing a team like Victory you can’t give away the ball cheaply.”
“You have 20/20 vision in hindsight,” said Merrick post match, admitting he may have got the first half approach wrong.
Wellington’s system, an asymmetrical 4-1-4-1 without the ball and a 4-4-2 diamond in possession, didn’t have the desired effect. By design, the defensive shape made it difficult for passes into midfield, with Bonevacia marking Valeri and Rodriguez marking Mahazi. But the system neglected Milligan and Broxham in central defence and, with both players usually playing in central midfield, their comfortableness on the ball allowed Victory to construct attacks from the back.
While Victory weren’t able to put them to the sword in the first half, they were able to remain defensively sound during Wellington’s dominant spells and counter attack with pace.
With key players absent, Victory further solidified their title credentials and demonstrated how strong their squad is. Meanwhile, Wellington will need to regroup and be ready for their Friday night early kick-off against newly crowned Asian champions Western Sydney Wanderers.
For more analysis, listen to the Leopold Method show on 2SER 107.3. Host Richard Parkin dissects the A-League matches from the weekend with analyst Kate Cohen and W-League with Ann Odong from The Women’s Game.