If you were to wind the clock back to the beginning of this year you would find Melbourne Heart in disarray. Fresh off the back of dismissing manager John Aloisi, the Heart’s existence and even its relevance to the A-League was in question.
To be fair, Aloisi’s team at the end of his tenure was a shambles. Heart were rooted to the bottom of the ladder on just 4 points after 12 games, and had not won in 17 games – 2 short of the longest losing streak in the A-League’s history. The club’s supporter base was overwhelming in its demands to sack Aloisi in the weeks leading up to the decision and considering their relatively small average attendance was in decline it was reaching a point of crisis.
Some still criticised the sacking, saying that a starting XI which had been impacted by injuries to key players and was varying from week-to-week needed stability, not a change at the helm. Such an argument seems logical enough, but what we have seen in 2014 from the Heart is enough to prove it wrong.
John van’t Schip’s turnaround has been a culmination of things finally coming together for the Heart. For starters, he’s had marquee Orlando Engelaar, Patrick Kisnorbo and Harry Kewell on the park on a consistent basis. Engelaar’s mere presence in the midfield would frighten the daylights out of most, and he’s showed recently that he can use his massive frame to effect with powerful strikes in each of the last 3 games. Kisnorbo proved his worth with a goal-saving tackle on Besart Berisha in the dying seconds of Heart’s 1-0 win over Brisbane late last month and has been instrumental in their current run of 3 clean sheets in a row. Kewell, if nothing else, has an incredible amount of experience in the caper and it’s handy that he’s beginning to hit his straps as his fitness improves.
Aloisi supporters will reasonably reply by saying that if he had those 3 players – which he all signed – at his disposal, there’s nothing to say that he wouldn’t have reaped the sort of rewards van’t Schip is experiencing at the moment. But there have been too many signs to suggest that van’t Schip’s managing is on another level Aloisi.
An example from as recent as the weekend demonstrates how van’t Schip is far more willing to take risks with tactics to put the opposition on the back foot than Aloisi. Instead of being reactive by letting the opposition dominate proceedings before making tactical adjustments – as Aloisi often was – van’t Schip began the derby with a 3-4-3 formation. Such a formation – with 3 in front of an attack-minded midfield – was the perfect move to challenge the Victory whose defensive options were reduced so much that usual left-back Adama Traore was forced to play alongside youngsters Nick Ansell, Jason Geria and Scott Galloway.
The risk was conceding goals at the rate they planned to score them, but with Heart’s in-form defensive pairing of Kisnorbo and Rob Wielaert joined by the consistent Jason Hoffman, they could easily cut out Victory’s dangerous crosses. Their performance was made to look all the more classy with great support from Massimo Murdocca and Jonathan Germano who scurried around in front of them and hassled the Victory’s attacking midfielders into submission.
At the rate they’re going, Heart will surge into the finals. Their mentality going forward is predictable, shown on Fox Sport’s Matchday Saturday straight after their derby win when Adam Peacock pleaded with van’t Schip not to answer “Where do you go from here?” with “We’re taking it one week at a time”. The Dutchman paused, before breaking out into a grin and saying “One week at a time.”
To be perfectly honest, if Heart can make the finals with the momentum they’ve built up under van’t Schip, they could find themselves having the most successful season in their history. And 3 months ago who would’ve thought that?