When Brisbane thrashed Victory 5-0 at Suncorp early in the season, Postecoglou’s new side was still in nappies with regards to playing the sort of football he demands. Roar simply stuck to their structures and exposed a team that had been tactically thrown in the deep end. To stretch the analogy, Postecoglou doesn’t want to create a team that can do a lap of the pool with floaties and a kickboard – he wants them ripping through the water like Michael Phelps by season’s end. There was no point protecting them from the machine he had built for the sake of a result on the day when there was an immense learning experience to be had. The pain of that day was all part of the accelerated learning process he has been putting his players through to achieve the gain we’re now starting to see more and more consistently.
One feels Victory are yet to hit their peak, but they’re close enough now that Saturday’s thrilling match provided a fair and accurate contrast of Postecoglou’s two most recent sides. If we were to indulge a little, we might say the match highlighted the areas where Postecoglou felt Brisbane were becoming limited or easily countered and what he has therefore done differently with Victory after leaving Roar at what he felt was the right time to move on. If that’s reading too much into it for you, this match was still a great watch in its own right and a fascinating tussle between two positive sides.
Postecoglou welcomed back his returning Socceroos Archie Thompson and Mark Milligan as well as key defender Adama Traore from injury. Nick Ansell debuted at centre back as Postecoglou hunts for the right defensive formula. Competition for places in the back four aside, it was a full strength side in Victory’s now familiar 4-2-2-2 system with wide strikers and dual No.10s. Marco Rojas stayed on the line of the last man at all times and always ran in behind the defence from out wide whereas Thompson wasn’t given quite as much freedom, having to track back occasionally and sometimes coming inside on his right foot during attacks.
Vidosic was also boosted by returning Roos in the form of centre back pairing Ivan Franjic and Matt Smith, who both excelled here, while Mitch Nichols grabbed a rare start this season on the left. The middle three in their 4-3-3 rotated constantly, with Thomas Broich doing more work in deeper areas than usual.
Battle isn’t the right word for a contest that featured such classy technicians and good football, though Milligan did put a couple of hard challenges on Broich in the early stages. Though the match ebbed and flowed across the 90 minutes, this area remained the key zone throughout.
Vidosic has freed up Paartalu this season to roam away from his No.6 position but I’d say the rotation in the midfield three was even more prominent in this match than usual. This was partly due to the pressing Victory applied, particularly in the first half hour. Broich and Murdocca had to take their turns showing for the ball to help start moves from the back. If Brisbane could secure good possession, Victory were happy to let their defenders have the ball between them, but any pass into midfield was heavily contested. In the central midfield zone, Victory had a 4v3 advantage that worked well in their favour.
For that reason it was surprising that Nichols, a natural centre midfielder, didn’t come narrow or deep more often to help even up the numbers and provide another option to link midfield to attack. He did start to come off his wing and do that a bit more frequently late in the first half, around the time Brisbane started to really get on top in the possession stakes.
Defensively, Roar’s middle three seemed to have fairly loose roles. Due to the speed of Victory’s attack (more on that shortly), Roar players often had little chance to reorganise and simply had to assume defensive duties for the space they were in, but this lack of clarity perhaps played a part in Victory’s goal, where the Brisbane midfield was dragged all out of shape in the moments before Gui Finkler and Milligan combined to great effect through that space.
On an individual level, none of the seven players in this area had bad games, but Milligan and Finkler were both standouts. Milligan defied the fatigue that has affected other players coming back from Hong Kong to put in a man of the match performance, effectively covering more than his fair share of space defensively and contributing quality passes into his attackers as well as scoring a great goal.
Contrast in possession philosophies
So if we hadn’t figured it out by now, this match revealed the key difference between what Ange made Brisbane do with the ball and what he wants Victory to do with it. In short, Brisbane are patient and Victory are not.
Brisbane like to keep the ball, move their opponents around and wait for the right moment to play into more congested spaces where they might lose it. When the opponent sits deep and compact, Brisbane tend to move the ball primarily in a big arc across their defence and out wide – these are less threatening areas to possess the ball but Brisbane are less likely to lose it there than in central spaces, so they rack up huge pass counts and dominate possession stats.
For Victory, the right moment to go forward is any moment they have the ball. They are loathe to go backwards even if the forward pass is risky, preferring to get forward as quickly as possible and seeing their attacks through to whatever conclusion straight away. They very rarely keep possession for possession’s sake. Their players seem to have a licence to lose the ball trying killer passes that aren’t quite on. The attacking strategy seems to involve a desperation to create a scoring opportunity before the opposition has recovered its position.
Now, perhaps Postecoglou just felt this was the best way for Victory to play based on what he has at his disposal. But perhaps as his time with Brisbane drew to a close he recognised that other teams were getting much better at setting up deep defensive blocks that could frustrate their ponderous play and stop them getting in behind. So he built a side that always has outlets to attack through before the opposition is set. And Victory defend a little deeper than Brisbane (who pressed the entire pitch), inviting the opposition to come forward and leave a bit more space to expose when Victory win the ball.
It’s fascinating to consider how a coach forced a league to evolve, and then had to adjust his own approach in response. But that’s a train of thought to be fully pursued another time.
Victory press then tire as match transforms
Brisbane press more than any other A-League side (though under Vidosic they tone it down depending on the situation) and what gives them the energy to do this is that they have the ball for the majority of the match. Victory’s direct attacking style doesn’t afford them the same rest periods. They started this match at full throttle, with even Flores and Finkler doing their share of legwork in harassing the centre backs and then dropping into midfield to congest space. The match was quite frenetic with Victory winning the ball back fairly quickly and then launching forward immediately every time, only for the process to start again.
It was not until the 28th minute that Brisbane really played through midfield as Massimo Murdocca finally outmaneuvered the previously unbeatable Milligan to get a run at the back four. And it was the 39th minute before Shane Stefanutto provided the first overlapping run from fullback for the visitors.
After that early blitz Victory lost a touch of their sharpness and pressed high into the forward half on less occasions. It was an even match for the last hour. Of course, Brisbane scored towards the end of that early period but this was against the run of play and from a set piece won amidst the heavy pressure applied in that 4v3 central contest. It was more often Victory winning the free kicks in Brisbane’s half than the other way around.
As Flores and Finkler became less diligent in their defensive duties, passing channels were less quickly cut off and Brisbane gradually found it easier to play forward passes to players between the lines.
As the second half wore on and the high tempo took its toll on the players, it turned into a bit of a basketball match with the teams easily traversing a wide-open midfield to exchange attacks at either end.
Individuals and changes
But despite the shifting match patterns, Brisbane never really looked the more dangerous side for more than the odd spell. Broich has not rediscovered his best touch and Ben Halloran was completely shut down by the increasingly impressive Traore. Besart Berisha went off at half time with a shoulder injury sustained in an off-the-ball tussle with Adrian Leijer and Vidosic tried a few attacking combinations in the second half, firstly Nichols up front until he too was injured, but none worked particularly well or changed the match.
The performance of Finkler in contrast with Broich was one of the decisive factors of the flow of chances in Victory’s favour. The Brazilian was expert at holding onto the ball even when receiving difficult straight passes with defenders in his back, allowing Victory to play through Roar’s press along the floor, while his creative play once going forward was again outstanding. He set up Milligan’s goal and could have won the match with the best chance of the match late on.
Flores was impressive early, playing Rojas through with some sublime passes that perhaps go unnoticed by fans looking for the decisive work in and around the penalty area of the Argentine’s Adelaide pomp. We haven’t heard the term ‘false No.9’ for a while, and that’s because Flores is no longer playing that role. Postecoglou has tweaked his attack since the start of the campaign so that Flores is permanently withdrawn alongside Finkler rather than starting higher and dropping off the front line as attacks progress.
Ansell made an assured debut and will certainly keep his spot for the derby next week, while Smith and Franjic were excellent in thwarting danger in their own area at the other end.
Good defending at both ends helped keep chances to a minimum despite the attacking intent of both sides. It was a tough match to award ‘on points’ as both sides did what they were trying to do fairly well to an extent. Victory definitely had the better of the chances but didn’t quite control the game. In the context of the season and with the 5-0 result in mind, Victory have to be happy with how things are trending.
WORDS | Brett Taylor (@behindthegoals)