Melbourne Victory looking for a way out of the dark in A-League

Australia's World Cup run to inspire a generation (1:21)

The National Curriculum's Joshua Parish thinks the Socceroos will inspire a new generation of Australian soccer fans despite World Cup exit. (1:21)

Just when you think Melbourne Victory's week couldn't be disrupted further, something else, or more accurately, someone else, comes along and adds some more chaos to the equation. In this case, Elton John. Really. With the flamboyant entertainer playing Friday and Saturday evening gigs at AAMI Park, the club's A-League Men side has been forced to reconfigure plans for Saturday's 'Original Rivalry' with Adelaide United; flying earlier than normal to stage their final training session once touchdown brings them around South Australia again.

In the grand scheme of things, it's a minor annoyance. But, with everything occurring at the club right now, it's a little bit funny. Then again, Tony Popovic probably doesn't see it as a laughing matter. Right now, he's doing all he can to not let the sun go down on his tenure at the helm of Australia's biggest club.

When Popovic's side takes the field on Saturday, the players will do so sitting bottom of the ALM table and with fan sentiment plummeting at a meteoric pace; a season that began with the marquee addition of Luis Nani to a side widely tipped as contenders is spiralling downwards. The only silver lining is that thanks to the compact nature of the league table -- born of either an exciting level of parity or a frustrating tide of mediocrity, depending on your view -- Victory sit only five points back of the sixth-placed Reds.

- Subscribe to ESPN AU/NZ's football podcasts
- The Far Post | The National Curriculum | More

So what's gone wrong? Well, on the field, the biggest problem is as jarringly obvious as a bucket to the head. Forget all the talk about Victory's money troubles; at present, they simply can't buy a goal.

Only Newcastle Jets 's 0.8 goals per game are worse than their 0.9 in 2022-23, and seven of their nine came in just two games -- against Sydney FC in round one and against the Jets in round five. They have scored just once in their past three games, all losses. The core of the issue is that Popovic's side does not create enough high-quality scoring opportunities, and woeful finishing arises when they do.

Victory, per FBRef, rank No.3 in the league for shots and fifth for shots on target per 90 minutes but last in both goals per shot and goals per shot on target. Per FotMob, their expected goals (xG) of 14.8 is almost five greater than their actual total of nine -- the greatest underperformance in the league. Now waylaid with an ACL injury, Nani was perhaps the ultimate avatar of this: his 24 attempts without a goal were the most any player had taken this season without scoring.

As detailed by ESPN Stats and Information, 33% of Victory's shots this season have been blocked -- and their shooting goals added (SGA) statistic, which measures how well they are executing their shots, is negative 4.09; again, that is the worst in the ALM. If one were to broaden one's pool to the A-Leagues and Europe's top-five leagues, only five teams possess a worse SGA figure.

In 2021-22, Victory averaged 47.7% of possession on the way to 42 goals and a second-place finish -- feasting in transition and largely able to dictate games by being one of the best sides in the league at executing the strategy of grabbing the first goal and sitting off opponents. In 2022-23, conversely, only Sydney and the Jets -- two other teams largely underperforming expectations -- have seen more than their 53% of the ball. They have only scored first in two of their matches (both wins), increasing the amount of time they have needed to be on the ball as they chase games. Effectively, the circumstances that allowed Victory to be so effective last campaign haven't been replicated.

Statistical probability suggests that some level of improvement is likely inevitable, but against this tide, Popovic is still searching for an answer. The 49-year-old has consistently backed what he's seen on the training track and the talent of his players to find form and the net, but, right now, he's agonising over a way to put the puzzle together in a manner that fits. It's not just about finding the right attackers and plugging them in, either. As Popovic has said, every part of the team needs to work together as a unit to create consistent attacking output; the midfield, in particular, has underperformed in extended periods of possession.

"We have to [find a solution]," he said after a 1-0 loss to Brisbane. "And I have to take that responsibility. It's my job. I'm the head coach here. That's my responsibility. It lies on me and that's what I have to do with the coaching staff and the players."

Defensively, the pieces and underlying foundation are present. No team in the league has restricted opponents to fewer shots or shots on target this season, with Victory's xG conceded of 11.2 the lowest in the competition. Hampering these fundamentals, though, has been calamitous errors and lapses such as the marking on Josh Risdon's header in Western United's 1-0 boxing day win: 58.3% of Victory's goals conceded have come from set pieces this season, the highest proportion in the league.

A lack of continuity hasn't helped the defence in both open and set play in this regard; Roderick Miranda and Matthew Spiranovic have played just one game together all season, and Jason Geria spent much of the campaign returning to fitness. But the fitness woes of Spiranovic and Miranda, the former especially, shouldn't have surprised. Brendan Hamill was an important starter in 2021-22, and his loss to Indian side ATK was not adequately addressed. Meanwhile, Cadate, notwithstanding his goal against Central Coast Mariners, has not matched the level of Jason Davidson in 2021-22.

Nonetheless, to tell the tale of Victory's on-field woes is to only tell half the story. There's much more to the sad songs coming out of the club.

On Tuesday, Football Australia handed down its sanctions after the violent pitch invasion that forced the abandonment of the Dec. 18's Christmas Derby, the organisation finding that the actions of Victory's fans had resulted in the club bringing the game into disrepute.

Effectively, the penalties can be divided into three streams. There are the fines and compensatory payments that total a minimum of $450,000 in immediate penalties, as well as another estimated $100,000 in lost revenue related to the restrictions on crowds and active support that have been imposed throughout the remainder of the 2022-23 season and beyond. A suspended 10-point deduction will be activated against the club's ALM side every time a "triggering event" occurs between now and the end of the 2025-26 campaign, each incident resulting in a new reduction being applied.

Victory are fortunate, and Football Australia perhaps naive, that these trigger points can only be activated at ALM games. Bottles were thrown at then Melbourne City goalkeeper Teagan Micah in 2021 at an ALW match, and the individual identified and banned for throwing the bucket at Tom Glover had served a ban for being part of a cohort of Victory supporters that attacked fans of South Melbourne in 2016.

But more than $500,000 has now been blown in the club's budget in one fell swoop, with the costs associated with potential drop-offs in membership, ticket sales, and sponsorship, as well as the added costs in security that will inevitably accompany the lessening in crowd restrictions to be added to this. Those at the club are confident in its ability to absorb the blow and bounce back, but, for an entity that, like the rest of the A-Leagues, has had its balance sheet battered pillar to post by the COVID-19 pandemic, it's a significant blow -- one that will likely accelerate 777 Partners' pathway to ownership.

Beyond the obvious effect that crowd restrictions will have on the ambience at games, the alienation that will inevitably be felt by the supporters affected will also condition their relationship with Victory for years to come. Add to this the anger and disillusionment that was already simmering among the fanbase over the Australian Professional Leagues decision to sell ALM and ALW Grand Final hosting rights to Destination NSW, and there exists a significant threat that Victory's crowds and membership base could suffer a significant hit in the years ahead.

And inevitably, because of the closed and interconnected nature of the A-Leagues, how Victory address these issues will inevitably affect the whole competition. Will they still be standing? Or are they a candle in the wind?