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  • Writer's pictureJake Holub

Aurelio Vidmar's solid Melbourne City start held back by poor home form

Melbourne City snatched a point against an improved Central Coast Mariners side on Sunday at AAMI Park in A-League Men Round 8 action, as 19-year-old Alessandro Lopane grabbed a 92nd-minute equaliser to save their blushes. Following a tough start to the 2023/24 season, Aurelio Vidmar has been successful in steadying the ship so far, with three wins, two draws, and only one league loss since taking over, bringing City back into the top six equation. However, concerningly, Melbourne City have only won once at home in all competitions this season, which must be corrected should the club secure a fourth straight premiership.

Aurelio Vidmar replaced Rado Vidosic as Melbourne City's manager in November until the end of the 2023/24 season. (AAP/Joel Carrett)

Firstly, the disappointing manner in which Melbourne City bowed out of the Asian Champions League last week should be rightfully acknowledged. However, for a team rebuilding following significant off-season departures, a season spent solely focusing on domestic competition may be necessary for the club.

Although Aurelio Vidmar has not made many significant changes to the personnel, style, or system utilised under his predecessor, Rado Vidosic, he has made a few minor tweaks that have brought more out of City's current squad.

These changes can first be seen in the midfield set-up. Vidosic opted for a system similar to Patrick Kisnorbo's, utilising a lone-holding midfielder covering for two attack-minded number eights. Last season, this system primarily played out with Aiden O'Neill being the deepest of the midfield trio, allowing Richard van der Venne and Valon Berisha to roam freely as playmakers in the final third.

While this midfield set-up was undoubtedly successful, it can be risky to utilise should you not have the required personnel for the different roles. O'Neill, in particular, was incredibly crucial, possessing significant mobility, technical ability, and intelligence as a single pivot, allowing the other midfielders around him to focus on the offensive side of City's game.

Given all of their first-team midfielders departed over the off-season, Melbourne City's recruitment was undoubtedly impressive. But they failed to replicate what they once had. Steven Ugarkovic was brought in as a deep-lying number six, while Hamza Sakhi and Tolgay Arslan would take up the more advanced midfield roles. While all these players, namely the latter two, are more than capable, the midfield trio has failed to coexist appropriately within the current structure.

Ugarkovic, while a great midfielder, possesses different traits than O'Neill. Melbourne City repeatedly struggled during the build-up phase early in the season, with all of their new pieces struggling to mesh together. This issue manifested in the horror show at Coopers Stadium against Adelaide United in Round 2, where City was thrashed 6-0 in the final game of Vidosic's tenure.

Vidmar quickly identified the issues City faced in midfield, opting for some tweaks. Sakhi mainly represents this shift in positional use, having previously been deployed as an advanced number eight under Vidosic.

Hamza Sakhi is on loan at Melbourne City from French side AJ Auxerre. (Melbourne City FC Facebook)

"He (Sakhi) is a six...we tried him a little bit further up, but he really is a six and is more comfortable as a six," Vidmar stated in his post-match press conference following Sunday's 3-3 draw.

Vidmar's adamancy towards this move has been backed up by Sakhi's performances, with the Frenchman thriving in the deeper midfield role.

This move has allowed Sakhi to showcase his talent, being press resistant, tenacious, and able to utilise his technical ability. Sakhi is amongst some of the best passers in the league, completing over 50 accurate passes a game at a high 87% success rate, with 4.9 accurate long balls a game (68% success rate), the second most in the league for a midfielder, only behind Sydney FC's Luke Brattan.

Dropping Sakhi deeper has allowed Arslan to venture further forward and involve himself in attacking sequences, primarily operating as a number ten in possession and alongside Jamie Maclaren as a front two without the ball. This move has also proved successful, with Arslan scoring or assisting in his last five games for City. A consistent performer in the Serie A over the past three seasons, allowing a player of Arslan's quality a free role between the lines is a scary prospect for any team in the league to defend, and he's a player who will undoubtedly contend for the Johnny Warren Medal should he maintain his health and consistency.

This greater midfield control has also allowed players elsewhere to venture forward more often, notably Aziz Behich, who has registered two assists across City's past two league games through crosses to the back post. Vidmar has identified his squad's significant talent and is taking some promising steps to allow it to thrive and play its best football.

However, what undoubtedly must be addressed is City's concerning home form. This season, they have only managed one win at AAMI Park in all competitions, when they defeated Sydney FC in early November.

The trend is particularly frustrating considering their strong away form, with City earning impressive victories in the ACL over Zhejiang and Buriram before failing to progress from their group in their final home fixture. It cost the club a spot in the competition's knockout rounds and could significantly hurt their Finals Series contention in the A-League Men, should it not be addressed.

"It's always difficult to say. In the past, we've had very good results here, and right now, we are getting wins away from home and not putting the icing on top of the cake here, unfortunately," Vidmar said on why his side is struggling to win at home.

"If you are going to be a serious championship contender, giving away so many goals is going to be difficult."



Melbourne City ahead of their final Group H fixture against Zhejiang in the Asian Champions League last week. (Melbourne City FC Facebook)

Although Vidmar has certainly improved City's attacking output, the side has remained suspect defensively. Keeping only two clean sheets and conceding 13 goals across his nine games in charge thus far, notably conceding three goals in a match three times, the squad's improvement on this end is still a work in progress.

The lack of defensive solidity has increasingly become prevalent at City since Kisnborbo's departure, who emphasised focus and resilience from his defensive line. The consistent concentration lapses we have seen from City's defence have been quite baffling and surprising, considering the significant experience and quality the personnel possess, and it is an area to monitor when considering whether Vidmar can improve this team throughout the season.

The upcoming weeks before the Asian Cup will be crucial for Vidmar, with clashes with Brisbane Roar and Western United in Melbourne following the Melbourne Derby. This run of games will present an opportunity for the team to engage in consistent training and stability without significant travel, which they have not had so far this season.

"We've had a tough schedule...the amount of travel we've had and to back up, it's not easy," Vidmar said, addressing the intensity his players showed against the Mariners.

Questions will naturally arise when the Asian Cup rolls around, with Vidmar revealing five City players have been shortlisted in the Socceroos selection process (Jamie Maclaren, Mathew Leckie, Aziz Behich, Callum Talbot, and Curtis Good). At least a few on this list departing for Qatar will present another significant challenge for Vidmar, with City's depth in certain areas looking questionable.

Although specific issues persist at Melbourne City this season, Aurelio Vidmar has seemingly done a respectable job salvaging the disastrous start to the season under Rado Vidosic. Now, without midweek ACL games, he can adequately buckle down and focus solely on competing in the A-League Men, where he has managed to steer the team from rock-bottom into the top six over six games.

The question is whether he can take the next step with this City team over the coming months, returning the club to their usual place near the top of the league table.

All statistics sourced from SofaScore.

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