After picking up the wooden spoon for the first time in their history, Melbourne Victory looked towards A-League Men custodian Tony Popovic to take their side back to the usual successes.
Popovic has previously been long time manager of originally expansion club Western Sydney Wanderers, while most recently managing Perth Glory, taking the subsequent in Perth’s name to literal definition, winning the Premiership in his inaugural campaign at the club and taking them to the grand final.
Under Popovic, Melbourne Victory has the chance to reach similar feats this season, with just one point the difference between them and first place Melbourne City.
If Melbourne Victory beat Sydney FC in the big blue on Saturday, City drop points in their match against Wellington Phoenix on Monday and Western United don’t claw back goal difference on their Victorian rivals, Popovic could have the Premiership secured once again in his first season under a side in Australia.
While not highly likely, a top-three finish is still a high achievement for a side that came last in the campaign prior.
Popovic has created a relatively unique system in possession over the season, with his tactics coming into fruition in Melbourne Victory’s dominating 3-1 win over Wellington Phoenix last Friday.
The basic principles for building up in possession over the course of the season have focused on counter-pressing, with Popovic setting up his side to quickly regain shape if losing possession in their own half by having short spaces between the midfield two and back four.
Over the campaign, the fullbacks have occupied roles slightly more inside than usually seen in the A-League Men; generally, they don’t invert but narrow the angle for passing options by stepping a few metres towards the centre rather than hugging the touchline.
This allows Melbourne Victory to counter-press swiftly when losing possession, with athletic fullbacks in Jason Davidson and Jason Geria able to move further inside to quickly regain shape to avoid being caught out on transition.
The narrow back four means the front players naturally become more spread out in possession, with Popovic’s two wingers often holding their width to the touchline when with the ball in their defensive half.
Meanwhile, Nick D’Agostino has often dropped in to form a front two with Jake Brimmer, with both players looking to receive the ball to feet in between the lines.
The strategy opens clear passages of play when in possession.
The width ahead gives the fullbacks clear forward passing options – they can either find the winger with a simple forwards pass wide, or play a more disguised ball in between the lines to one of D’Agostino or Brimmer, who then bounce pass the ball back or look to turn should pressure not be applied.
Individual and combination play on both flanks has been a frequent feature of Popovic’s Melbourne Victory side, with the fullbacks again playing crucial roles alongside the wide forwards in the squad.
Davidson and Geria, both athletic and quick, are able to overlap or underlap at pace when their winger receives the ball with space to attack a retreating opposition defence.
More frequently, they choose to make a run inside their winger, which is consistently threatening, considering the quality of their wingers in one versus one and two versus one situation.
Three Melbourne Victory wingers feature in the top five for most progressive runs made per 90, with Marco Rojas first, Nishan Velupillay third and Ben Folami fifth, albeit with the middle player often coming on later in the game where his side looks to transition on attack, skewing his attacking statistics.
The underlap can allow the winger to play a ball towards the touchline, from which the fullback can play a cutback, which if completed, can result in a high-quality opportunity.
It can also serve as a decoy run, drawing the defence to try and block the passing angle, which can open up space for a curled shot or sharp pass into the box, from where Brimmer, D’Agostino and both wingers can combine with quick interplay on the edge of the box to set for a shot.
The fullbacks explode in their supporting runs to wingers, noticing the chance to transition – something Davidson and Geria have been clearly taught and told to look for by Popovic and his coaching staff.
Melbourne is diverse in its attacking approach however, they’re also able to play through its opponent’s midfield lines.
With D’Agostino and Brimmer holding a line in between their opponents’ midfield and defensive lines, space opens to combine through the centre of the pitch, with the double pivot and both fullbacks able to play passes to progress play.
Brimmer excels at retaining possession in tight areas and attacking open space ahead of him, with the attacking midfielder capable of playing a killer ball or shooting with finesse or power.
Popovic’s side has consistently looked to attack space with purposeful forward runs, with D’Agostino often combining with Brimmer before the latter looks to release the Socceroos striker in behind.
Melbourne Victory is versatile in the final third, able to open up their opposition with swift passing moves through the lines, attack individually through wide play or pin down opponents by forcing the ball towards goal.
Like when building up, they attack with the intent to counter-press, keeping short distances with the move happening swiftly in one motion.
They often muscle the ball forwards with strong passes into the feet of a forward just off the opposition’s backline and then compress play to win possession back to continue their advances towards goal.
The strategy is thoroughly coached by Popovic and his staff, with the side moving as one to come inside and block passing angles.
Meanwhile, Melbourne Victory’s 3-1 win over Wellington Phoenix was a perfect illustration of their attacking intent and versatility, with Davidson playing a unique role as a left-back within the system.
Davidson has been a key creator for Melbourne Victory over the season, having played the most progressive passes and most per game of any player in the A-League Men’s competition.
His versatility and passing range have allowed Melbourne Victory to diversify their chance creation, as he can progress the ball through passes or runs, play one-twos and play long passes, switching play or looking more direct in behind.
In the final third against Wellington, up until around after the penalty goal, Davidson became part of the front five, but interestingly as one of the three central players, rather than wide as you’d usually expect for a fullback when playing in the most attacking line of a sides system.
He would drop off and rotate with other members of the front five, sometimes moving into midfield and at other points holding his position in between the lines of Wellington’s midfield and defence.
It was a unique role for a left back, but worked wonders, with Davidson having a stellar performance and taking control of playmaking duties in the attacking half for his side.
The innovative system wasn’t just to Davidson’s benefit, however, with Popovic cleverly unpicking Wellington’s back three and double pivot with the 2-3-5.
Their placing of three central players in between the lines confused Wellington when sitting in a defensive shape.
The double-pivot was unable to block passing angles to the three players positioned behind them, while the trio of central players in the front five would always be looking to receive the ball to feet in between the lines, coming off their markers.
When any of the back three were drawn out of position Melbourne Victory would capatalise instinctively, with one of the remaining front four making an instant darting run in behind.
This meant Wellington’s back five was forced to hold shape, which gave Melbourne Victory the freedom to overload and surround their opposition’s double pivot with simple passes in between the lines in a 3v2 which at times became a 5v2 centrally when their own two deeper midfielders stepped up.
Melbourne Victory looked to hold the front five when in comfortable possession in the attacking half, and rotated consistently, with Jason Geria at times moving from his role on the right side of midfield into the most advanced line and Davidson dropping back.
Again, Davidson formed the crux of Melbourne Victory’s individual peneratation, utilisiing his physical and technical attributes to assertively progress play.
However, the clever positioning of the front five made progression through the lines relatively simple, with the core of Wellington’s defensive system unpicked smartly and subtly.
Once between the lines, Melbourne Victory demonstrated short, sharp, incisive passing which is part of what makes their attack so versatile.
They would look to draw in defenders towards the man with the ball, before quickly playing into the space that has been vacated, with one-twos or intelligent third man runs.
The passes wouldn’t always work, but the narrow shape when in between the lines meant that Melbourne Victory could counter-press as previously mentioned, and the majority of their successful attacks came off inaccurate forward passes in the first phase of play, which created space for the second phase.
Explosive runs from deep can be hard to track, as can the movement of players positioned in between the lines with midfielders having to consistently scan behind them to try block passing angles.
In essence, this clever tactic was the reason why Melbourne Victory had so much dominance over Wellington Phoenix early on, with the home side eventually prevailing 3-1 in a crucial clash.
While currently a one-off, it will be curious to see whether Melbourne Victory take their so-far successful 2-3-5 shape into the Big Blue and beyond.
However, whether a 2-3-5 or not, Melbourne Victory’s main attacking principles remain the same.
They look to play relatively direct football with an emphasis on overloading the space between their opponent’s defensive and deeper midfield line.
Melbourne Victory is versatile in its use of combinations both wide and centrally, while mainly focusing on remaining compact in build-up play and in the final third to counter-press with vigorous intensity.
The ideology in possession has brought paramount success for Popovic and his side so far this season, and with or without the Premiership, they are set to mount a furious finals charge at the climax of this campaign.
All stats sourced from Wyscout
Image Source: Melbourne Victory