Ange Postecoglou’s defection to Melbourne Victory from champions Brisbane Roar was the biggest managerial change of the off-season. How he will mould a dysfunctional Victory side into a winning outfit remains perhaps the most intriguing question ahead of the new A-League season.
At Brisbane, Postecoglou was central to the side’s unprecedented success. He established a new playing philosophy centred on monopolising possession, and high tempo passing and pressing. Players look to take one touch and pass the ball, opening up devastating channels of space for the wide forwards and central striker to exploit. It was a model executed to near-perfection, and resulted in Brisbane becoming the first side in the A-League to retain the championship. An impressive playing model aside, Postecoglou is also given much due credit for assembling a young talented squad even under the constraints of a salary cap and for instilling a hungry and courageous attitude amongst his players, so clearly evident in their spectacular comeback from 2-0 down with five minutes to go of extra time in the 2011 Grand Final.
When he first signed for Melbourne, Postecoglou reassured the Roar faithful that he wouldn’t be back to raid his former club for players. Furthermore, in an interview he gave to The World Game website in July he spoke of a desire to avoid replicating the Brisbane model, suggesting instead that his new team would be an extension of his footballing ideals not necessarily working within the same framework that was so successful at Brisbane. In this sense, it probably means that Melbourne won’t use the same deliberate patterns of play as the Roar, such as Erik Paartalu’s dropping into the back four to create a three man central defence and allowing the full backs to provide width further up the pitch.
Therefore, how Victory will seek to play this season should form one of the best storylines, especially if pre-season is anything of an indicator. The early signs out of the Victory camp weren’t promising, as last season’s marquee Harry Kewell was released in order to care for his sick mother in England. However, the return of Marcos Flores to Australia was cause for great excitement amongst the Victory fans, even if it did leave many Adelaide fans ruing their side’s inability to tempt the 2010 Johnny Warren Player of the Year back to the Reds.
Amongst the excitement, many fans were asking how exactly Postecoglou was planning to fit both the Argentine and fellow new signing Guilherme Finkler into the same lineup. After all, both are most comfortable in attacking midfield positions, looking for incisive passes and to control the tempo of the match.
Postecoglou’s answer may lie in the aforementioned interview: in it, he suggests that “Spain have shown us during Euro 2012 that you can afford to be less dependent on strikers and still win.”
This is only fitting. Much of the playing style instilled at Brisbane arose from the Johan Cruyff inspired philosophy at Barcelona, which prioritises possession above all and does away with the conventional target man in favour of a more contemporary ‘false nine’. Appropriating the one element of that system that was never implemented at Brisbane – the false nine – would be a thoroughly appropriate “tweak” to make at the Victory.
Against Moreland, Flores and Finkler interchanged beautifully, and combined with aggressive wing play from Julius Davies and Theo Markelis out wide, the Victory attack was devastating – and lacked a recognisable striker. In a fluid, attacking 4-2-3-1, Melbourne’s attacking players had the freedom to interchange as freely as Roar did at their best, and as Brebner testified after the match, “their movement was fantastic. I still don’t know now where they were really playing because they were all over the place. I don’t know who their centre-forward was and I don’t know who the one behind was, because they were interchanging and it’s hard to mark”.
Lifting the shackles on what has always been one of the A-League’s most potent strike forces is a tantalising prospect. Should Postecoglou persist with such a system, and results suggest he will, the A-League will be privy to an exciting new step in tactical evolution.
Regardless of whether Melbourne do tinker with the idea of emulating current world and European champions Spain, there is much to be excited about. Melbourne drastically underperformed last season both in terms of results and entertainment, and Postecoglou’s predominant pledge to the fans has been to promise “aggressive, attacking football.” Previously marginalised players such as Leigh Broxham and Spase Dileski have the opportunity to revitalise their careers under Postecoglou, while underperformers from last season such as Archie Thompson and Marcos Rojas should be reborn in a new playing model. If Postecoglou’s stint at Brisbane is anything of a measure to go by, there is no reason to doubt Victory as a title favourite this season.