Melbourne Victory got their A-League campaign back on track with a strong 2-0 win over Western Sydney Wanderers on Friday night. They achieved this on the back of an impressive defensive performance, something which allowed them to pressure Wanderers’ midfield unit and therefore prevent the likes of Dimas and Andreu from having too much time in possession.
Wanderers, in simple terms, struggled to deal with that added intensity, and aside from a promising period just prior to half-time, they couldn’t find anything even remotely approaching top form. Victory, in contrast, started quickly through a 3rd-minute goal to Oliver Bozanic, and this gave them the confidence to apply their pressing game early.
Kevin Muscat and his players have endured a difficult period recently, but after a week of heavy criticism, most of which Muscat felt was “warranted”, they looked like a team who were desperate to arrest their form slump. They took an early lead against Wanderers and continued to press from that point onwards, with Gui Finkler and Oliver Bozanic the prime movers in denying space to Dimas and Andreu. The two Victory midfielders stuck tightly to the Spanish midfield duo throughout, while Rashid Mahazi did his best to limit the influence of Mitch Nichols. This meant Victory were essentially man-on-man in midfield, and when combined with a similarly aggressive approach from the rest of the team, it allowed them to halt the Wanderers’ progress.
With both Dimas and Andreu finding space hard to come by, Wanderers could not get their typically slick possession game going. They struggled to play out from the back, often going long or forcing the ball into tight spaces rather than implementing their more familiar short passing game. This is shown in the example below as Wanderers tried to work the ball forward from defence. In this instance, Dimas and Andreu are being monitored closely, so there’s no immediate option ahead of the back four. This leads to an exchange of passes between Alberto Aguilar and Scott Neville, Wanderers’ right-sided centre back and right-back respectively, before the latter tries to hit a ball up the line. Wanderers forward Mark Bridge is unable to track it down and Victory reclaim possession.
Only a few minutes later, something similar occurs after a Wanderers throw-in. The ball arrives at the feet of Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Alberto’s partner in central defence, and though he implores the players ahead of him to provide an option, Bozanic and Finkler have again locked onto Dimas and Andreu. Topor-Stanley is therefore forced into a short pass to Scott Jamieson, and due to the pressure applied by Kosta Barbarouses, the left-back soon rushes a backpass to Wanderers’ goalkeeper Liam Reddy. Reddy has to move quickly to deal with it, charging outside the 18-yard box in order to head the ball to safety. Finkler, who is still right on his marker, then reclaims possession for Victory, nodding the ball down for Bozanic in the process.
Then a little later on, around 37 minutes into the match, Alberto tries to move the ball through Dario Vidosic, who has dropped back from the right flank in order to assist his side in getting out from defence. The problem, though, is that Vidosic’s direct opponent, the ultra-aggressive Daniel Georgievski, has followed him all the way into midfield. This forces Vidosic to pass the ball back into defence, and with all of the options again covered through the centre, Neville eventually launches the ball out of bounds.
All of these examples are indicative of the way Victory went about their defensive efforts. There was a real intensity attached to their play, and when viewed in combination with their diligent marking, Wanderers were never truly able to get their possession game going. The last example is also interesting for another reason, as it goes a long way towards highlighting the play of Georgievski, the one man whose endeavour perhaps best personified Victory’s performance on the night.
Operating as Victory’s left-back, Georgievski aimed to get in the face of his direct opponents. That started out with Vidosic, who lined up on the left, before he was later replaced by Romeo Castelen on 56 minutes. Neither man was particularly effective in getting the better of Georgievski, whose marking game was so aggressive that he spent much of the contest playing on the edge. Some, perhaps most, would say that should have seen him sent off for a first-half challenge on Mitch Nichols, but due to the leniency of referee Strebre Delovski, Georgievski only received a booking. That meant he could continue to go about his business in the same manner, and by the end of the match he was unquestionably one of Victory’s better players.
In effect, Georgievski tried to stick like glue to his direct opponent. He didn’t want to simply occupy the left-back slot and allow his teammates to deal with Vidosic if he dropped deep into midfield. Instead, he wanted to do it himself, even if it meant following the former Adelaide United star all the way into Victory’s attacking half. There were pros and cons attached to this, of course, as it occasionally allowed Wanderers to break into the space left vacant by Georgievski, as in the example below, but in general terms it worked. He managed to limit the time and space available to Vidosic and, later, Castelen, often nipping in and pinching possession in the process.
Perhaps the first notable example of this occurred 16 minutes into the match, just after Victory had lost possession in the final third. Wanderers tried to beat the ensuing press, but as Andreu shaped to play a pass to Vidosic, Georgievski anticipated the moment. He launched himself towards the ball, intercepted it in an extremely advanced position, especially given the fact that he was ostensibly a defender, and played a short pass for left-winger Fahid Ben Khalfallah. The move continued along the left-hand side until the Tunisian’s deflected cross landed in the hands of Reddy, and though nothing came of Georgievski’s endeavour this time around, he seemed to view this as a confidence booster.
Georgievski therefore continued to impose himself upon his opponents in a physical sense, and as the game ticked into its 61st minute, his aggression created a brilliant opportunity for Victory. Here, as Wanderers were again struggling to play out from defence, Castelen dropped into his own half in order to assist them. Perhaps not expecting Georgievski to follow him into such a deep position, he took a little longer on the ball than he should have. That was just the opening that Georgievski required, and he soon pinched possession from the Dutchman. He followed up by sprinting into the final third. He saw Barbarouses to his right, running in behind, and waited until the ideal moment to release the New Zealander. Barbarouses would then latch onto the through ball and find himself one-on-one with the keeper. He struck his shot well, but Reddy made an excellent save to deny him.
Georgievski made three tackles and two interceptions for the match, with three of those defensive actions tellingly taking place in Victory’s attacking half. There was definitely nothing conservative about his approach, and though this probably should have seen him receive a first-half red card, his risky style of defending would eventually prove to be the catalyst for Victory’s second goal of the evening.
Throughout the second half, Victory’s counter-attacking prowess really came to the fore. This was illustrated in the build-up to the club’s second goal, where Georgievski initially produced a strong challenge along the left-hand side, something which allowed Ben Khalfallah to nip in and kick-start a swift Victory transition. This involved Finkler running through the middle of the pitch, and though he did well to pick out Besart Berisha initially, the move became a bit scrappy before Finkler’s second-phase shot rebounded out into the path of Bozanic. Bozanic produced another good finish to score his second, and in many ways, this goal didn’t only finish off the contest, but also represented much of Victory’s second-half performance.
Indeed, and as Wanderers coach Tony Popovic noted post-match, it suited Victory to play on the break after half-time. They didn’t need to make the running at that stage in proceedings, so they sat a little deeper, in something of a medium block, to ensure that they could retain a certain compactness in their defensive structure. Crucially, though, that didn’t allow Wanderers’ midfield to gain a foothold in the game, so while the rest of the team may have been a little more measured in their approach, Bozanic and Finkler remained eager to close down Dimas and Andreu.
This kind of aggression continued to force Wanderers into a slew of turnovers, especially now that they were trying to chase the game. Bozanic was particularly impressive in that regard, and this is illustrated in the sequence below. Here, Victory are sitting in a medium block, but once the ball is rolled back to Dimas, Bozanic pounces. He sprints towards the Spaniard in order to apply heavy pressure, the result of which is a hurried pass into the centre of the park. Matthieu Delpierre anticipates the situation well, picking off the pass to get things going. What followed was a swift Victory transition, involving Ben Khalfallah, Georgievski and Finkler, before the former crossed for Barbarouses.
The Wellington-bound winger sprayed his header wide of the mark on that occasion, but not long after, he would again have the opportunity to get on the end of a Victory breakaway. This time around, Neville would try to slide a pass into the feet of Kearyn Baccus, who came on for Andreu. Mahazi wasn’t having any of it, however, and he quickly swooped in to steal possession. That allowed Bozanic to launch a long ball in the direction of Barbarouses, who was sprinting towards goal. The right winger latched onto it, too, only to see his heavy touch make its way into the arms of Reddy.
Despite the move grinding to a halt, these examples were indicative of the way Victory approached their second-half play. They retained their intensity in midfield, closing down their opponents quickly and using that defensive foundation as the springboard for a swift counter-attacking game. Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold spoke of this at the end of January, saying that, “Victory are a very good counter-attack team. They don’t build up anymore. Their front four are waiting and waiting for a mistake from the opposition.” Based on the way Muscat’s charges went about their business after half-time, it’s easy to see what Arnold was talking about.
For Victory, this was a welcome return to form. They short-circuited Wanderers’ possession play through a great deal of intensity in defence. Whether they were pressing in the first half or sitting off a little more in the second, they used that defensive foundation as a vehicle through which to transition quickly into attack.
Wanderers struggled to deal with that approach and, aside from a 15-to-20 minute period prior to half-time, they weren’t overly impressive as a consequence. Popovic even went so far as to suggest that his side “went away from the way we [they] play” after conceding the second goal, and given how little they managed to create in the final half-hour, he couldn’t be faulted for taking this view.
Perhaps even more troubling was the way in which Wanderers squandered opportunities in front of goal. Granted they didn’t have too many against Victory, but even against Adelaide the previous week, when they dominated from start to finish, they were still held scoreless. Popovic will be looking to address this situation.
This match, though, very clearly belonged to Melbourne Victory. Now that they have arrested a poor run of form and firmed up a spot in the top six, they are all but assured of a place in the finals.