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  • Writer's pictureJake Holub

How can Melbourne Victory effectively overcome Bruno Fornaroli's absence?

A 1-1 draw in the Big Blue presented many takeaways for Melbourne Victory as they sit second in the A-League Men after 14 rounds. While the side has maintained an impressive unbeaten record, the only team so far who has not managed to lose this season, their inability to turn draws into wins has primarily held the Victory back from leading the chasing pack at the top, now drawing a somewhat mind-boggling eight games. Questions have arisen about how Tony Popovic can fill a Bruno Fornaroli-shaped hole in attack, as Melbourne Victory show weaknesses in breaking down low block defences.

After a disappointing 2022/23 campaign, Tony Popovic is overseeing an unbeaten start to his third season at Melbourne Victory. (Image: Harley Appezzato)

Following a disastrous 2022/23 season where Melbourne Victory finished 11th in the league, the turnaround from Tony Popovic's side this term must be noted. While there have been defensive improvements, the most significant difference in 2023/24 is chance conversion. Last season, Victory was the second lowest-scoring team in the competition, only scoring 29 from an expected goals (xG) total of over 42; they underperformed their xG more than any other team in the league.

However, The Vuck have found the back of the net this season. Victory has scored 27 goals so far, tied for the most in the league and only two less than they managed in the previous campaign.

Despite this significant improvement in scoring, the Big Blue reinforced some underlying concerns with the side. After a thrilling opening to the game, which saw Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory exchange goals within the opening 17 minutes, a controversial Patrick Wood red card in the 35th minute was ultimately pivotal in the fixture.

Deploying a high-pressing and expansive game plan, Sydney boss Ufuk Talay initially looked to take the game to Popovic's side, which certainly helps concerning chance creation but does leave space and vulnerabilities for their defence.

Such issues were particularly evident before the red card, with Daniel Arzani terrorising Jordan Courtney-Perkins down the right wing and Zinedine Machach's goal finishing off a move from the left where Adama Traore was afforded space to attack and cross into Sydney's box.

While most teams would lick their lips at the prospect of facing a team down to ten men for nearly an hour of playing time, the red card seemed to hamper the Victory's chances of winning the game.

Sydney going down to ten in the first half saw Talay transition to a system predicated on a stubborn low block, utilising three defensive-minded midfielders in front of his existing back four to deny Victory space around the penalty area. This move succeeded, as Sydney held Victory scoreless to secure a point.

While Victory dominated all the primary metrics in possession, they failed to consistently break down Sydney's low block and create clear-cut chances. Should this game have been a one-off where Victory failed to beat a side down to ten in the first half, it may be premature to raise concerns. However, this game turned out similarly to Victory's previous clash against the Wellington Phoenix.

Melbourne Victory also failed to overcome Wellington following a red card for defender Tim Payne late in the first half. While Victory scored in the 79th minute thanks to an apparent shot-come-cross from Nishan Velupillay that deflected off Connor Chapman, a late penalty by Alex Rufer prevented them from claiming all three points.

Vital to Melbourne Victory's goalscoring successes, mentioning the absence of star striker Bruno Fornaroli is essential. Having netted 13 goals and one assist, the Socceroo has contributed to more than half of the club's goals this season. While this metric displays Fornaroli's incredible performances and ability, it also reflects a potential over-reliance on the 36-year-old to create and convert chances.

"You can't buy Bruno's experience without playing...we've got young players with quality, [who] just lack a bit of experience and know-how around the box, but the talent is certainly there," Popovic said on Friday, addressing Victory's struggles in breaking down low blocks without Fornaroli.

Bruno Fornaroli currently leads the A-League Men Golden Boot race with 13 goals. (Image: Harley Appezzato)

While Fornaroli is in Qatar with the Socceroos, Popovic must find a working balance in the final third with the existing pieces in his squad. A lack of depth in attacking areas is certainly not the issue, with Victory possessing six high-quality wingers. However, the lack of an out-and-out centre-forward backup presents a challenge for Popovic.

Following Fornaroli's departure, Popovic started former Socceroo Chris Ikonomidis upfront against Perth, the Central Coast Mariners, and Wellington. Failing to contribute a goal or assist across his three starts, Ikonomidis could not claim the temporary position for himself, a disappointing and all too familiar theme since he joined Victory in 2021.

The lacklustre performances upfront from Ikonomidis saw Popovic opt to utilise Velupillay in this role instead for the Big Blue. Velupillay has undoubtedly shown significant improvement in his game this season. His strong dribbling ability has seen him complete 1.5 dribbles per game, whilst, in terms of chance creation, he has provided 1.3 key passes per game, along with creating four big chances.

While Velupillay excels in these areas, his ability to ultimately convert chances is what has primarily held him back from taking the next step to becoming an elite winger in the competition, missing eight big chances already, tied fourth in this metric across the league this season.

This issue was apparent in the Big Blue, where Velupillay was lively and involved in Victory's attacking play but failed to score from six shots, even missing one big chance.

"I thought he did well...he was dangerous throughout. [He] just needs to find that little bit of composure around the box," Popovic said on Velupillay's performance, potentially looking to instil confidence in his young attacker while noting the needed room for improvement in his end product.

Victory's game this Saturday against the Newcastle Jets could prove a good test for Velupillay should he be given a consecutive start at striker, notably scoring his first goal of the season against the Jets earlier this season.

However, Popovic could look elsewhere to reconfigure his frontline, and another option is moving their best available goalscorer upfront.

Victory's second top scorer this season, Zinedine Machach, has been an enormously successful signing. He displays an outstanding balance between his physical strength and speed while possessing fantastic technical traits and poise in front of goal. Four of his five goals this season have been close-range efforts in the box, where Machach has shown great positional awareness and reactivity to finish.

It certainly could be an option for Popovic to start Machach as a striker, which could, in turn, significantly benefit former Johnny Warren medalist Jake Brimmer. Most comfortable as a playmaking number ten, this season, Brimmer has been forced to play deeper in Victory's midfield pivot due to Machach taking up the more advanced midfield role. Moving Machach further forward also allows Brimmer to push into the vacant ten position, where he specialises with his creativity and technique on the edge of the opposition box.

While Brimmer has performed relatively well in his deeper role this season, allowing him more freedom further forward could enable him to unlock the form that saw him credited as the league's best player only two seasons ago.

Additionally, Popovic has various other options he could experiment with in Victory's attack. One-time Socceroo Ben Folami has experience playing as a striker from his time at Ipswich Town and with Australia's national youth teams. This move could help Folami become more involved in the overall first-team picture, where he has struggled for a consistent starting role this season, only making four starts.

Popovic also possesses another attacking weapon in Eli Adams, who has primarily been concealed since he joined Victory. Popovic has previously described Adams as one of the best finishers at the club, and this praise was undoubtedly reflected following his wonder goal off the bench against Perth Glory recently. Given he has only played 138 minutes across his two seasons at the club, Adams is certainly a worthy candidate to receive more of an opportunity with Victory's first team.

Yet to be mentioned is brand new loan signing Salim Khelifi, who further strengthens the already incredible depth Victory has in wide areas.

"I thought he made a good contribution; he was positive, and obviously, he needs to adapt to a different team and a different way of playing. He needs to get his fitness levels up to be able to play our way of football, but I thought it was very positive from him," Popovic said on Khelifi's Victory debut in the Big Blue.



Salim Khelifi joined Melbourne Victory on a loan deal from Perth Glory last week. (Image: Melbourne Victory Instagram)

While Popovic has found a strong base across other areas on the pitch, with players such as Paul Izzo, Damien Da Silva, and Roderick Miranda playing every available minute this season, and younger players in Ryan Teague and Daniel Arzani becoming consistent and crucial starters, there are a few positions in the lineup still certainly up for the grabs, with Victory possessing excellent depth and competition for places.

In adding another top-quality player to the attack in Khelifi whilst still coping with Fornaroli's absence, the question for Popovic will be how he can find the best balance to maximise all of his attacking talents. Ultimately, the challenge for this side is being able to more regularly turn dominant performances lacking end product into convincing wins, making Melbourne Victory a nightmare-inducing opponent for any team in the league.

All statistics sourced from SofaScore.

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