Melbourne Heart's third season in the A-League was a serious disappointment for the Red and Whites. In John Aloisi's first campaign as head coach, Heart lost more games than any other A-League club to finish second-to-last. Following the 2012-13 season, veterans Simon Colosimo, Matt Thompson and captain Fred were all let go as Aloisi set about restructuring his team to better control the midfield and score more goals.
In came Harry Kewell and marquee midfielder Orlando Engelaar but, in his first preseason match for Heart, the latter fractured his left leg, and Aloisi's grand plans for the 2013-14 campaign in the process. Engelaar was the player Heart had lacked since they joined the A-League; a dominant central midfielder, who could control a game both physically and skilfully. So what will Heart do now?
Wednesday night's friendly against Oakleigh Cannons provided the first glimpse of Aloisi's Plan B and based on a lacklustre 1-0 victory, Heart still have a lot of work to do ahead of the new season.
|MIDFIELD MUST IMPROVE
The first half against Oakleigh underlined how few games recent arrivals Kewell and Massimo Murdocca have played with their new team-mates. Murdocca and Jonathan Germano started in defensive midfield with Kewell ahead of them, while Patrick Gerhardt and David Vrankovic anchored Heart's defence. There seemed to a lack of trust between the central defenders and holding midfielders, with Gerhardt and Vrankovic regularly declining to pass short into the feet of Murdocca and Germano.
With Murdocca and Germano struggling to find space, Kewell went looking for the ball and too often took possession between Heart's central defenders. The problem was two-fold. By not using Murdocca and Germano to bypass the first line of Oakleigh's defence, Heart's attacks were too slow. Plus, with Kewell regularly starting Heart's forward movements from the defensive half, the star attacker was unable to influence play in the final third.
At half-time, Aloisi pushed Gerhardt into midfield in place of Germano and the Liberian made a significant difference. Gerhardt's strength on the ball meant Heart's defenders seemed less worried about him losing possession and the 28-year-old became the primary outlet for the back four. With Gerhardt providing a solid short option, Murdocca started to find pockets a bit further forward and was able to turn and create with the likes of Kewell, Iain Ramsay, Mate Dugandzic and on-trial striker Brent McGrath.
|WALKER TRUMPS HOFFMAN AS A RIGHT-BACK
Jason Hoffman's career has been a lesson in persistence. When first making a mark on the A-League with the Newcastle Jets in the 2007-08 season, he was considered a striker. By the end of his third campaign with his home-town club, Hoffman had scored two goals in 13 games.
When he joined Heart, Hoffman was labelled a winger but after just one campaign, was pushed further back to central midfield. This pre-season, Aloisi has started experimenting with Hoffman as a right full-back. But with Jeremy Walker having broken through last season as a genuine option on the right side of defence, Heart fans will be hoping Aloisi's experiment with Hoffman will not stunt 20-year-old Walker's development.
Based on his performance against Oakleigh, Hoffman is very uncomfortable at right-back. Typically, wingers who have been converted into full-backs love going forward and sometimes forget to defend. Hoffman played right-back in the first half against the Cannons and barely went over half-way, while the vast majority of his passes were back inside to Gerhardt in central defence. In contrast, Walker was arguably man of the match based on his second-half showing. The Tasmanian's pace from deep provided plenty of impetus into Heart's attacks, while his preferred passing options were either into midfield to try and overlap or up the line to his winger.
|BRENT MCGRATH DESERVES A CONTRACT|
Heart have lost their two leading goal-scorers from last season in Josip Tadic and Richard Garcia [six goals each] and Aloisi has just two options in his squad to lead the line at the moment, in Dylan Macallister [one goal last season] and Golgol Mebrahtu [four]. Aloisi desperately needs more options up front and former Brondby striker McGrath deserves to be one of them.
McGrath has been trialling with Heart for almost two weeks and his sharp movement and extra speed up front in the second half against Oakleigh underlined why he is worth the gamble for Aloisi.
While Macallister spent most of the first half backing into Oakleigh's defenders at the top of the penalty area, McGrath, introduced off the bench at half-time, was willing to drop into the hole, which stretched the Cannons' back four and created chances for Heart.
McGrath's movement often dragged a central defender out of Oakleigh's backline. The 22-year-old striker would come short to play a quick one-two with Kewell, who would then feed one of Heart's midfielders in the gap created by McGrath. At 184 centimetres, McGrath will not be bullied by the A-League's bigger defenders, while he is also much faster than Macallister. Late in the second half, a long pass by Kewell released McGrath down the right and he burst onto the ball, skipped past his defender and then had a driven shot tipped over the bar.
Melbourne Heart's next stop in pre-season will be Western Australia where they are set to play two games against Perth Glory. The first match will be held on September 11 in Inglewood, while the second is set for September 14 in Mandurah.
Clearly, Engelaar's injury has thrown a major spanner in the works for Aloisi but the second-year coach may have a ready-made replacement to anchor his midfield in Gerhardt. With Vrankovic more mature this season, Aloisi could play the young Australian alongside Dutchman Robbie Wielaert in the centre of defence with Gerhardt as the holding midfielder.
Hoffman's development as a right-back will be given an even stronger test against Perth as he will undoubtedly be required to defend more than he did against Oakleigh. If Hoffman does not improve quickly, expect Walker to be Heart's starting right-back come the Melbourne Derby in round one of the A-League.