Melbourne Victory's diamond midfield can be exploited by Wellington Phoenix
With 19 points out of a possible 27, Melbourne Victory scored 27 goals in the opening nine rounds of the A-League season. On the surface, their attack looked extremely formidable.
Victory's round 10 match-up against Wellington was of a much different nature, however.
The Phoenix had largely contained them for the opening hour at AAMI Park and, in 62nd minute, David Williams put the visitors ahead. It was a fine finish, creating separation from Storm Roux by cutting inside and curling his shot past a full-stretch Lawrence Thomas from just outside the penalty area.
There was something peculiar about his celebration, though. Williams wheeled away and ran straight to the bench, as the Phoenix players and coaching staff celebrated together.
It evoked something more than just the elation of scoring a goal and taking the lead. Rather, the satisfaction of a plan coming together.
In the postmatch news conference, Phoenix boss Mark Rudan was asked if he was stunned by the defensive approaches of Victory's opponents to that point.
"Yes, good question," Rudan said. "Because one thing I said to the players having watched them -- and you do respect the champions -- I hadn't seen anyone do what we planned to do."
And on whether there was any surprise with that plan's degree of effectiveness: "No, because we did our homework."
Despite the 1-1 draw, following Ola Toivonen's 77th minute equaliser, the game's complexion looked informative with those differing defensive approaches in context.
Fast forward to Victory's three straight losses to open their AFC Champions League campaign, and that draw in December looked less like aiding a cognitive bias, and more like proof. Proof that in both attacking and defensive phases, Kevin Muscat's much-publicised midfield diamond has glaring susceptibilities.
The question in approach pertains to the estimation of risk. In all three regular season games against Victory, in contrast to the rest of the A-League, Wellington have embraced that risk both with and without the ball.
Overall this season, the Phoenix have been relentless defensively. Over the course of the year, they have had the lowest average of passes per defensive action (8.05) in the A-League and the highest average of duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent possession (5.2).
In relation to Victory, it isn't specifically how hard Wellington have worked in the defensive phase under Rudan, but where on the pitch.
Closer to goal, with the likes of Toivonen, Terry Antonis and Keisuke Honda, Victory can swiftly manipulate defensive positions to generate goal-scoring opportunities, combining intuitive movement and technical precision.
Individual quality is the team's biggest attribute. Over the course of this regular season, Victory ranked second in the A-League for average possession per match (53.9 percent), but eighth for total shots (321) with a sizeable disparity between their xG total (36.21) and actual total for goals (50).
Victory also ranked second in the A-League for shots on target (40.81 percent) and second lowest for headed attempts (37). In short, their phases of possession fluctuate between patient and laboured, but they are good enough to quickly hurt the opposition when the opportunity presents.
Evidence suggests, however, denying Victory those goal-scoring opportunities can be achieved by denying them in getting that high up the pitch to begin with.
The week before that draw against Wellington, there was a moment that underlined the vulnerabilities of the diamond in Victory's derby match against Melbourne City.
In the 43rd minute, with City midfielder Luke Brattan receiving treatment on the sidelines, Muscat demands Leigh Broxham to move to the touchline in an attempt to spread the defence out. The ball comes to him and play immediately breaks down in Victory's half, with City winning possession. City could consequently move the ball back inside and directly up the middle of the pitch with Carl Valeri isolated. Rostyn Griffiths' long range attempt is only just denied by Thomas, who tips the effort over the bar.
It was only one moment but the next week, upon James Troisi's loss of possession, an isolated Valeri attempts to press and Sarpreet Singh spots room to both turn and go through the middle. This leads to Williams' opener.
In possession, players in the Victory defensive line and deeper in midfield are arguably more exploitable, with less reliable control of the ball and rigid movement off it. Muscat's implementation of the midfield diamond in a 4-4-2 possibly exacerbates that, from both defensive and attacking perspectives.
Notwithstanding the fact he is largely isolated, with the wider midfielders tending to spread out to the touchlines, Valeri's relatively conservative movement at the base of midfield doesn't relieve that pressure either.
Where Wellington found joy in pressing Victory was through Singh marking Valeri tightly, along with the wing-backs in Rudan's 3-4-3 pressing high. A number of times, the Phoenix were man-on-man with Victory's back five, creating multiple scenarios where Victory would either lose the ball closer to their own goal or are forced to clear the ball long.
In this case, Muscat's side neither occupies or controls the middle in earlier phases of possession, the area on the field that provides greatest optionality.
Because the deepest midfielder in that diamond has so much space to patrol, Victory are even more vulnerable than normal in scenarios where opposition gain possession. It's a relatively abstract footballing concept, but defending with the ball is a key concern.
Defending with the ball relates to the speed of which the ball can be won back, in the event of losing possession. For example, it can be achieved by something as simple as making the defence turn towards their own goal or having numbers in closer proximity to the ball.
In Asian competition, against teams accustomed to higher tempo and more inclined to accept the risk that comes with moving into advanced spaces, Daegu FC, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Guangzhou Evergrande all scored through targeted pressing of Brown, Deng and Valeri, then exploiting both the centre and half-space.
Notably, away to Sanfrecce on matchday two, Muscat's introductions of Kenny Athiu and Valeri opened the game up late in the second half. Despite Honda's equaliser, another Sanfrecce goal seemed inevitable, and thus it proved through Daiki Watari's winner.
This is where Troisi's hamstring injury is particularly important, not solely because he has the technical capacity to punish teams when the opportunity arises. Rather, Muscat has conservatively tended to deploy Raul Baena in the wider midfield position within that diamond, when his options in personnel have decreased.
There is a case to be made for Baena's shift to the base of midfield. Along with sound defensive capabilities, he's less penetrative on the ball than the likes of Elvis Kamsoba and Rahmat Akbari, but more evasive than Valeri both on and off it.
It might not entirely remove the structural flaws of that diamond and its implementation, but it can arguably prove less susceptible.
Ultimately, at the heart of it all lies Muscat's plan and ability to respond to these potential difficulties in possession. Bear in mind that last season, Victory's postseason triumph was based on a reactive strategy, stifling Sydney FC and Newcastle's phases of possession before springing into transitional opportunities.
As noted previously, they faced severe difficulty breaking down Adelaide United, as the predominantly active team in the elimination final. With Muscat's teams, the lingering doubt has never been about Victory's possession itself, but the nature of that possession.
This season, Muscat has regularly spoken of a more positive approach and the importance of the performance as much as the result, in reaching an ultimate goal. However, given the need to accommodate the individual talent he has at his disposal, the Victory coach has made tactical and personnel decisions that seem at odds with this new-found ideology.
As such, all three regular season games this term saw Wellington gain the early ascendancy, but relinquished control late in the second half, trying to maintain the energy required to continually compress space higher up the field.
The element of randomness is ever-present in football -- especially in knockout games such as these -- and anything can happen, but there is enough evidence to suggest the complexion to Friday's elimination final could be similar.
In the end, Victory's A-League title chances could depend on whether the Phoenix can truly capitalise, before that shift in momentum comes.