A-League 2018/19 report card: Melbourne Victory

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It’s everyone’s surprise to see Melbourne Victory’s report card handed out before the 2018/19 A-League Grand Finals, but that’s not the only competition they conceded early on…

This season
Regular Season – 3rd (15W, 5D, 7L)
Finals Series – Semi Finals
AFC Champions League – Group Stage
FFA Cup – Round of 16
Top Scorer – Ola Toivonen / Kosta Barbarouses (15 goals)

Image Credit : Ngau Kai Yan

Season Summary

The squad that was expected to win everything, won nothing. A season to forget for the Victory faithful, whose beloved club disappointed them on and off the pitch on too many occasions.

An FFA cupset exit against APIA Leichhardt in the round of 16 was quickly forgotten with the arrival of Keisuke Honda and his posse of international colleagues. It was perhaps them that set the bar even higher for the reigning champions. Amidst all the buzz there was lingering thoughts if their senior international spine were fit enough to pull their worth on the field. But back then, it was only background noise as the league braced themselves for a Victory double.

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Victory’s class shone through at the start of the season, classy individual performances from Barbarouses, Honda, and Toivonen saw Victory pick up only three losses in their opening 17 matches. During that patch they also strung together an impressive run of 9 matches unbeaten, a record only bested by Perth Glory this season.

Image Credit : Ngau Kai Yan

But the problems started brewing. Over-dependence of Honda and Toivonen meant that the duo’s separate injury spells in early 2019 saw Victory incapable of producing results. It didn’t help on the PR front, when Victory kept mum on the seriousness of their injuries. A four match winless run in the league from February would be regarded as a small blip, given their impressive showing at the start of their campaign. But by then, the Glory train was chugging away from them. A win against Tony Popovic’s side in late March signalled an interesting end to the season, but losses against Sydney FC and Adelaide United saw Victory eventually concede the top gong.

Sitting 10 points off the Premiers in 3rd come season end, Victory were still a favourite for the finals series, given their previous experience and timely injury free roster. They proved their mettle when they snatched a gutsy 3-1 win over Wellington Phoenix in the elimination finals. While the miraculous Terry Antonis heroics in 2017/18 will always talked about, so will the 6-1 loss to the Sky Blues this season. Certainly not what you’ll expect from a team who had two players that actively participated in Russia 2018, a former Bundesliga defender, and an active La Liga midfielder.

Victory opened their AFC Champions League campaign with two losses against Daegu FC and Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the sides they were expected to rack up points against if they were to stand any chance of progressing out of Group F. The botched “KaishiGate” sponsorship deal didn’t help the club’s cause, generating all the wrong headlines.

It was a foregone conclusion for Victory, who had exclusively signed Honda to lead this continental charge, when they were whacked 4-0 by Guangzhou Evergrande next. A second rate Victory team managed to snag a draw against the Chinese side but a 4-0 loss against Daegu all but summed up an atrocious AFC Champions League campaign. *(Victory still had a final match against Sanfrecce Hiroshima at time of publication, but the results are inconsequential)

Areas in need of improvement

Kevin Muscat. We’re not sure how much more he can improve as a manager. With all the resources at hand, Victory were expected to consistently steamroll opponents, or at least put in convincing performances. In his recent seasons, Muscat’s style of football hasn’t appealed to large masses of fan, and this season was no different. Particularly with the calibre of attacking minded players at his disposal, Muscat still opted for a slower, more controlling style of football that has bit back at him.

His luck with results ran out, given the strengthening of other A-League sides around him this season. Muscat’s limited tactical fluidity before and during matches has baffled some, and it’s clear that he outright lost every battle with opposition managers in the AFC Champions League. While the #MuscatOut camp has gotten louder, a fair few still believe that his departure would be far too radical and unstable. But after this season, even the Victory board who have shared many accolades and good memories with Muscat might feel that his time might finally be up.

Image Credit : Ngau Kai Yan

But this year’s playing squad has to be held accountable. Many of the new players acquired have not delivered, leaving Muscat to rely on other options. The old guard Leigh Broxham and Carl Valeri proved as better quality stand ins, but some felt that perhaps youngsters like Rahmat Akbari or Anthony Lesiotis could offer Victory a fresh take on the game. It must also be noted that attacking minded reserve players like Kenny Athiu, Jai Ingham, and Josh Hope are clearly not at the required level to play at Victory.

It was no surprise that Muscat had to rely on these players at some stage of the season, like it or not – the double edged consequence of spending nearly all of the season’s budget on superstar foreigners. Majority of Victory’s bench unfortunately did themselves no favours as they failed to perform at the crucial juncture when the club most needed them to. Having Athiu as the only attacking substitute against Sydney in the semi-finals suggested that Muscat was forced to alter some element of his play style due to the lack of players he could rely on.

Top student

Ola Toivonen.

The Swede missed the first three rounds, and another full month out in the middle of the season, but still emerged as the league’s joint third goalscorer. 15 goals in 22 games, while Barbarouses and Andy Keogh who scored the same number of goals took 27 and 29 matches respectively to do that. Toivonen himself said he’s not a goalscorer, but he meant well in other ways on the pitch.

Image Credit : Ngau Kai Yan

His constant pursuit to feed Elvis Kamsoba in the Elimination Finals was a reflection of what he’s been up to all season. He could’ve easily got a hat trick against Wellington Phoenix. Toivonen’s outstanding physical and technical qualities in attack has easily allowed him to overcome his lack of pace. It is perhaps insulting to see Honda voted joint fourth on the Johnny Warren Medal, ahead of Toivonen, who failed to even crack the top five.

Class clown

Corey Brown.

His inability to attack down the flanks compounds his misery as a very one dimensional defender – who cannot defend. Losing his marker, giving away the ball deep in his own half, being beaten by pace, physicality, and trickery, Brown has accomplished all of them on more than one occasion.

Image Credit : Ngau Kai Yan

Brown slowly lost his place from the starting XI even when the club specifically signed him to fill the left back role. Utility man Leigh Broxham was called upon even to stand in for Brown, and even the 31 year old did a much better job at it. Brown’s days in a Victory shirt are very much over, and you’ll easily find a Vuck willing to pack his bags for him.

Outlook

With the departure of Honda and many deadweight players expected, the playing squad will no doubt be vastly different next season. But having signed the biggest player the league has seen, how “marquee” can a foreign signing be now? They have the funds, but it remains to be seen if the club will continue to sign decent European players past their prime, or opt for those of a lower calibre, but still worthy of the marquee status – allowing the capable backups to repopulate the Victory benches.

Image Credit : Ngau Kai Yan

All this while Victory rethink their AFC Champions League strategy, surely it can’t be bad as this year, can it? Muscat has a contract that will keep him at AAMI Park until 2020, but will he be still part of this new rebuild? Victory might have to make some major, unpopular decisions in order to retain the title of Australia’s most successful football club or they risk being overshadowed by their hungrier Perth and Sydney counterparts.

Grade

D-

Feature Image Credit : Ngau Kai Yan

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Ngau Kai Yanhttp://ngaukaiyan.com
Journalism undergrad at Monash University, Kai is a multimedia journalist covering Melbourne Victory. Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund. Once "stole" Shinji Kagawa's plane ticket.