Casting his eyes forlornly towards the sky above, Mathew Leckie’s frustration was palpable late in last weekend’s match against Western Sydney Wanderers as he spurned yet another opportunity to break his duck in the A-League Men for Melbourne City.
Fresh from over 10 years experience in Germany plying his trade across the country’s top two divisions, the 67-time Socceroo joined City with the weight of expectations on his shoulders.
Tasked with filling the shoes of Craig Noone’s departure, Leckie was bestowed with the marquee label as fans became enamoured with the proposition of the star winger joining Andrew Nabbout and Golden Boot winner Jamie Maclaren to form a Socceroo triumvirate to spearhead their title defence.
Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, Leckie’s time in Australia has been anything but smooth sailing so far. Yet to register a goal or an assist in five top flight matches, Leckie was also noticeably ineffective off the bench in City’s recent FFA Cup loss to Wellington Phoenix where he made waste of a guilt-edge opportunity to break the deadlock in extra-time before subsequently opting against taking one of City’s seven penalties in their eventual shootout loss.
City’s coach Patrick Kisnorbo continues to insist that his attacking trio needs more time to fully gel but with last season’s Champions now sitting 5th on the table after six matches, the question of ‘how long is too long’ seems to become more pertinent by the week.
Replacing the output of Craig Noone was never going to be an easy task for Leckie, particularly given that the Macarthur signing was arguably the league’s most proficient creative outlet last season. However, City’s style of play suppresses Leckie’s strengths and highlights his weaknesses, especially when considering the specific skillset required of wide players in Kisnorbo’s set-up.
Aside from lacking goals and assists thus far, Leckie also ranks in the 19th percentile for expected assists and the 28th percentile for key passes among A-League Men wingers this season, suggesting his creative play has been ineffective.
In addition, Leckie ranks in the 13th percentile for expected goals per touch in the penalty area with his statistics in this area correlating to requiring almost 45 touches in the box before amassing a total of one expected goal. This suggests that Leckie has also struggled to generate high quality chances on goal despite being proficient at touching the ball in the penalty area – a statistic where he ranks in the 96th percentile.
It is unfair to suggest that Leckie no longer possesses the ability to succeed at A-League level, rather, he is being used in a way that does not bring his strengths to the fore.
Never a prolific goalscorer, Leckie’s best moments often come in combination play, particularly when he plays short intricate passes with teammates in the final third with the aim of using his footballing intelligence to help generate chances for others.
This is perhaps the best explanation for why Leckie spent most of his time in Germany – and almost all of his time at Hertha Berlin – playing on the right of attack. While he once had breakneck speed that helped him carve out opportunities in transition, Leckie has never been a player who is particularly adept at starting from the left of attack and isolating defenders 1v1 to create opportunities.
At the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Leckie demonstrated his capacity to make short passes and use his close control dribbling to create a goal-scoring opportunity for Robbie Kruse against Denmark.
Leckie looks to drop deep to receive the ball from Sainsbury and he draws Larsen out from Denmark’s last line.
Leckie receives the ball under immediate pressure from Larsen but Risdon offers a clear passing option so that they can combine.
Risdon looks to play a first time pass into the space vacated by Larsen. Leckie attacks the space after drawing out Larsen from Denmark’s last line with his intelligent movement and combination play.
From there, Leckie is comfortable at dribbling at his direct marker and while not necessarily dribbling past Larsen, he manages to unbalance him and thus open a clear passing option for Kruse in the centre who has the opportunity to shoot.
This facet of his skillset should be prioritised in order to get the best from him given that he now does not seem to be equipped with the lightning pace that people associate with Leckie when playing for the Socceroos.
The manner in which City attempt to create goalscoring opportunities often restricts this kind of combination play.
At Melbourne City, Leckie’s role on the left of their front three primarily involves him being placed in situations where he stays wide, is isolated 1v1 with a defender and is required to beat the defender to deliver an early cross into the box for the likes of Jamie Maclaren to finish.
Irrespective of what his sublime delivery for Tim Cahill against Syria might suggest about his crossing ability, Leckie has never been a particularly strong crosser of the ball.
Leckie’s crossing numbers remained relatively consistent during his time in Germany as he rarely used crosses to create opportunities in attack. At City, Leckie is averaging almost twice as many crosses per 90 as he did at any stage of his time in the Bundesliga.
Despite his preference to play short passes instead of cross, Leckie’s disproportionate crossing numbers at City suggest that he is being asked to fulfil what is required of him in their system which is to stay wide and deliver crosses in the box.
Additionally, perhaps the most debilitating aspect of City’s system for Leckie is that their playstyle revolves around their midfielders – particularly Connor Metcalfe and Florin Berenguer – making underlapping runs into the box in order to overload the penalty area for potential cutbacks and crosses.
This positioning, in conjunction with the fact that Scott Jamieson almost exclusively inverts to play in midfield, means that Leckie is almost always left with nobody to combine with in the final third and instead is forced to continue trying to unsuccessfully beat his man 1v1 and attempt to cross the ball.
Often, this leads to Leckie playing simple passes to teammates who aren’t in dangerous areas which also explains why his creativity statistics are so poor compared to the rest of the league.
In this example from City’s game against Perth Glory, Leckie finds himself wide on the left-wing while Jamieson and Metcalfe have interchanged positions so that Jamieson is making the underlapping run into the penalty area. Neither Metcalfe or Jamieson are positioned at an angle where Leckie can combine with them and use his short passing skills.
Thus, Leckie is forced into either attempting to beat his man or suppress the attacking opportunity altogether by playing a backwards pass. In these situations, Craig Noone thrived because he could use his left foot to create a better passing angle for the underlapping player or alternatively he could always turn onto his left foot with the aim of crossing the ball and hoping that it could get deflected for a corner.
These attacking scenarios simply do not benefit Leckie or the team. This example is also not merely isolated within what occurred against Perth Glory, rather, it is representative of an overarching flaw in City’s offensive patterns with Leckie – a right-footer playing on the left – struggling to perform the primary actions required of a wide player in City’s play style.
Interestingly, the sole league game where City was forced to replace Leckie with Marco Tilio resulted in Kisnorbo’s side looking noticeably more fluid in offensive phases.
This is best demonstrated by City’s second goal of the encounter where a marauding run from Nathaniel Atkinson shifted the ball to Tilio on City’s left-hand side.
With no options for combination play, Tilio immediately faces his body towards Jason Geria in an attempt to beat the Melbourne Victory full-back 1v1. The weight of his body moves towards his preferred left foot as he looks to take the ball near the by-line to send in a cross – an automatic net positive on Leckie in a similar situation given that Leckie would be placed on his opposite foot in a similar situation.
Tilio then plays a lofted cross to Nabbout at the back post who heads the ball into an open goal. Though no fault of his own, Leckie simply would not be able to produce this type of an action if placed in the same situation as Tilio.
While mainly featuring from the bench this season, Tilio has been superb when called upon both in a midfield and wide attacking role.
Although a small sample size – and aside from recording more goals and more assists – the data suggests that Tilio has been a more positive influence than Leckie when deployed despite the Socceroo being Kisnorbo’s preferred choice in the starting XI.
When assessing the per 90 numbers of Leckie and Tilio when compared to other A-League Men attacking midfielders/wingers, it is clear that Tilio reigns supreme in the areas relating to creativity.
Leckie ranks below the A-League Men average for smart passes, shot assists and expected assists while Tilio ranks among the best players in the league in his position for these metrics. Both the eye test and the data seem to support the notion that Tilio has been more effective for City this season than the marquee Socceroo.
Much of this comes down to Tilio’s youthful exuberance and ability to dribble past defenders when compared to Leckie who has become more conservative with his dribbling as he has aged.
While Leckie was once confident at consistently dribbling the ball to create chances, this facet of his game has been on a steady decline after peaking in 2016. Leckie’s average of 5.22 dribbles per 90 minutes for Ingolstadt 2016/17 was almost halved by 2020/21, pointing to him becoming less comfortable at beating a man now that his speed is less than it was during his peak years in the Bundesliga.
As Leckie became better at combination play during his time at Hertha, he became less reliant on needing to use his speed to beat defenders by dribbling past them. Now that he is less fast than he once was, instructing Leckie to continually attempt to beat defenders through dribbling is not playing to his strengths.
At Melbourne City, Leckie does not seem comfortable at sprinting past defenders nor does he offer the same threat as Andrew Nabbout in transition because he is not adept at delivering early crosses into the box. It seems counter-productive for City to continue instructing Leckie to perform these actions in attack when he is clearly not comfortable at doing so.
With Marco Tilio in blistering form and more comfortable conforming to the demands of Kisnorbo’s system as a wide player than Leckie, it seems that the short-term fix would be to give the 20-year-old more opportunities on the left of attack in place of the Socceroo.
However, getting the best out of Leckie may require a holistic shift of style from City who are unlikely to cater to Leckie’s strengths by continuing to leave him out wide on the left with little support.
While City could opt to maintain their current system by playing Leckie in the more advanced role on the right of their midfield three (the role occupied by Adrian Luna last season), a shift to a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 could allow Leckie to play alongside Jamie Maclaren and become more involved in combination play while also presenting himself as an option to be on the receiving end of crosses and cutbacks rather than be the man delivering them.
As their inconsistent results and lack of cohesiveness in attack become more frustrating for City fans every week, Patrick Kisnorbo may eventually be forced to act. Failure to instil a sense of flexibility could jeopardise City’s title aspirations or even limit the development of Tilio whose performances warrant more minutes in Australia’s top tier.
Irrespective of Tilio’s endeavours, the mere conundrum of how to best coalesce Mathew Leckie into Melbourne City’s previously fluid and functional offensive patterns is set to be decisive for Kisnorbo this season.