Can Tony Popovic Make Melbourne Victory Great Again?
When Melbourne Victory got smashed 6-1 at the hands of Sydney FC in the semi-final of the 2018/2019 season, many fans, critics and pundits thought a hard reset would be necessary for a club seemingly in disarray.
Instead, that semi-final loss acted instead as the perfect entree for a debacle which played out over the next 24 months.
In two seasons, Melbourne Victory cycled through four managers, missed finals in both campaigns and produced a cataclysmically bad 20%-win record across their last 56 matches.
Poor recruitment, poor management, and an aggregate margin of a 13-0 loss to Melbourne City finally instigated the hard reset that should have happened a long, long time ago.
John Didulica was appointed as Victory’s new director of football, while Tony Popovic has been installed as coach with the pair charged with re-assembling this once great club back into the force it used to be.
So, with that being said, can ‘Popa' get this giant of Australian football roaring again?
Change of System
For the longest time, the system that’s been synonymous with Melbourne Victory has been a 4-2-3-1, or at least some variation of it.
Whether under Kevin Muscat, Marco Kurz, Carlos Salvachua or Grant Brebner - this 1 striker, 2 wingers and 3 in midfield system has stayed consistent for a prolonged period. This has created a side where the signings are predictable, the key players are predictable and the most concerning thing, the game style is predictable.
Thus, Tony Popovic is the perfect manager for a Victory side which has lacked standards.
His demanding and intimidating presence is bound to bring the best out of everyone who walks through the door, as well as his A-League managerial pedigree being in the upper echelons of any manager to coach in this league. Two premiers’ plates and four Grand Final appearances across two clubs are testament to a brilliant manager who of course is the only Australian coach to ever lift the AFC Champions League trophy. Effectively, the only thing missing upon his decorated resume is one of those glittering A-League toilet seats.
With the rise of 3-4-3 in recent times, this could be an avenue in which 'Popa' instructs his side to play. With the overlapping wingbacks creating overloads in the wide areas and with a striker who has the ability to both be a good link-up man and a deadly finisher.
In his most recent stint at the Perth Glory, this is the exact system he deployed. This system had a heavy reliance on 2 inside forward who would create chances, overlapping wingbacks who provided width as well as a workmanlike double-pivot who covered for the adventuring wingbacks and created passing patterns with the back 3. With the acquisitions that have already been made, this system is already taking shape and expect this 3 at the back system to be used regularly throughout the season.
The new personnel that have been brought in by Didulica and Popovich have been very deliberate.
What Chris Ikonomids, Jason Davidson, Matthew Spiranovic and Brendan Hamill have in common is that they’ve all played for Popovic before. They're all fully aware of his coaching style and his tactics and will already have forged a good relationship with him, making the gelling period much shorter and easier to get through.
Josh Brillante, Jason Geria and Stefan Nigro have all played in the A-League before as well, with the latter two having won titles during their initial stints with the Victory.
Assuming that Popovich indeed implements a 3 at the back system, these signings perfectly complement that formation. Ikonomidis is versatile and can be deployed anywhere along the front three. He has the pace to go on the outside and the dribbling ability to cut inside. He’s also a massive creative threat, dialling up 10 key passes in his last 5 league games for Perth Glory while he also found the net no less than 16 times during his three seasons out west.
Matthew Spiranovic has also played a considerable amount of football under Popovic and will slot right into the central centre half role. Whilst he doesn’t have the pace he used to, he’s still very physical and comfortable on the ball while also being very reliable form an aerial perspective. However, his two years out of the game might hinder his ability to perform at his best.
Josh Brillante is the definition of A-League experience. Having played at 4 different clubs before signing for the the Victory, he collected two A-league titles with Sydney FC as well as an FFA Cup. He’ll be a part of a double pivot tandem either in a 3 or a 4 and has shown he possesses all the capabilities to carry out that role to aplomb. Strong in a tackle, as his 38 tackles won in his last A-League season indicate, as well as a good reader of the play, his 50 interceptions in the same season is testament to that. Brilliante is also an exceptionally gifted passer of the ball suggesting he’s a rare all round talent, the likes of which the Victory will be delighted to have taken off the market.
Jason Davidson was also a part of Popovic’s overly excellent Perth Glory teams, and there’s no wonder why he has brought him over to Melbourne. He’s been capped 22 times for the Socceroos while the last time he was in the A-league he produced 6 assists, thriving on his ability to bomb on beyond the cutting-in forward. His 1.7 key passes per game ranked 3rd at the Glory and proved how much of an attacking threat he can be. Whilst a little bit suspect defensively, he’s one hell of an asset for this Victory side.
Brendan Hamill will also be well aware of what to expect under 'Popa' having played plenty of his early, and best football under him at the Western Sydney Wanderers. As a 22-year old Hamill started at right back in the Wanderers' 2014 Asian Champions League triumph and should provide great defensive cover for his new manager.
Both Jason Geria and Stefan Nigro are returning to the Victory and are eyeing up the same right back/wing-back role. Whilst Geria might get the nod, they both provide very good qualities. Geria is physically very good, strong in a tackle and covers plenty of ground. As seen by his 2 tackles won, 1.9 interceptions and 3.3 clearances per game last season while playing in Perth. As for Nigro, his assets are more technical. He was a part of the fantastic Central Coast side last season and provided 5 big chances, the equal most in the team while also firing in 13.3 final third passes.
Finally, Popovic has just dipped into the international market, signing 27-year old Spaniard, Rai Marchan. While not a heap is known about the former Real Madrid youth system product, Popovic himself has stated that “Rai is a very gifted player who'll provide us with real quality out of the midfield.” Hopefully that quality will extend to goals, as the paltry 1.19 per game they averaged last season was Victory's lowest in their 16-season history.
Will we see the return of the ‘old’ Victory?
Popovic may transform Victory and transition them back into the force that they have been. They still have 3 visa spots remaining and if they get those right, which they haven’t in recent times, then their chances of success will drastically improve.
However, with a massive squad turnover, as well as the dipping in standards over the last 24 months, it’ll likely take some time for Popovic to get this squad clicking.
Considering the outs have been nearly as good as the in’s so far, Victory fans should get excited as this season could be the turning point back to success.
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