The first game of the 2012/13 A-League Finals Series dished up controversy, goals, extra-time, but more importantly, a tactical battle. Whilst Melbourne Victory came up trumps, progressing to a semi-final showdown against Central Coast Mariners, they were perhaps not the winners of the tactical match-up that occurred during the opening 90 minutes.
It is always fascinating when a 4-3-3 lines up against a 4-2-3-1 (assuming they are relatively evenly matched), just as what happened here. The use of the two formations ensures for an almost perfect, man-for-man match-up of players.
Victory returned to their more frequently used formation, refraining from using Marcos Flores and Archie Thompson together in their alternative formation of 4-2-4/4-2-2-2. The usual trio of Mark Milligan, Billy Celeski and Leigh Broxham played in midfield.
Perth maintained the 4-2-3-1 formation that has proved successful in their end-of-season revival under Alistair Edwards. Mathias Cordoba and Jacob Burns were selected in the all-important holding-midfield roles.
Perth Attack without the Fullbacks
Melbourne Victory’s counter-attacking style required consideration for Perth going into the match. As Brett Taylor mentioned in his preview:
“A lot of the chances and goals they have conceded since Edwards took over have come on the counter. This is the downside of their possession football, which requires their players to open up the pitch.”
In response, Perth’s fullbacks refrained from overlapping, instead focusing of their defensive discipline.
So little was Scott Jamieson and Josh Risdon’s attacking progression that, in the opening 90 minutes, they only attempted 14 final third passes – combined. The majority of their passes came in the middle third, as Perth progressed into Melbourne’s area, the fullbacks stayed back to prevent counter-attacks through to the Victory’s wide-forwards.
Ironically, Perth’s goal came from one of those 14 passes, with Jamieson’s cross finding Ryo Nagai. Also Perth won a penalty, when Jamieson broke into Melbourne’s 18-yard box (albeit from a free-kick build-up). However, these movements were rare throughout the match.
Perth’s Defensive Shape
Perth Glory kept Victory in check for the most part, with their defensive shape being the key. As soon as possession was turned over, the Perth players dropped into a 4-4-2 shape, starting on half-way. This deep starting position successfully limited Melbourne’s opportunities to penetrate in behind, where they have been so successful this season.
Melbourne Victory and Zone 14
Professor Tom Reilly, of John Moores University, completed a report in 2002 which noted the importance of Zone 14 – the “golden square” on the football pitch:
“Using a computer analysis, we found that the overwhelming majority of goals happened after action in Zone 14 of the pitch. Goals were nearly always created in this small area of the pitch, whether they were from direct shots, the beginning of a passing move or a foul that led to a goal-scoring free kick.”
Jed Davies, a guest writer for Leopold Method (read his series on Systems Football Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4), took a modern approach to look at the importance of these areas on the edge of the box. Using statistics from last season’s English Premier League, he discovered that 25.7 per cent of all assists come from the zones on the edge of the 18-yard-box.
Melbourne’s 4-3-3 lacked a number 10, but the use of a ‘False 9’ is supposed to make up for this – with Thompson dropping in between the lines of defence and midfield. Perth’s defensive approach was so successful that they starved Melbourne of all possession in this zone.
Burns and Cordoba worked, compactly, to limit passes through the heart of midfield. When Thompson did see the ball, he frequently did so in wide areas, where his role is less dangerous.
The early introduction of Marcos Flores, and switch to a 4-2-4/4-2-2-2, was perhaps an attempt to get more bodies in this zone, allowing Melbourne to cause more attacking problems.
Almost immediately a question was posed – with Flores and Thompson moving either side of Burns and Cordoba, posing a question as to which way to move to cover the forward passing channels. However, the downside was that now both central attackers for Melbourne were wide – they still lacked a body in Zone 14.
Perth became content with allowing Flores and Thompson to receive possession in wide areas – where they couldn’t do damage.
W-M, Circa 1925
Whether Ange Postecoglou’s second change was panicked (feeling the need to throw more bodies forward), or a clear understanding of what Melbourne lacked (someone in Zone 14) is debatable. But the introduction of Andrew Nabbout saw Melbourne Victory switch to 3-2-2-3 formation, popularly known as ‘W-M’ – something rarely seen in the last 70 years.
This allowed Flores and Thompson to split either side of Burns and Cordoba, spreading them just enough to open space for Nabbout (who was located in Zone 14 … genius!)
The tactical switch could have been made inconsequential, had Shane Smeltz converted his penalty. However, the crossbar prevented Perth from going 2-nil ahead. Minutes later, Melbourne had equalised and Perth was down to 10-men.
Interestingly, Melbourne didn’t continue with the ‘W-M’ formation in extra-time. Perhaps being a man up resulted in Melbourne not needing to flood players forward – instead, being confident that they would out-last a fatiguing Glory side.
Connor Pain dropped to left-back, with Thompson switched to wide-left.
Four minutes into extra-time, Melbourne successfully did what they had failed to do all match – have the wide forwards combine, with Archie Thompson heading home from three metres out.
With players dropping like flies due to fatigue, and Perth pushing forward in search of an equaliser, Melbourne had a number of goal-scoring chances on the counter attack – notably to Nabbout, Thompson and Rojas, however they were unable to convert.
In the end, the task proved too difficult for Perth, unable to equalise and send the match to penalties.
Whilst this game came to life with late controversy, there was already an ongoing battle occurring under our noses. Perth won the first 89 minutes, defending resolutely and looking comfortable with a 1-nil lead. Melbourne perhaps won the endurance battle, taking full advantage of a late penalty and Perth’s subsequent red card.
There were changes aplenty from Ange Postecoglou, searching for a way to break through Perth’s disciplined duo of Burns and Cordoba – eventually, and arguably, luck was the solution – a goal and a red card came shortly after Perth’s missed penalty.
Who said the A-League is tactically dull?