The 2022/23 season will be one where fans of Melbourne Victory expect results.
The club that prides itself on being Australia’s biggest football club will need to bounce back from an unexpected semi-final loss at the hands of eventual A-League Champions Western United where John Aloisi’s side comprehensively outwitted the boys in blue. That error strewn display which put an end to a 15-game undefeated streak will undoubtedly serve as motivation moving forward.
Head coach Tony Popović made a swift response by signing Manchester United legend Nani on a two-year marquee contract. This move signalled that Victory are willing to flex their financial muscles to help alleviate some of the issues that placed a blemish on an otherwise very strong side last season.
Nani’s signing has since been complemented by left-back Cadete López while Jason Davidson and Marco Rojas headline the club’s departures.
Both Nani and López have made appearances in pre-season and were at the heart of a 7-0 friendly win against Northcote City last week. Paul Izzo has also demonstrated his strong shot-stopping ability while Tomi Jurić looms as a tidy Plan B depth option in attack.
While it is easy to overstate the importance of pre-season games (in the grand scheme of things they are not really that important), they give teams like Victory an opportunity to refine and experiment with new structures and patterns of play.
Last season, Melbourne Victory’s name became associated with resolute defending, swift movement in transition and a capacity to hit teams with a sucker punch through counter-attacks. Roderick Miranda and Matt Spiranović were crucial in organising the defensive unit and allowing the side to absorb pressure before quickly moving the ball to Jake Brimmer and Ben Folami and allowing the duo to work their magic at the end of the pitch.
As is characteristic of Popović-coached sides, Victory were purposeful and determined when scoring first and often found joy in scoring early before challenging the opposition to pry open their compact 4-4-2 defensive block.
However, the side’s detractors pointed to Victory’s perceived lack of imagination in possession and struggles to generate meaningful opportunities against defences sat behind the ball as chinks in their armour.
Judging by Victory’s four pre-season games so far – which include an Australia Cup game, a friendly against Manchester United and two friendlies against NPL opposition – it would appear that Popović has identified these concerns as areas of improvement as he looks to take his team to the next level.
In the team’s only competitive pre-season fixture in the Round of 32 of the Australia Cup against Western United, Melbourne Victory were unlucky to walk away with a loss after a solid all-round performance. In this game, Victory registered 61.14% of the ball. Last season’s side only usurped this number on two occasions throughout the season. Their average of 46.9% possession last season was the third lowest in the league.
However, Victory’s control over the ball against Western United was not inconsequential as Popović’s side generated a swathe of opportunities that should have been enough to win the match. Not only did Victory register 17 shots in comparison with Western United’s four, but their quality of chances created is underscored by their 2.15 expected goals (xG) during the 90 minutes.
While the reliability of using xG for single fixtures is somewhat disputed, in this scenario Victory’s xG in concert with their volume of shots paints a relatively clear picture of how easily they could breach Western United’s notoriously water-tight defence.
Sporting a new 4-3-3 formation, Jake Brimmer and Josh Brillante worked in unison to overload Western United in the attacking third. Brimmer worked particularly well with Folami down the left-hand side while Chris Ikonomidis was a persistent threat at running off the shoulder of Western United’s last line.
Arguably however, the most interesting aspect of Victory’s play was not what they did with the ball but rather, their proactivity in attempting to win the ball back from the opposition. On multiple occasions, Victory pressed with as many as five players as they sought to harass the opposition into surrendering possession of the ball. This hints at a subtle change from last season where the side often prioritised cautious defending as opposed to a more risky high defensive line.
Measuring the amount of passes allowed by a team per defensive action recorded (PPDA against) can help to illustrate the intensity of a team’s press. With an average of 12.78 passes per defensive action, Victory ranked eighth in the league in this area. Unsurprisingly, Arthur Papas’ Newcastle ranked first with an average of 8.51 as he sought to inculcate a more daring albeit sometimes reckless system of play without the ball.
Against Western United, Melbourne Victory’s PPDA was 8.54. The only game of last season where Victory recorded a better pressing intensity was in their 3-1 victory against Wellington Phoenix.
The new mentality and attitude that Popović is wishing to instil without the ball is particularly evident in the following two sequences of play.
Firstly, Victory demonstrated their aggressive pressing from the outset of the match as Brillante pushed forward to form a line of four with Folami, Brimmer and Velupillay behind Ikonomidis who led the side’s press and looked to force the ball out wide.
Notice the positioning of Stefan Nigro. He has pushed up the field significantly to support the press and stay tight on his direct opponent Connor Pain. In doing so, he forces Pain into a tight area where his lack of first time passing options causes him to make an error and lose possession.
One minute later, Victory displayed a capacity to generate scoring chances when implementing this mentality of wanting to win the ball back high up the field.
With all immediate passing options blocked by Victory’s players, Tomoki Imai attempts to carry the ball beyond Victory’s first line of pressure. This causes the Western United’s defender to run into a cul-de-sac where Brimmer comfortably strips him of possession.
Marchán then neatly threads the ball back to Brimmer who plays a first time ball in the path of Chris Ikonomidis. Imai does well to get across and block the shot before Ikonomidis has a chance to bear down upon Jamie Young in a 1v1 situation but regardless, Victory’s press worked well to win the ball and then generate a chance on goal.
In possession, Brillante has been noticeably deferring more responsibility to Marchán in build-up. Marchán is often unfazed under pressure and capable of breaking lines with his progressive passing as opposed to Brillante who is typically more conservative on the ball.
By deploying Brillante in more advanced areas, Popović can unlock Brillante’s strength of arriving late in the box while also harnessing his athleticism and desire to win the ball back when Victory surrender possession. It will be interesting to observe whether this becomes a permanent fixture of Victory’s play throughout the season.
In recent games against Northcote City and Dandenong Thunder, this structure has reaped its rewards. While games against NPL opposition must be taken with a pinch of salt, Victory have looked swashbuckling in attack, scoring nine goals across the two games while conceding none.
Most pleasingly for Victory fans, Nani scored twice and assisted another in a 45 minute cameo against Northcote City. The former Portugal international looked calm on the ball and capable of producing a decisive action from all areas of the pitch. He linked well with his teammates and clinically tucked away his two goals by arriving in the box and positioning himself in unmarked areas.
Finding a way to coalesce Nani’s unique skillset, a uniform team pressing structure and strong transitional threat will reap big rewards. That is Tony Popović’s biggest challenge moving forward.
Image Source: Behind The Lens