They fought tooth and nail until the final whistle. Victory was minutes away; it was in their grasp. However, in a trice, Melbourne Victory was staring down the barrel of a disappointing defeat.
Then enter Ben Folami, who smashes one into the top corner, and with four minutes to play, the game is level again.
Despite Victory eventually falling in extra time, they showed resilience and persistence that is at the core of every Tony Popovic side. This ‘do or die’ mentality was built off the back of the system and structure put in place by the gaffer for their trip to Japan.
In every game this season, Melbourne Victory has lined up in a variation of a 4-2-3-1. The strong double-pivot acts as the defensive support that allowed the front four to flourish.
However, Popovic identified something different in this match. The opposition, Vissel Kobe, far out-matched Victory in the personnel department, having three-time Champions League winner Andres Iniesta dictating tempo from midfield.
Popovic moved systems, to a much more defensive and rigid 3-4-1-2. This system aimed to get more numbers in midfield to restrict the space Iniesta has to play with and flood the defensive third to restrict the space where Iniesta can play through.
Out of possession, this moved to a 5-5-0. The reason was very simple: restrict space and get numbers behind the ball.
There was no real method to this madness, with the pressing being very player specific. Nick D’Agostino and Chris Ikonomidis were the main pressing forwards, with Jake Brimmer shuttling between the lines.
The wing-backs stayed wide and deep, ensuring no space in-behind could be exploited. The centre backs supported this by staying narrow and deep, being able to sweep up any loose ball.
The double-pivot were very limited in their roles. Holding position and rarely making any third man runs, they allowed for very few counter-attacks against as they would always have strength in numbers from any transition.
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Despite allowing Vissel Kobe 961 passes, they only created three big chances throughout the 120 minutes. Compare this to the measly 413 passes from Victory, but five big chances created.
Considering Victory missed three of the five, it could’ve been a completely different story if Victory had their shooting boots on.
The reason why they were able to create so many chances, was the incredibly disciplined and enduring performance from D’Agostino, but also Ikonomidis and Folami when he made an appearance.
The attacking system was very structured. When Victory got possession, they would often launch the ball long, bypassing the four-man Kobe midfield, and play it into the feet of one of the front three.
They would then play it back and make a reverse run for the 18-yard box, where the ball would end up with another forward who had made a run down the line.
While not every attack followed this regimented system, the idea and aim of it was to try to get in behind the fullbacks in transition and get the ball into the box.
It wasn’t the most attractive football, but it certainly worked. Two-thirds of Victory’s goals came from either a long ball or a cross into the box, with the third coming from a set-piece.
It was a drastic change of formation from Victory. While Popovic has experience playing this system at other clubs, seeing it for a must-win game with a side who never played it before shows the courage and bravery from him.
Expect a return to normality in the Melbourne Derby on the weekend, but this 120-minute rollercoaster was one to behold.
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