A severely injury-hit Melbourne Victory lined up with a makeshift back-four – Dali Markovic making his starting debut at left-back, Leigh Broxham filling in at centre-back, with Storm Roux and Aaron Anderson filling out the defence. Birkan Kirdar continued his recent run of games with an appearance at left midfield and Rudy Gestede, Robbie Kruse and Callum McManaman shared the pitch for just the second time this season.
Western United kept the same lineup as their last outing against Macarthur FC, with what seems to be their regular lineup. The right flank was an attacking one, with Dylan Pierias at right wing-back was Dylan Pierias and Tomoki Imai continuing at right-centre-back.
Melbourne Victory’s direct play
Neither side pressed particularly high, so both teams were able to build up play how they wanted.
Melbourne Victory’s build-up saw the full-backs start fairly deep, which was a bit of a surprise as we’ve often seen Storm Roux in particular driving forwards out of defence. Instead, we saw a flat back-four with patient build-up play looking to get into midfield.
The midfield structure was also a bit different with Brimmer and Butterfield in central midfield and Kirdar on the left. While Butterfield continued playing as a playmaker, Brimmer’s role was a lot more constrained than usual. In previous games we’ve seen Brimmer receiving the ball in between the lines or making forward runs into the right-side channel, but this game he was much more conservative and disciplined with his positioning, generally staying in midfield and playing more simple passes to cycle possession.
The spaces that Brimmer would usually run into were occupied by McManaman and Kruse, who would look to run in behind at every opportunity. The first 10 minutes saw them making this run five times. It seemed like the plan was to break through the defensive line on the right, creating crossing opportunities into Gestede in the box.
Victory took the lead through a cross in the 21st minute. Markovic played a neat ball through to Kruse sitting in between the lines, who then found Roux on a rare foray forward on the overlap. His cross found McManaman on the edge of the box, who volleyed home superbly.
It probably caught a few by surprise – Roux’s cross was his first touch in the attacking third, McManaman had drifted into the centre from his position on the right wing and Gestede was not the target for the cross. In fact, it would take until the 31st minute for the first crosses to be delivered towards Gestede – two from set pieces, with the second delivery connecting, only for the header to cannon back off the crossbar.
Western United down the right
Western United were generally controlling possession and were patient in build-up, circulating the ball between the three centre-backs, who then had the freedom to find each other without pressure. Victory’s 4-4-2 shape blocked off passes into the middle, with Gestede and Kruse staying central up front and Brimmer and Butterfield covering Lustica and Víctor Sánchez.
Guarrotxena positioned himself between the lines on the left and had more time than his teammate Diamanti on the right, but he had fewer teammates to interact with, unless either Sánchez or Lustica would come up the pitch. Western United therefore mainly focused on the right.
Helping out on the right was Imai, who would often carry the ball forwards out from defence. His positioning meant that he could generally bypass Victory’s first line quite easily, and there wasn’t really an easy answer for how Victory could deal with him driving forward with the ball.
Pierias and Diamanti took turns hugging the touchline, acting as a wide outlet for long balls. Pierias and Markovic would have a fantastic duel over the course of the game, in which Markovic performed outstandingly. As the game went on, we also saw Pierias pushing forward centrally, with Diamanti roaming a bit more.
Diamanti, Pierias and Imai combined together to create difficulty for Kirdar and Markovic, managing to create overloads or 1v1s against Markovic (who defended these extremely well) as well as crossing opportunities for Diamanti into Berisha. As the game went on, Lustica joined in on this flank too, further congesting the right, and creating more opportunities to overload.
Western United managed to create a series of excellent opportunities from these kinds of situations, crossing into Berisha who would peel off at the back post to attack balls into the box. Crocombe pulled off a series of excellent saves and Broxham did well against Berisha to keep them out.
The equaliser came from a much more straightforward approach, with Brimmer sluggishly caught on the ball, Berisha laying off into Sánchez, who dummied two players before scoring brilliantly.
Second half – goals galore!
The second half started with a few similar themes – Victory attempting to create crosses through direct running into the channels and Western United creating overlaps down the right.
There was another theme that came to the fore though, with Berisha peeling off the centre-back at the far post to attack crosses, scoring two headed goals in this manner. You can’t say the warning signs weren’t there. The first goal saw Pierias create space for Diamanti to perform his trademark move: shifting the ball inside and crossing, while the second Berisha goal saw Brimmer again lose the ball in build-up, then Diamanti was allowed to ghost into the box unmarked, before superbly beating Broxham to cross.
Incidentally, these two goals were similar to the goals from their game December 2019 in which Berisha also scored two headers against a backline featuring Broxham filling in at centre-back!
Western United’s joy however was short-lived with the almost immediate double whammy of Butterfield’s long range goal, and Uskok’s sending off.
Substitutions and general chaos
Luis Lawrie-Lattanzio had replaced Kirdar just prior to the Butterfield goal, and was joined shortly afterwards by Zayden Bello replacing Broxham, who had put in a huge effort at the back. However this still couldn’t prevent three goals. Western United consolidated, with Ivan Vujica replacing Guarrotxena and resuming the five at the back.
Victory created a golden opportunity with yet another ball into the channels for Kruse to chase. He combined with McManaman and played in a perfect cross for Gestede in the 6-yard box, but incredibly Kurto managed to smother the shot.
Lachlan Wales replaced Pierias, presumably to match Lawrie-Lattanzio’s energy out on the wing and also provide an outlet for Western United. His appearance was in the unfamiliar position of right wing-back, and he had a poor showing defensively, most notably losing the ball for Markovic to chip a cross into the area for Gestede to finally score. It was unstoppable – you just can’t match Gestede in an aerial duel, especially when he has a running jump.
It also begs the question of why Victory weren’t a bit more patient with their buildup to create crossing positions, especially since they had a man advantage. They were sloppy and rushed with their play and often gave away possession unnecessarily or crossed the ball prematurely. Gestede got visibly frustrated with each instance where crossing opportunities were wasted.
This chaotic play suited Western United much more – retreating into an almost 5-4-0 shape, they threw on even more energy, with the youngsters Jerry Skotadis and Nicolas Milanovic on for Lustica and Pain, respectively. Meanwhile McManaman picked up an injury and was replaced by Elvis Kamsoba.
As the game went into stoppage time, it definitely felt like we were heading towards another goal – and we got one for Western United with a last minute goal from Sánchez.
Melbourne Victory have been better than in some of their previous games, but still haven’t found the right mix of personnel and tactics. While injuries haven’t helped at the back or up front, the midfield balance still seems off. Brimmer had a very poor game in this more disciplined role and is much more suited to a free role going forward. Meanwhile, Butterfield shows flashes of brilliance with his passing, dribbling and shooting, but is wildly inconsistent – at times he looks like a world-beater, but other times he’s…not. Kirdar and Lawrie-Lattanzio looked decent, but I don’t think they are the saviours the fans think they are (yet). McManaman and Kruse are combining well but seem to be short of top gear, while Gestede really just needs a few good crosses. Markovic was one of the few shining lights in this performance, defending well and laying on two assists.
Western United have put together an excellent squad this season, with most of their players making a case for being in the best XI. Sánchez has been an inspired signing, adding passing range, plenty of energy and defensive effort. Guarrotxena has shown his capabilities operating in between the lines, while Berisha and Diamanti have both overcome a slow start to put on a clinic at their cross-town rivals.
It was truly an incredible game to watch – and probably takes the cake as the best game of the A-League season so far.