Melbourne City made it four games without defeat against the Newcastle Jets on Sunday; laying down another important marker in their 2018-19 evolution under Warren Joyce in a come-from-behind 2-1 win.
A freak opening goal from Irish striker Roy O’Donovan had put the Jets ahead early at AAMI Park, before a penalty from Riley McGree and a long-range effort from Luke Bratten enabled City to overhaul and defeat the side that had vanquished them in the 2017-18 A-League semi-final.
Whereas City had been afforded the luxury of being handed control of the game by a lethargic Western Sydney Wanderers the week prior, there were no such luxuries given to Warren Joyce’s side on Sunday afternoon.
Just five minutes into the contest, as some of the 7,368 fans in attendance were still making their way to their seats, a catastrophic breakdown in communication between Eugene Galekovic and Harrison Delbridge enabled Roy O’Donovan to skip in behind the colliding goalkeeper and defender and collect a ball lofted over the top from Nikolai Topor-Stanley and poke the ball home.
For a side built around monopolising possession and metronomically chipping away at their opponents until they break down, the early goal presented a challenge to City: how would they respond in a situation wherein they were nominally going to be forced to chase a game?
In hindsight, the answer was obvious.
Despite being down the early goal, City continued to execute their game plan as if they had never conceded; monopolising possession and awaiting their moment to strike.
With the possession stats indicating a 60-40 advantage for City, the first moment arrived in the 25th minute.
Making a darting run to the near post, Ritchie De Leat arrived first to a corner swung in by Brattan and flicked it towards goal and into the arms of Jets’ midfielder Ronny Vargas.
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Already on a yellow card, the Venezuelan was adjudged by referee Kurt Ams of preventing a clear goalscoring opportunity, earning his marching orders and handing City a penalty that McGree duly buried into the bottom corner to level things up.
Restored to parity on the scoresheet but now also possessing a one-man advantage, the paradigm had completely shifted City.
The situation was now tailor-made for Joyce-ball tactics: the side in sky blue afforded an hour to chip away at a depleted Jets lineup and wait for them to make another mistake that left them vulnerable.
In the end, City only needed to wait only a single minute of the 60 afforded to them for the Jets to make another error, and they were gifted not one, but multiple.
The first was delivered by Dimi Petratos who, looking to slingshot his side from defence to attack, stumbled over his own feet under pressure from Kearyn Baccus.
Pinching the ball off the Socceroo, Baccus fed the ball into the space left by the transitioning Jets for Scott Jamieson to work his way towards touch and cut the ball back to Lachie Wales atop the penalty area.
His back to goal, the 20-year-old City frontman laid the ball back to Brattan, who took advantage of some far too passive defending from Topor-Stanley to tee up a long-range effort that completely wrong-footed Italiano.
From that point onwards, the game began to resemble to contest that City had engaged with the Wanderers’ the week prior.
Possessing a lead now reinforced by a one-man advantage, City looked to strangle the game; knocking the ball about between themselves on the periphery of the Jets penalty area and relying on rare moments of individual initiative to create more dynamic movements forward.
It was boring, uninspiring football, arousing loud cheers from the City faithful on the rare moments – such as Delbridge’s speculative long-range effort in the 79th minute and McGree’s effort off the post in extra time – when their side did put an effort on goal.
Nobody can argue that it made City look like a ‘good’ team in the second 45.
The negative mindset of the tactics going forward seeped out to every facet of their game; leading to Joyce’s side – despite their numerical advantage – getting to 50-50 contests second and appearing lethargic when it came to defending Jets’ forays forward.
In turn, this enabled the Jets – who ended up almost doubling up City’s shot count despite handily losing the possession battle – to create a number of chances that on another day could have proven deadly for City; Petratos putting an effort over the crossbar in the 66th minute and Daniel Georgevski hitting the post in the 72nd minute among the more obvious examples.
It was a similar tale to game the week prior, where the Wanderers – despite being obviously second best – were able to pepper City’s goals in the second half to the point where City custodian Eugene Galekovic was man of the match.
City has been able to ride their luck to wins in the past two weeks that should have been a lot more comfortable then they ended up being.
Against higher quality opposition, such as Sydney FC in round three, City will likely have to take their defensive effort to another level.
If they are to be content to bore teams to death going forward, they need to sure that they do not allow such a mindset to sneak into their own game on the defensive end.
Do that, and City may very well have found a formula that will enable them to do damage come finals time.