Tony Popovic preparing for his first match as Victory coach. (Photo: Melbourne Victory FC)

After two seasons of less than average football, Melbourne Victory need to start season 2021/22 with a bang. This is what we could see from Victory in their opening match

Last season, Melbourne Victory was nothing short of a debacle. From start to finish, Victory played uninspiring football at a subdued pace, they were both penetrable in defence and blunt in attack. 

To fix their problems, Victory hired Tony Popovic, and if there is anyone as experienced in getting an immediate reaction out of an underwhelming side, it’s one of the most esteemed managers that Australia has produced. The lazy football that Victory has played for the majority of the last 24 months, has left a gaping hole in the A-League Men competition that has yet to be re-filled.

The hiring of Tony Popovic marked a change in direction from Melbourne Victory, they vowed to be back where they think they belong. For this to be a reality, changes in on-field performances are a must, starting from this weekend.

So, what could the footballing public see from this transformed Melbourne Victory side in their first league outing of season 2021/22?

Melbourne Victory on Twitter: "All ears for The Boss ?️?  https://t.co/qFIy172WL2" / Twitter
Tony Popovic taking training. (Photo: Melbourne Victory)

Versatility in systems

Tony Popovic is a versatile manager. He has shown that he is adept at playing two different systems – a 3-4-3 and a 4-2-3-1, so let’s look at how Victory could set up in either system and how they could play. 

Starting with the three at the back system – this is the formation that Tony Popovic used in his most recent stint in Australia with Perth Glory. Tony Popovic used this system to lead Perth to win the Premier’s Plate in his first year and reach the Semi-Final the following season. 

Starting with the system out of possession, whilst it starts as a 3-4-3, they defend in a 5-4-1, with the inside forwards dropping deep to create the 4-man midfield and the wings back dropping deep to create the five in defence. The four in midfield sit narrow to cut off passing lanes and restrict space in between the lines.

This is done to push the opposition out wide where the wing-back can press intensely and the nearest of the midfield 4 comes wide to box the player in, forcing them backward.

In the initial stages of build-up play, the side will press intensely up the pitch, if the first line of pressing is bypassed, the side will drop back quickly into position and employ a slightly less aggressive press, instead, focusing on cutting off passing lanes. 

Similarly, in possession, Tony Popovic’s style has multiple ways of being effective. The 3-4-3 shape is maintained in the initial stages of build-up play, however, once the side progresses the ball up the field, the formation becomes more attacking. 

The first phase of build-up play sees the outside centre-backs push wide, allowing the wingbacks to push high. The double-pivot in midfield sits tight and deep initially, preventing an effective counter-press should the side lose the ball.

The ball is either moved up through the wingbacks quickly and vertically or through a diagonal pass by either one of the centre backs or the midfielders, out to the opposite wing-back. This sees the inside forwards drop deep and narrow, in the half-spaces, to help with build-up play and connect the midfield with the attack

Once the ball is progressed into the final third, the wingbacks push high and wide, maintaining width as well as creating overloads on the defence. One of the double pivots in midfield will push further forward, whereas one stays back to recycle possession. 

The two inside forwards stay in the half-space, drifting wide to allow for underlapping runs from the wingbacks, as well as making runs through the defence. This creates a 3-1-5-1 system when the ball is progressed in an advanced area, thus creating overloads and allowing for space either out wide, or in between the lines. 

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However, Tony Popovic has played a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 in Australia before, in his days as Western Sydney Wanderers manager. This was employed throughout his time managing the Wanderers, leading to the famous Asian Champions League victory in 2014.

Similarly, to his three at the back system, out of possession, this 4-2-3-1 turns into a 4-4-2 with the central attacking midfielder joining the striker, pressing the centre-backs. The two banks of 4 sit in a medium block, with the pressing not being as intense as it could be. Again, just like in the back three, the midfield four sit very narrow to reach the similar aim of forcing the opposition out wide.

Once they regain possession, they play a quick, vertical, and high tempo game style, looking to break the lines quickly with pace and direct football. This is done by the wide attacking midfielders sitting very narrow, creating intricate passing patterns within themselves and the striker, as well as creating overloads in the central areas. 

The width is maintained by the bombing on full-backs who push high and wide, with the midfield double pivot sitting deep and tight, ensuring solidity should the ball be turned over. This turns the system into a 2-2-5-1 when attacking, with the striker always being the focal point of the attack, where all the direct balls are aimed to.

System dictated by personnel

These are the two systems that Tony Popovic is versatile in, so the question remains, which system will he use? This question needs to be answered based on the personnel that Victory has available. Victory has managed to get through pre-season without any major injuries, so baring match fitness, Tony Popovic has a near-on full squad to pick from. 

The likes of Jason Davidson, Jason Geria, Chris Ikonomidis, and Nick D’Agostino are all familiar with the 3-4-3 system, and this system got the best of out the latter two in particular. While they are a little bit light in the center-back, with Geria potentially needing to fill in that role, this is the system that Tony Popovic will most likely implement in the first match of the season. 

Ben Folami, Robbie Kruse, Marco Rojas, D’Agostino, and Ikonomidis are all adept at playing nearly every role across that narrow front line, creating the fluidity and depth needed for Tony Popovic to implement this system efficiently. Similarly, the double pivot in midfield can be covered by a multitude of players.

A chance to right the wrongs

In either of the systems that Tony Popovic implements, both are structured in a way that requires extremely high tactical familiarity and an abundance of discipline. This side might not be familiar enough with either system yet for it to be extremely effective, however, due to the versatility of both the players at their disposal and the gaffer in charge, there will always be a plan b to fall back to.  

With the last two seasons being what they were for the Victory, this is their chance at redemption.

This is their chance to right the wrongs of the previous 24 months, and who better to have in charge than the only Australian manager to win the Asian Champions League. 

This opening game will set the tone for the rest of the season. Victory hasn’t won their opening league match since 2014, collecting only three points in the time since. What Victory show this opening match will tell everyone, whether or not Tony Popovic has had the impact that the footballing public all think he could have on this Victory side.

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