Melbourne Victory broke a streak of three consecutive losses in the league with a hard fought 1-0 win over Central Coast Mariners at AAMI Park over the weekend.
Despite Victory’s return to the winner’s list, the Mariners’ aggressive and intense approach to the game will have given Tony Popović some food for thought given that his side struggled to generate opportunities on goal prior to Nishan Velupillay’s last gasp soaring header which snatched the victory for the boys in blue.
From the outset, Central Coast opted to press confidently and in a manner which aimed to pin Victory into their own half. This has been a common theme for Nick Montgomery’s side given that they rank third in the league for possession won in the final third (behind Melbourne City and Brisbane).
High pressing is an effective tactic against Popović’s Victory because of the side’s reliance on their wide players to create goalscoring opportunities. Specifically, the newly crowned FFA Cup Champions find joy in ensuring that their full-backs retain conservative positioning in build-up to allow their wingers to remain high and wide – often in 1v1 scenarios facing forward where Ben Folami and Marco Rojas excel.
More often than not, this involves Jason Geria and Jason Davidson positioning themselves deeper and less wide than one would expect of a modern full-back with the aim of vacating space for the wide players.
As seen above, this is important because it allows the side’s dynamic wide players to receive the ball in space where they can run at defenders while retaining time on the ball to make decisive actions.
During the weekend’s replay of this year’s FFA Cup Final, Central Coast largely thwarted the impact of Rojas and the in-form Folami as the team’s positivity and intensity without the ball played an illuminative role in minimising the impact of the duo who were each substituted during the second half after having registered just two shots and two key passes between them.
The Mariners’ approach in doing so was largely revolved around attempting to win the ball in Victory’s half, before Popović’s side could progress the ball to their attacking assets. This was achieved through a co-ordinated and organised which highlighted the flaws in the Melbourne side’s build-up, particularly in the absence of Spanish metronome Rai Marchán.
From the outset, Central Coast went man for man with Victory’s last line, ensuring that their wide players pushed up on Victory’s full-backs to effectively create a 4v4.
Typically, in these circumstances, the goalkeeper would play a crucial in acting as the extra man to break the first line of pressure and help move the ball forward. However for Melbourne Victory, this is somewhat of an impossibility to achieve given Ivan Kelava’s much-maligned deficiencies in terms of ball distribution.
Aiming to get on the front foot and play through the Mariners’ pressure, Victory would often attempt to negotiate this dangerous 4v4 by playing the ball wide to their full-backs and progressing it early to their wingers who (as aforementioned) almost exclusively maintain wide positions.
Here, Stefan Nigro looks to play the ball early to Rojas while under pressure from Cy Goddard. Hypothetically, Nigro could turn onto his left foot and play a pass to Brillante, but Božanić’s positioning means that Brillante would likely be placed in a tight space that he typically has difficulties negotiating. As such, Nigro’s sole option in progressing the ball is to play it early to Rojas who is under imminent pressure from the prodigious Jacob Farrell.
The result is exactly what anybody who has watched Farrell this season would expect. He wins the ball with ease, outmuscling his smaller opponent while perfectly timing his challenge to launch a transition opportunity for the Mariners.
This defiant and co-ordinated press which involves carefully taken risks such as the daring positioning of the full-backs so high while out of possession is to be commended.
On top of their aggressive first line of pressure, the way that Montgomery accentuated Victory’s build-up difficulties in Marchán’s absence was exceptional. In particular, captain Oliver Božanić often man-marked Josh Brillante in the early phases of build-up, leaving Leigh Broxham by himself as Harrison Steele kept a close eye on Victory’s creative fulcrum Jake Brimmer.
In doing so, the Mariners determined that Broxham was both largely incapable of receiving the ball behind a cover shadow of the player pressing in front of him while also accepting that – in cases where he did receive the ball – he would not be as damaging with it as players around him.
In fact, the extent to which Central Coast left Broxham isolated to receive the ball without any imminent pressure in early phases of build-up was almost comical at times. It was clear that the benefits of using an extra player to press Victory’s last line outweighed the potential deficits that could be caused by Broxham receiving the ball under no pressure.
In both of the following examples, Božanić remains weary of Brillante, Steele is as tight as a glove on Brimmer while Broxham is left without a marker.
Quickly, Melbourne Victory realised the issues associated with leaving much of the heavy-lifting in build-up on Brillante’s shoulders and thus looked to bring Brimmer deeper to receive longer ground passes which sought to bypass the Mariners’ first line of pressure.
In this instance, Roderick Miranda plays a risky ball to Brimmer past multiple Mariners defenders as the creative maestro is marked tightly by Steele while Broxham remains isolated from any pressure while Božanić keeps an eye on Brillante.
In the 31st minute, Central Coast’s decision to consistently leave Broxham by himself in build-up was entirely justified as the Victory stalwart squandered an opportunity to release the ball in transition.
Broxham receives the ball while facing forward and has the capacity to gallop into acres of space before playing a decisive ball.
Predictably, he instead controls the ball and plays a sideways pass which immediately curtails the possibility of an opportunity.
Although the introduction of Birkan Kirdar – and consequently a role change to centre-half for Broxham – effectuated a more fluid and cohesive performance, the side still largely struggled to advance the ball beyond the Mariners’ press and thus generate opportunities.
Before Velupillay’s match-winning header, Victory had registered just 0.66 expected goals (xG) for the match, while forcing a save from Mark Birighitti on just one occasion during the 90 minutes.
Melbourne Victory are an ostensibly more sterile and less effective side in the absence of Rai Marchán who relieves much of Brillante’s responsibility in build-up while also possessing the capacity to play dangerous passes when in possession of the ball. It is no coincidence that since Marchán’s injury, Victory have won just two of five league matches – including losses to bottom six sides Wellington, Western Sydney and Newcastle.
While the Spaniard continues to nurse a facial injury sustained against Sydney FC, Tony Popović may have to look elsewhere in his squad for a more suitable replacement. Kirdar has performed admirably at times and represents the most likely replacement for Broxham who could be asked to fill-in once again at centre-half after Matthew Špiranović left the field with an injury on the weekend.
Other options include new signing Luka Pršo and the energetic Jay Barnett who struggled to catch the eye when given the opportunity during the side’s victorious FFA Cup campaign. Otherwise, Jake Brimmer may be asked to return to a deeper role in midfield where he was used with less success during Victory’s disaster 2020/21 season.
Despite Victory’s underlying struggles in this regard, the Mariners deserve credit for their brave approach in an away game in the A-League’s most cacophonous atmosphere at AAMI Park. Their aggressiveness and positivity without the ball may be the blueprint to slow down Tony Popović’s side in a season where no clear best team has yet emerged.
Images sourced from Paramount Plus