Why Melbourne Victory isn't getting the best out of Robbie Kruse and Ola Toivonen
"High and wide, Kenny, high and wide," Melbourne Victory coach Marco Kurz calmly instructed from the sidelines of Jack Edwards Reserve in late August.
Tim Hoogland partnered Thomas Deng -- notable with their anticipated return from injury -- in defence that night in preseason against Oakleigh Cannons. Hoogland also played in midfield. Yet, the stagnation against low defensive blocks was similar to what we have seen with Victory this A-League season proper. The same applied for their friendly the next week against Port Melbourne.
The question most relative to Victory's chances and goals coming almost solely in transitional phases against NPL teams, something that has extended to A-League opposition: How much of that was systemic and a direct result of Kurz's tactics, and how much was merely situational?
Even in preseason, it was highly evident a fit Robbie Kruse was going to be pivotal for Melbourne Victory this term. Still, the announcement of Kruse's arrival came on the same day as that of Terry Antonis' departure for Suwon Bluewings struck as a net loss.
Heading into this weekend's Melbourne derby, with two wins from 10 games -- an important variable given the teams below them have matches in hand -- Kruse's presence has not completely transformed Kurz's side. It's a small sample size, granted, but Kruse's impact has been sporadic -- isolated to the moments he can actually be involved in the game.
And the 31-year-old can do that when presented with such moments, without even touching the ball.
The clearest example that translated into a goal was his winner in Victory's 1-0 win over Perth Glory. Ola Toivonen drops in to receive the ball with Migjen Basha and Jakob Poulsen deep and square in midfield, and Kruse intuitively moves into position to receive the next pass.
The ball spreads to the overlapping Adama Traore, and Kruse immediately sprints behind the defensive line for a possible return pass. As Perth scramble from the attempted cross, he then peels off Gregory Wuthrich for a tap-in. A simple finish, but three penetrative movements within the space of seconds create that opportunity to finish.
Kruse admitted following Saturday's 0-0 draw against Wellington Phoenix, though, that his ability to create chances can be difficult when earlier phases of Victory possession disable those higher up the pitch.
"It's hard. The gaffer and the coaching staff have their own ideas and we as players have to stick to what they want to do," Kruse explained to ESPN.
"We've got quite a bit of freedom to move, I came into the middle quite a bit against Wellington, but it's difficult when we're making silly mistakes playing out from the back and not keeping the ball in other areas of the pitch.
"It was obviously a disappointing result and performance. The first half we weren't good enough, and they outplayed us. We still had a few chances here and there, but it wasn't really good enough. In the situation we're in, confidence isn't so high and we just need to keep grinding out."
A shortage of confidence has arguably never been an issue with Kruse, because to make the movements he continually makes, one has to be brave. In these situations, one also has to contain a mental clarity that can extend to the collective.
Aside from ideas on how effective Kruse could have been or could be for the Socceroos with a striker inclined to incorporate players around them in possession, that clarity and intelligence is what makes the immediacy of his understanding with Toivonen so distinct.
Arguably the best striker in the A-League, Toivonen seems ever more willing to take up riskier positions in tighter space with Kruse on or around the ball, already in such short time together. And there's a very simple explanation.
"We haven't played a lot [together]. We haven't trained a lot. I think it's been like, two weeks, and it's just the goals that are missing," Toivonen said following the Wellington draw.
"But it's easy. Robbie's been around and he's a smart player." With a grin, he punctuated, "I like smart players."
One particular example of their understanding came in the first half on Saturday against Wellington as Kruse dribbled up the pitch. Toivonen peels off Luke DeVere with almost perfect timing, and Kruse follows his pass into the Victory captain. A more accurate return pass from the Swede and Kruse could step into his shot, without having to wheel around slightly and impacting the angle of his attempt.
There was another scenario away to Western United, with Toivonen coming all the way to the left wing this time. Receiving from Traore, Toivonen instantly feeds Kruse, who is running off him. A quick dribble inside is followed by a clear attempt on goal from the edge of the penalty area, but it's off target.
These instances underline a couple of dilemmas relating to the Kruse and Toivonen tandem. As noted previously on the Australian international, he is a walking thought experiment. Kruse's end product can be underwhelming, but the ability to even create those kinds of scoring opportunities can be nullified without him.
One's optimistic acceptance of that reality depends on whether they believe at least one of the opportunities created can be realised, to change the complexion of a match. Added to that, whether the openings created can equate to a psychological pressure applied on the opponent that forces errors.
For Toivonen, the size of his and Kruse's task in incorporating the collective is also impacted by the attributes of Victory's midfielders. To this point, they have had a tendency under Kurz to move into positions with more space but less risk -- practically the opposite of what Antonis provided. It consequently forces the ball into Toivonen and Kruse to actually penetrate defensive lines. The question, in short, is do they hide?
"I want them [the midfielders] to have as much of the ball as possible, but they do a lot of work off the ball as well so I can understand, if they are tired," Toivonen said.
"That comes down to confidence too. If you get more of the ball, you want the ball all the time.
"It also means which kinds of players are playing. Jakob and Basha are really two sitting midfielders and they like to play really deep on the pitch."
Another question more relative to Victory, is does Kruse and Toivonen's noticeable understanding also come as a consequence of collective stagnation? It comes back to Kurz's intent for his wingers to have such high and wide starting positions, along with midfielders deep and square, while the fullbacks refrain from advancing.
This is all directed to feed the ball into Toivonen's retreat from his starting position. It can theoretically manipulate certain defensive positions but also leave little in terms of numbers around the ball. This has had a particularly negative impact on Kamsoba, who thrives on numbers around the ball. Shifting the Swede to attacking midfield against Western United -- as Kamsoba made way for Athiu to play up front -- removed the one aspect that made Victory even remotely threatening against a low defensive block.
This means Victory's best moments still only come in transition. In addition, something Kruse touched upon following the scoreless draw with Wellington, it becomes a harder task when attacks begin closer to their own goal than the opposition's.
"Ola's obviously a really good link-up player. That's one of his roles in the team and it's been really difficult for him because he has been so isolated. It is what it is," Kruse said.
"In my three games, I think in two of them at least, I've been really good. Confidence is a big thing and we have nine points from 10 games. For me, I did as much as I could to open the pitch and beat players. Trying to do it from your own half makes it even tougher."
One must not forget, the disappointing start to Kurz's tenure has all played out while Melbourne City try to keep pace with Sydney FC at the top of the table.
Boos around the ground from Victory fans -- like those after the final whistle against Wellington -- have developed this season both in volume and ferocity. Pressure is growing due to the aimlessness of performances in attack, and the lack of self-assurance from Victory players on the pitch is becoming a more tangible aspect.
A lightning rod for criticism from observers of Australian football, and after a lengthy period in Germany, Kruse is no stranger to pressure. With Kruse now back in Australia and returning from injury, Saturday's derby -- one that can define Victory's season and either relieve or apply further pressure to Kurz -- provides an opportunity to change that.
"It's maybe why I'm not too stressed about the situation now, when you're in relegation battles over there, where there's a lot more pressure. My little ones loving being back in Australia," he said.
"It's good to finally get back on the pitch so hopefully I can keep building my fitness and contribute. This week against City, there's no better time to get on the front foot."