Following a third win of the season in a historic victory against Adelaide United, Melbourne Victory fans are embracing the club’s revolution under Tony Popović.
Initially, many fans of the club were apprehensive about the appointment of the former Western Sydney Wanderers manager due to him often – and sometimes unfairly – being tarred with the perception of prioritising pragmatism over free-flowing football.
This uncertainty was largely cultivated by the consistency with which Melbourne Victory’s fans have been enamoured with the prospect of attacking football, having experienced success under both Ernie Merrick and Kevin Muscat – each largely perceived as proponents of free-flowing football.
Given that the club’s last foray into the depths of pragmatic managers ended with Marco Kurz being sacked after 13 games in charge, many could fairly justify their concerns.
However, after finishing last season at the bottom of the A-League table, Victory’s loyal fanbase have welcomed Popović’s results-driven approach which has yielded three wins from the club’s first four games, with the sole blip being a red card-affected anomaly against Perth Glory.
There is a tangible sense of unity and positivity that now seems to permeate the club’s relationship with its fanbase. The more than a thousand Victory fans who battled stringent COVID testing regulations to make the 700 kilometre trip to Adelaide last weekend provide a mere microcosm of this resurrected enthusiasm.
This connection – that last season verged on toxic and belligerent – seems to directly stem from the team’s performances on-field with the current team almost universally heralded among the fanbase for their desire to fulfil the fans’ lofty standards.
Thus, despite Popović’s side perhaps not punctuating the offensive dynamism consistent with teams of Victory’s past, his capacity to inculcate a playing style which seamlessly coalesces flexibility, solidity and individuality has caught the eye of onlookers and attracted over 14,000 people to the team’s last home match.
Should these results continue, it’s difficult to imagine a world where that number does not exponentially increase – particularly with a derby against cross-town rivals Melbourne City looming on the horizon.
In a general sense, these facets combined with clear ideas both in and out of possession make Popović’s Melbourne Victory a menacing proposition for teams in the A-League. However, there are – of course – more intrinsic explanations for Victory’s robust and successful start to the season.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Melbourne Victory’s side under Popović is its midfield dynamic. Having been treated to the fruits of Migjen Basha, Jakob Poulsen and Jacob Butterfield in recent seasons, Victory fans have been yearning for a Carl Valeri replacement in midfield since his departure at the end of the 2018/19 season.
Although none of their current outfit can be viewed as a direct replacement, the intelligence and efficiency promulgated by Popović’s midfield has been impressive to say the least.
Against Brisbane, Victory deployed its first-choice midfield of Rai Marchán and Josh Brillante starting in a double pivot with Jake Brimmer deployed as a No.10.
Although his side tends to form a 4-2-3-1 shape for the most part, often the positional rotations of his midfield will make the team appear as more of an asymmetric 4-3-3 with either Marchán or Brillante comfortable at receiving the ball between the two centre-halves, allowing them to split and thus create a back three.
A common application of this pattern is Marchán dropping into a back three with Brillante slightly ahead on the right-hand side with Brimmer taking up a more advanced position on the left of the midfield three.
In a recent press conference, Tony Popović explained to the media that these rotations are intentional and occur within a specific structure that allows the individual players to have freedom on the ball and play in a way that suits their skillset.
“[The rotations] are all done within a structure, the players know that within those structures they are free to move and combine accordingly and have the freedom to express themselves when they get the ball in those areas,” he said.
This pattern of play is primarily deployed in Victory’s build-up phase where Spanish metronome Marchán has been particularly impressive so far this season. Marchán is comfortable on the ball and superb at playing disguised passes to teammates stationing themselves between the defensive lines.
By allowing continuous rotations in midfield, Marchán is able to embrace a positive and front-footed style of playing out from the back because Brillante and Brimmer typically make themselves available to receive passes from good angles.
As a consequence, this allows Victory to control much of the space in midfield, thus reducing the likelihood that one of the team’s wingers would have to drop deep to receive the ball. This is important because it allows the team’s greatest offensive weapons to do the most damage in the final third.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of this pattern has been Jake Brimmer who has been a key asset to Melbourne Victory at the start of this season. The mercurial midfield dynamo, who joined the boys in blue last season, was often Victory’s single beacon for hope in a season characterised by disappointment.
Often used in a double pivot under Grant Brebner, Brimmer’s effervescence in an attacking sense was often clouded by his deficiencies defensively and playing out from the back under pressure, often leading to sharp criticism from those who felt his good performances were too often interspersed with poor ones.
Under Popović, in this role as an advanced 8/10, Brimmer’s weaknesses are less pronounced due to the presence of two holding midfielders behind him to do his running which thus allows him to focus primarily on creating chances in the final third.
Brimmer’s freedom to position himself in attacking areas has resulted in him being ranked third in the league for chances created after four games with only Craig Noone and Valentino Yuel trumping the Melbourne-native in this department.
Although a small sample size, it is no coincidence that Brimmer’s average of three chances created per match trumps the 2.76 that he boasted per game last season.
Why has Brimmer been so effective under Popović?
As aforementioned, positional rotations in midfield will often see Brimmer rotated towards the left of the three or the right of the three should Brillante drop deep.
This has been highly effective for Brimmer because it allows him to always position himself in the left or right attacking half-space – referring to the zone between the centre of the pitch and the wing – where he can look to face forward and create dangerous opportunities.
When occupying this position, Brimmer has the freedom to come deep to receive the ball from Marchán just above the half-way line to support the build-up but also has the capacity to receive the ball on the edge of the box to make decisive passes in the final third.
According to Tony Popović, Brimmer’s spacial awareness and intelligence at making runs off the ball allows him to often find pockets of space on either side of the central channel which allows him to create chances.
“Jakey is that type of a player, he’s a very mobile player that likes to move off the ball,” he said.
“He has the freedom to find the spaces himself, it may be that this week the space is central and Jakey will try to find the space in that area and at the moment he’s trying to combine with the attacking players and the midfielders to find the space that can create opportunities for us.”
Although Victory’s manager flagged the possibility of Brimmer finding space more centrally if the space is available in that area, the half-space is often a more dangerous area for a creative player to receive the ball because it gives them a better angle to deliver balls into the area as well as to thread passes into wide areas.
The data certainly seems to suggest that the half-spaces on either side of the channel are the areas where Brimmer prefers to position himself in order to effectively create chances for the team.
In fact, Brimmer has rarely touched the ball in the central channel during Melbourne Victory’s first four matches of the season. Instead he has become accustomed to finding room to create chances in the half-spaces where the team’s positional rotations allow him the freedom to shoulder the weight of the team’s creative responsibility.
Although Victory’s first match demonstrated Brimmer’s slight preference to receive the ball in the half-spaces, the inclusion of captain Brillante for the second match of the season accentuated this desire and resulted in Brimmer controlling these areas of the pitch.
Against Brisbane, Brimmer was superb at receiving the ball in these zones and created four chances during the match off the back of his ability to make passes from these areas. He also took the set-piece that led to Melbourne Victory’s first goal of the match – an unfortunate own goal from young defender Kai Trewin.
For Tony Popović, the most impressive goal during the match against Brisbane would likely have been the side’s third goal where Brimmer capitalised on his dominance in the half-spaces by unselfishly making a forward run which drew two defenders out of position, thus vacating space for a Marco Rojas cross to Ben Folami who eventually headed home the third and final goal of the encounter.
This intelligence and unselfishness from Brimmer in being able to recognise space is a function of the system in which he is being deployed and is demonstrative of Popović’s attention to detail in ensuring that his midfielders use their strengths to work for each other.
Josh Brillante is another beneficiary of these positional rotations as it allows him to be positioned higher up the pitch in the brief moments when Victory lose the ball and attempt to win it back. Given the captain’s skill in 50-50 duels and tackling, it is no surprise that Popović would prefer Brillante to impart himself as a high intensity pressing player when Victory lose the ball.
This often gives Brillante the freedom to contribute to attacking sequences when Victory win the ball.
All in all, the consistency of these positional rotations in midfield is an effective pattern of play for Melbourne Victory because it caters to the specific skillsets of their three players in midfield while equally ensuring that the side is not predictable when building attacking sequences.
The functionality of Melbourne Victory’s midfield has also allowed Popović to continue his attempt to create overloads down the left-hand side in order to generate goal-scoring opportunities.
As previously alluded in an article which detailed how Melbourne could have potentially lined up this season, Popović likes to create overloads down the left-hand side, often with the aim of releasing a player into space.
At Perth Glory, this meant players often interchanged positions in a diamond pattern within the left wing and left half-space with the aim of releasing Diego Castro at the tip of the diamond.
It is no surprise that Popović has sought to maintain this preference of initiating attacks from the left-hand side, particularly when considering that both Jason Davidson and Jake Brimmer often find themselves in attacking areas on the left-hand side.
With an average of 46.6% of Victory’s attacks coming from the left (compared to just 31.05% from the right), Popović’s team has a clear bias towards initiating attacks from Davidson’s side.
Against Brisbane, Victory attempted to overload the left hand-side and thus initiate attacks by ensuring that either Brimmer or Davidson was unmarked and thus given the freedom to deliver balls into the penalty area.
These left-sided overloads became a more prevalent feature against Adelaide United when a staggering 55.8% of the sides attacks emanated from the left compared with 21.6% from the right.
This was probably an attempt to expose Adelaide’s out of position duo at right-back and right centre-back as Victory looked to specifically target Jacob Tratt and Juandé.
Regardless of the intentions behind the clear prioritisation to attack from the left, the seamless ability to attack so consistently from one side is made possible due to the functionality of Victory’s midfield that allows Brimmer to drift into areas where he feels he can positively affect the match.
Against Adelaide, it was more than obvious that these areas were in a wider position on the left-hand side than the positions in the left half-space that he had preferred to occupy in previous games.
Brimmer’s clever positioning caused some problems for Adelaide United and this was none more obvious than when Jason Davidson thought he had broken the deadlock before his right-footed strike was disallowed.
When considering the functionality of Victory’s midfield and taking into account the performances of Jake Brimmer within this system of play, it is easy to see why they sit second on the A-League Men table after four matches.
Whether this tactical flexibility and fluidity remains ever-present throughout the season is a question set to be answered in the coming weeks, but irrespective of the club’s future endeavours, Tony Popović has undoubtedly inculcated a playing style conducive to winning games and restoring Melbourne Victory to its heights of seasons past.