Western Sydney Wanderers will struggle to make a serious tilt for Hyundai A-League silverware this season until coach Tony Popovic tightens up their defence.
Melbourne Victory defeated the Wanderers 3-0 at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night, with the home side capitalising on Western Sydney’s defensive errors to score their first two goals.
Oliver Bozanic, Jai Ingham and debutant Max Beister scored for Victory in front of a crowd of 21,480.
But the Big V’s midfield remains a concern, with Kevin Muscat’s team struggling to control matches for long periods.
Both sides entered this clash with clear weaknesses.
Western Sydney’s defence had generally Popovic down throughout the opening five rounds, with the Wanderers having failed to keep a clean sheet.
The Wanderers were eighth in the Hyundai A-League in terms of goals conceded and eighth for shots on target faced, while Popovic’s side had failed to win a match in the 2016/17 Season where they had taken the lead.
Victory’s problem midfield meant Muscat’s side were seventh in terms of total passes, ninth in terms of passing accuracy and 10th for chances created.
Saturday night’s match reflected those statistics to the letter, with the visitors having far more of the ball but handing Victory the points with defensive mistakes.
The Wanderers attempted 241 passes to 174 from Victory before the break, while Popovic’s men also prevailed in terms of passes in the opposition half (150-106).
But it was the home side that led at half-time after two mistakes in quick succession from Aritz Borda.
The Spanish centre-back’s centring pass forced compatriot Dimas to stretch and the ball squirted off the latter’s boot for Fahid Ben Khalfallah to pounce.
Ben Khalfallah forced a top save from Wanderers goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne but Borda completely missed his attempted clearance, allowing Besart Berisha to set up Bozanic for a tap-in.
Western Sydney continued to dominate possession in the second half – they would finish the match with 59.9 per cent – but Redmayne’s aerial struggles continued for Victory’s second goal.
After an initial cross flashed across the Wanderers’ goal, James Troisi showed great persistence to keep the ball in and then whipped his cross to the back post.
Redmayne came off his line but failed to reach the ball and Ingham outjumped Jack Clisby to head home.
No team has conceded more headed goals than Western Sydney this season.
Victory added a third goal with five minutes remaining as Troisi’s through-ball released Ingham on the left and his cut-back picked out fellow substitute Beister, who tapped in to score in his A-League debut.
Having reached the grand final last season, the Wanderers are failing to adapt to the departure of Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Scott Jamieson and Alberto.
That trio played a combined 79 games for Western Sydney last term, with Scott Neville completing a consistent defensive quartet.
In Melbourne, Popovic named a back four of Clisby, Borda, Jonathan Aspro and Brendan Hamill – not one of whom started in the Wanderers’ 3-1 grand final loss to Adelaide United in May.
Victory’s boss started his preferred midfield trio of Troisi, Bozanic and Carl Valeri for just the second time in the 2016/17 Season
The Big V have never adequately replaced former captain Mark Milligan, who was critical alongside Valeri when Muscat’s men won the double in 2014/15.
Milligan was an excellent defensive midfielder but provided plenty of attacking thrust when Victory were in possession.
Without Milligan, Victory can either choose an attacking (Bozanic) or a defensive option (Leigh Broxham or Rashid Mahazi) to partner Valeri but not someone that does both jobs.
While Bozanic had one of his better games of the season against Western Sydney, Victory’s inability to control the midfield was underlined by the number of scoring opportunities the Wanderers created in the second half.
Nicolas Martinez, Jumpei Kusukami and Kerem Bulut all went close to finding the back of the net, while Western Sydney should have had a penalty in the 53rd minute when Jason Geria tripped Jumpei in the box.
Victory will continue to be dangerous due to their attacking depth but whether their midfield will be good enough to challenge the likes of Sydney, Melbourne City and Brisbane Roar remains to be seen.