IF Melbourne Victory wasn’t already Kevin Muscat’s club, it certainly is now.
With Muscat signing on as head coach for a further two years, his tenure could potentially reach its seventh year in 2020.
So what does this mean for the A-League powerhouse going forward?
Foxsports.com.au takes a look at the future of Victory under Muscat.
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WHAT CHANGES WILL MUSCAT MAKE?
This is the big question.
Much has been made of Muscat’s predictability in the past.
For much of his tenure, the Victory manager has focused on a 4-2-3-1 and creating width through wingers, rather than full backs.
Often, they have a primary strategy of winning the ball, working it out wide to Leroy George and Kosta Barbarouses then attempting to find Besart Berisha in a scoring position — an approach which became predictable and stale at times this year.
During their losing streak earlier this season, Muscat was even booed by his own fans at times.
“I think he deserves another two-year contract,” former Mariner Daniel McBreen said on Just for Kicks.
“But I think that is probably a little bit of a wake up call for him that maybe he needs to tweak a little bit, maybe not rely on the same players all the time and maybe get some fresh faces in there.
“Just to change that little one-track mind they’ve had a little bit in the past six-to-eight months.”
To be fair, of late, Muscat has indicated a willingness to change things up to an extent.
In the most recent Melbourne Derby, along with the win over Kawasaki Frontale, Barbarouses and George showed a willingness to cut inside, rather than sticking to wide areas. Similarly, the more tricky Christian Theoharous has recently been favoured over Jai Ingham — who is more of a straight up-and-down winger — as an impact substitute.
Muscat also deserved credit for his courageous substitutions against Kawasaki, which ultimately won them the game.
While the likes of Ingham and the injured Mitch Austin provide pure pace and workrate, Theoharous’ ability to draw fouls with darting, zig-zagging runs makes him a difficult proposition for opposition defences.
It’s this added unpredictability in attack that must be developed to take the Victory forward.
Key to this has been an increased versatility through midfield.
Previously the pairing of Mark Milligan and Carl Valeri had taken a more defensive-minded position behind James Troisi.
But Terry Antonis is a more aggressive midfielder, who is willing to press forward and pick his passes — which has in turn freed up Troisi to work his way into attacking pockets.
If this more attacking midfield is the future of Muscat’s team, it makes for an exciting change-up.
It will also be interesting to see what approach Muscat and his team take to recruiting.
Daniel Georgievski wasn’t replaced with a true left back last year, though Stefan Nigro has had some impressive games and Leigh Broxham has also filled that void. Meanwhile, Jason Geria’s departure means Thomas Deng has had to deputise at right back.
The Victory has been linked to a move for Brisbane’s Corey Brown, though that is yet to eventuate. Natural ful backs would surely be a target area come the off-season.
Muscat will also have to work to hold on to George — who has been a revelation this season — while considering other attacking options.
A RENEWED FOCUS ON YOUTH
In announcing Muscat’s contract, Victory chairman Anthony Di Pietro made it clear he wanted to give the senior coach more support.
Interestingly, that included comments regarding “increasing integration between (Victory’s) youth and senior programs”, indicating the club believes there is room for improvement in this area.
“Kevin has shown that he’s an excellent coach and we’re delighted to secure him for the next two seasons,” Di Pietro said in a statement.
“This process involved a considered review of the football department, to ascertain ways in which we cannot only improve, but also deliver better outcomes and give us the best chance to achieve sustained success.”
“We identified that we would benefit from an increased level of support around the Head Coach, to enable an even more targeted and focused approach to list management and recruitment, as well as increasing integration between our youth and senior programs.
“We will be looking to add resources around Kevin and we will keep our members and fans informed as this unfolds. In the interim though, our focus is on achieving the best results in the A-League and Champions League.”
Based on those comments, it’s clear the Victory wants to convert more youth players to regular senior performers — something it has struggled to do in recent years.
Thomas Deng is the only regular starter to come through the youth program (though the club also arguably developed Lawrence Thomas and the now-departed Jason Geria) while Stefan Nigro has made his mark at times this season. They also prematurely lost teen sensation Seb Pasquali to Ajax last year.
But recently, the likes of Christian Theoharous and Josh Hope have enjoyed increased opportunities, while striker Pierce Waring recently made his debut. The former pair provided massive sparks in the ACL win over Kawasaki, showing they could both be key players in the future.
If Victory can produce more young players, it will certainly help with their recruiting going forward.
And don’t forget, fans love watching the kids get their chance to shine at the top level.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR BESART BERISHA
Muscat’s partnership with Berisha has been the linchpin of the Victory since the latter joined ahead of the 2014/15 season.
Their first season together yielded a premiership/championship double, with an FFA Cup win following in 2015.
While the team’s performances have been up and down since then, for much of that time, Berisha has been a reliable source of goals for Muscat.
Muscat has consistently been one of the fiery striker’s biggest backers — and when things turn rough, his staunchest defender.
When Berisha scored a goal against the Wanderers in January, ending a frustrating run of form, Muscat made his support for the under-fire striker clear.
“He certainly adds a lot more than just goals to this team and I’d back him over anyone,” Muscat said at the time.
“So in games, in big games and throughout the season I’d take him and back him over anyone — that’s the confidence I’ve got in him.”
That said, the veteran striker looks to have lost a touch of pace and has been frustrated by the offside flag a number of times throughout both the A-League and Asian Champions League campaigns.
In Tuesday night’s Asian Champions League win over Kawasaki Frontale, Berisha cut a frustrated figure when he was flagged offside in the 69th minute, then substituted a minute later.
The frontman stormed past Muscat as he gesticulated and cursed his way to the bench — though it seemingly didn’t faze the manager post-match, who emphasised the game was about a “football team”, rather than individuals.
“No one’s happy when they come off, but I’m more interested in what the ones who are going to come on are going to do,” Muscat said.
“The contribution from the boys who came on was exactly what was required for the team … that’s what I’m interested in more.
“I’ll have a look at it and whatever those conversations are (with Berisha) they will remain private.”
Berisha was also seen clearly celebrating Barbarouses’ winning goal, indicating things aren’t all bad for the Victory marksman.
As things stand, the striker is contracted for next season — and will reportedly be on marquee wages.
Going forward, it will be a situation to keep an eye on.
SO WHAT ARE THE EXPECTATIONS?
Silverware. Plain and simple.
Victory is a club that demands success — and Muscat’s last trophy came in 2015.
That said, the club was James Troisi’s shot clipping the crossbar away from winning last year’s grand final, falling to Sydney FC on penalties.
Victory should well and truly be in the mix for this year’s Championship — they’re hitting form at the right time with some key players impressing. But if things don’t go their way this year, expect another fresh assault next season.
After all, Muscat will be determined to end that trophyless spell.
And those who have backed him in will expect nothing less.