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Victory fail to turn defence into attack

by Michael Huguenin on Oct 27, 2011

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I love a good hubristic quote.

Someone proudly and definitively laying it all on the line and then being proven completely wrong once their statement is on the record.

Possibly one of the best of all time was from former British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain famously returned to Britain on 30 September 1938, after signing the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler, and declared that Britain and Germany had no desire “to go to war with one another again” and that there would be “peace for our time”.

On 3 September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany and World War II began.

Football is a great place to find hubristic quotes.

“We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn't a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten.” Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, 2003

Florentino Perez arrogantly slammed Claude Makélelé after he sold the French defensive midfielder to Chelsea in 2003. Makélelé had been instrumental in Madrid’s 2002/03 La Liga triumph but then had the audacity to ask Perez for a pay rise.

Without Makélelé, Real Madrid finished fourth in La Liga, in the 2003/04 season, and dropped out of the European Champions League in the quarterfinals. It took the famous club three seasons to win the Spanish title again.

Chelsea, with Makélelé in the engine room, went on to win both the 2004/05 and 2005/06 English Premier League titles.

Makélelé’s key role for both Real Madrid and Chelsea has led to a greater appreciation of the importance of defensive midfielders. These guys are crucial to every team. They break up the opposition’s attacks with a timely tackle. They cover holes when fullbacks go charging up the wing. A defensive midfielder is often a coach’s best friend.

But can you have too much of a good thing?

Melbourne Victory’s poor start to the new A-League season has been widely covered. After so much preseason hype, particularly surrounding Harry Kewell, the Big V has failed to shine. The attacking riches at the two-time champion club haven’t provided success. In fact, Victory hasn’t even scored a goal this season.

The Age’s Michael Lynch wrote an article on Monday that summed up the problem perfectly.

“Its biggest problem is a lack of midfield link players. Currently, Victory sets up with a back four and two holding midfielders who rarely get too far forward. It then deploys three attacking midfielders behind a main striker. But they don't track back enough or provide that link with the two sitting midfielders. As a consequence, the team tends to get beaten in the midfield area, where the game is controlled.”

Lynch’s solution is to change Victory’s system. Rather than a 4-2-3-1, Victory should play a 4-4-2 – although I’m not sure about his idea of playing Carlos Hernandez as a classic central midfielder.

But I don’t think Melbourne’s manager Mehmet Durakovic needs to change his system. Instead he needs to change his personnel. Two defensive midfielders are too much.

Durakovic needs his own version of Bastian Schweinsteiger. In A-League terms, he needs Mitch Nichols.

One of my favourite football writers, ESPN Soccernet’s Uli Hesse, wrote an article in August about Nuri Sahin. The article outlined how Sahin’s success for Borussia Dortmund had led to a tactical revolution in German football. Melbourne Victory could do worse than take a look at Hesse’s article.

During Dortmund’s Bundesliga title run last season, Sahin played as a deep-lying playmaker alongside holding midfielder Sven Bender. Sahin played in the hole early in his career but, in 2009, Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp moved the Turkish midfielder deeper and Sahin thrived. Dortmund’s successful 4-2-3-1, including a central combo of a playmaker and a ball winner, was copied by most Bundesliga sides.

For example, Bayern Munich moved Schweinsteiger into the deep playmaker role and the German international has never looked back. Bayern has been almost unstoppable so far this season and Schweinsteiger is key to that purple patch. Bayern’s vice-captain ‘breaks the lines’, to borrow an Aussie rules term, and it’s that dynamism through the middle that Melbourne Victory lacks.

In the A-League, Brisbane Roar plays a similar system to that employed by most Bundesliga sides. In the middle of the park, Erik Paartalu (a classic defensive midfielder) is paired with Mitch Nichols. Nichols is more of a Schweinsteiger than a Sahin – dynamic rather than brilliantly creative. Nichols is all action. When the Roar doesn’t have the ball (yes, it does happen sometimes) the 22-year-old slots in alongside Paartalu and tries to win the ball back. In attack Nichols pushes forward to provide a link between midfield and the forwards. The blonde-haired midfielder takes some pressure off Brisbane’s conductor Thomas Broich and regularly plays a part in creating or scoring goals.

Melbourne’s two central players don’t do this. Both Grant Brebner and Leigh Broxham aren’t creative or attack-minded enough to link up with the likes of Kewell or Archie Thompson in the front third. It’s a problem fans of the Socceroos will also recognise. A central duo of Mile Jedinak and Carl Valeri often leaves Australia a little dull in the middle.

Unfortunately, Durakovic may not have a player at his disposal that can fill the deep-playmaker position. Hernandez has neither the engine to get up and down the park, nor the tactical discipline to hold his position when required. Billy Celeski would have been the obvious choice but he hasn’t been the same since his knee injury in 2009. Diogo Ferreira has the legs but he’s far from the finished product.

If only Victory had made a play for Brisbane-based youngster Luke Brattan during the winter. The pint-sized midfielder has a brilliant passing range and is a tireless runner. Plus the 21-year-old has a Melbourne connection. He lived there when his father played for Heidelberg in the NSL. With the Roar’s impressive squad, Brattan is unlikely to get game time in an orange shirt. Durakovic could have played him every week alongside Brebner.

Instead, Victory will have to make do with what they’ve got. But without a deep-lying playmaker, Durakovic’s preferred system of 4-2-3-1 will most likely remain disjointed, the front four isolated from the back six.

Maybe Schweinsteiger could be available during the January transfer window…