Tony Popović has made a brilliant start to his first pre-season as manager of Melbourne Victory by signing numerous accomplished Australian players.
With his signings, Popović’s footballing ideas appear to be coming into fruition and undoubtedly follow a similar pattern to the success he achieved at Perth Glory.
This article will give a full tactical breakdown of Tony Popović’s system both in and out of possession and will identify the areas needed for improvement in his Melbourne Victory squad.
Specifically, this article will focus on the following aspects of Popović’s system:
- Attacking + Defensive Principles (shape in and out of possession)
- Key player profiles that fulfil Popović’s system
- Potential areas for improvement in Melbourne Victory’s squad
Playing with three players in defence:
Despite lining up in a 4-2-3-1 shape, the key facet of Popović’s teams is maintaining a 3-2-5 formation when in possession of the ball. This attacking shape has been popularised by Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel in recent years as it allows for attacking overloads yet maintains defensive solidity.
For Popović, it is important that the three players at the back are adept at playing progressive passes into midfield. This will involve the right full-back (Jason Geria) operating as an auxiliary centre-half on the right of the back three.
Geria is suited to playing on the right of a back three given that he ranked in the 91st percentile for interceptions in the A-League while playing as a right-sided centre-half in a back three for Perth Glory last season.
Geria will also facilitate passes into the midfield and is brilliant at progressing the ball as he ranked in the 99th percentile for progressive passes last season.
Another key aspect of Popović’s back three is the inclusion of Matthew Spiranović who is fantastic on the ball and dominant in the air. Spiranović will play as the central player in the back three and will perform the Raphael Varane-esque role of sweeping up through balls with his intelligence and pace.
Spiranović played this role for Popović during the 2018/19 season at Perth Glory and only had to make four tackles for the entire season – suggesting that his primary role was to curtail attacks through interceptions.
Popović’s willingness to maintain a back three when in possession aims to always maintain numerical superiority against the opposition’s first line of pressure given that many A-League teams press with a front two in a 4-4-2 defensive shape (Sydney FC especially).
This numerical superiority of a 3v2 when playing out from the back allows the centre-halves to oscillate the ball between the defensive line, thus allowing them to have time and space to pick out passes between the lines and initiate attacking overloads.
Wingers occupying half spaces and initiating attacks from the left flank and left half-space:
Popović’s sides look to manipulate the left-sided interior channel by creating vertical passing sequences to play through opposition defensive lines. This is achieved by ensuring that the LWB, LCM, LCB and either LW or CF interchange positions within a diamond pattern.
The aim of this pattern is to play the ball to the player at the tip of the diamond (typically the winger occupying the left half-space) who can then face forward with multiple passing options available to break down the opposition’s block.
For Melbourne Victory, Chris Ikonomidis is likely to occupy left half-space position in Popović’s attack due to his intelligence, decision-making and ability to dribble the ball at speed. Ikonomidis is comfortable playing in the half-space as he ranked in the 100th percentile for progressive runs and the 98th percentile for ball retention in the A-League last season.
Popović’s attacking sequences typically involve ensuring that 5 players can create an overload against the opposition’s back four.
A key component of this play-style is ensuring that the wingers occupy the half spaces while the centre-forward has free reign to roam between the channel and the half-spaces on either side.
The positioning of the wingers in the half-spaces allows the wing-backs to push forward and drag the opposition’s full-backs out of position to ensure a 3v2 numerical superiority in the box for Popović’s side.
Jason Davidson (#3) is an important player for Popović’s attack due to his endurance and ability to push high and wide to create attacking overloads.
Davidson’s crossing ability combined with Ikonomidis’ smart positioning in the 18-yard area (ranked 98th percentile for receptions last season) will prove to be a lethal combination for Melbourne Victory.
Active pressing to force turnovers in the build-up phase:
While Popović has typically sought to defend in a 5-2-3 shape, the profile of players within Victory’s squad lends itself to playing in a 4-4-2 defensive shape, similar to that adopted by Graham Arnold’s Socceroos.
This involves using Marco Rojas and Ben Folami as active pressers to force turnovers in the opposition’s build-up phase.
Chris Ikonomidis and Robbie Kruse are less willing to perform active defensive duties and thus will likely be tasked to cover the wide areas of the line of four across midfield.
Ikonomidis’ and Kruse’s individual defensive deficiencies are demonstrated by the fact that Ikonomidis ranked in the 40th percentile for interceptions and 20th percentile for defensive duels while Kruse ranked in the 12th percentile across the A-League for both of these respective statistics.
Remaining compact with two lines of four:
Should Popović adopt a 4-4-2 out of possession, he will seek to minimise the space between the defensive line of four and the four players across midfield.
This compact shape makes it difficult for opposition players to find space in the ‘pockets’ or in between the lines which makes it difficult to create goalscoring opportunities or overloads out wide.
Popović made use of this defensive shape during his tenure at the Western Sydney Wanderers where he led the Wanderers to becoming the first ever Australian team to win the Asian Champions League.
Much of their success can be attributed to their compact defensive shape and willingness to maintain a 4-4-2 when out of possession. This remained true throughout Popović’s Western Sydney tenure.
The easy transition from a 3-2-5 in the attacking phase to a 4-4-2 while defending ensures that Popović can continue to attack with numbers while remaining solid in defence.
Key player profiles that fulfil Popović’s system
Ball Winning Midfielder + Deep-Lying Playmaker
Popović’s 3-2-5 attacking shape relies upon its midfield to maintain superiority. A key aspect of this midfield is ensuring that the two players offer contrasting skillsets.
At Perth Glory, Popović used a midfield two of Spanish maestro Juandé and the combative Neil Kilkenny. While both were talented with the ball at their feet, Juandé’s role was to drop deep to collect the ball while Kilkenny sought to be aggressive in the challenge and win the ball in midfield.
Popović has signed a brilliant-e ball-winning midfielder in the form of Josh Brillante who recently arrived at Melbourne Victory from Xanthi FC (where he played under Popović).
Brillante will look to play a similar role to Neil Kilkenny while Jake Brimmer is capable of asserting himself as a deep-lying playmaker similar to Juandé as he ranked in the 79th percentile for progressive passes and and 74th percentile for penetrative passes amongst A-League midfielders last season in a dire Victory side.
New signing Rai Marchán will likely start alongside Brillante in midfield as a deep-lying playmaker for Melbourne Victory while Brimmer can also operate higher up the pitch in the half-space positions or as a false nine if need be.
Dynamic wide players
Popović relies on his wide players to provide width and act as an outlet pass if the midfield cannot progress the ball through the channel or half-space. Jason Davidson and Ivan Franjić played a crucial role for Popović’s Perth Glory as they sought to orchestrate countless attacks from out-wide.
Such is the importance of these positions, that Davidson was recognised with an inclusion in the A-League’s Team of the Season in 2018/19 as he recorded 2 goals and 5 assists for Perth Glory.
The signing of Davidson for Melbourne Victory is crucial as he is likely to occupy the left-sided wide position while Robbie Kruse could be left to play wide right. Both individuals are adept at beating their man and crossing the ball to those arriving in the 18-yard area.
Creative players in the half space
Popović likes to use creative players in the half-space to create attacking opportunities via wide overloads or through balls to the centre-forward.
Diego Castro and Chris Ikonomidis performed these roles for Perth Glory while the latter was recently signed by Victory to accompany Marco Rojas in this role.
Both Rojas and Ikonomidis love to attack defenders 1v1 and are both clinical finishers when given the chance. Ikonomidis’ creativity in the final third is outstanding as he ranked in the 95th percentile amongst A-League wingers for penetrative passes, thus suggesting that he can thread vital through balls in the lead-up to attacking opportunities.
Potential areas for improvement in Melbourne Victory’s squad
With three foreign spots remaining, Melbourne Victory have great flexibility to fill gaps that exist within the squad. Popović will undoubtedly search for foreigners that can easily slot into his starting XI.
Clinical centre-forward who can drop deep
Ben Folami is Melbourne Victory’s current number nine but it is unlikely that he will start the season as Popović’s go-to centre-forward.
Folami is a creative attacker who tends to drift wide left as he seeks to cut in and use his right foot to attack the goal through direct dribbling. The young Australian was often wasteful in front of goal but could provide a nice spark off the bench.
Popović likes his centre-forward to be dynamic both in and out of possession as he tasks his number nine to press without the ball while dropping deep to assist the midfield with ball progression if need be.
Most importantly, Popović will look to sign a centre-forward who can finish off chances created by the likes of Davidson, Kruse, Rojas and Ikonomidis in the attacking third.
One gaping hole in Melbourne Victory’s squad is their lack of a recognised left-footed central defender who can play on the left of a back three. The left-footed Shane Lowry was crucial in this role for Popović’s Glory as he kickstarted attacks via his ability to quickly progress the ball from defence.
Leigh Broxham is a fine utility and a wonderful servant of the club, however, Popović will likely look to the transfer market as an avenue to signing somebody to replace him as the club’s left-sided defender. This equally frees Broxham to play as a ball-winning midfielder or to provide cover for injuries in the squad.
Victory must sign a player who can withstand pressure on the ball and thread progressive passes between the lines on his left foot. While the recent signing of Brendan Hamill could potentially fill this slot, the 28-year-old prefers to play on the right of a back 3 and will likely be used as more of a squad rotation player this season.
As aforementioned, Jake Brimmer may indeed play next to Josh Brillante as a deep-lying playmaker. However, given the importance of this role, Popović may look to strengthen this position by signing a foreigner.
This player will need to be comfortable on the ball and possess the ability to support attacks while also screening for the side’s back 3.
Popović may look to sign a player in the mould of the recently retired Basque tempo-setter Beñat Etxebarria who was crucial for Macarthur FC last season.
Most importantly, whoever Popović chooses to fulfil this role will need to be able to progress the ball quickly and thread passes in the half-space to the likes of Chris Ikonomidis and Marco Rojas.
UPDATE: Melbourne Victory have now announced the signing of Spaniard Rai Marchán who will likely fill this role as a deep-lying playmaker in midfield.
Tony Popović’s Melbourne Victory side is beginning to take shape and it has all the necessary tools to fulfil his renowned 3-2-5 attacking system. This tactical framework facilitates using dynamic player movements to open spaces and weaken the opposition’s defensive shape.
Should Popović succeed in plugging some of the squad’s holes, Melbourne Victory could very well be a force to be reckoned with in 2021/22.
All data has been sourced from Wyscout.