The 2019/20 season would be a big one for Melbourne City midfielder Connor Metcalfe. The 20-year-old broke into Erick Mombaerts’ side and became a regular in both league and cup competitions. Melbourne have been one of the top-performing sides this season, sitting second in the table and reaching the FFA Cup final, which makes Metcalfe’s emergence all the more impressive.
Melbourne City have lined up mostly in a 4-3-3 formation similar to sister club Man City. This sees one midfielder, usually Joshua Brillante or Rostyn Griffiths, sit deeper than the others and operating as a deep-lying playmaker. In this system, Metcalfe has been used as one of the more advanced midfielders on the left-hand side. In the 4-3-3 he is afforded a good amount of freedom to roam forwards. This sees him drive into the half-space a lot, as shown by his heatmap.
Former EFL winger Craig Noone usually plays on the left wing for Melbourne and stays very wide hugging the touchline. This allows Metcalfe space to get forward into the half-space and create chances or go for goal himself. This movement into a wider area sees him complete 1.48 crosses per 90, the third-most among midfielders under 23.
At times, Metcalfe has also been deployed in different roles when Mombaerts has opted for a different system. When using a 4-4-1-1 formation, Metcalfe was used as an attacking midfielder, behind Jamie MacLaren. This helped to utilise his attacking threat, however, he is most effective when used in the 4-3-3.
Left side build-up
As mentioned above, Metcalfe is allowed the freedom to roam on the left and regularly finds himself high up the pitch. Melbourne typically line up on the left side with Scott Jamieson at left-back and Craig Noone on the left wing. The example below demonstrates a common feature of Melbourne’s play up this side.
As Jamieson receives the ball, Noone drops deeper. This draws the full-back in and leaves space behind him. As soon as Noone makes this movement, Metcalfe quickly accelerates beyond him into the space which was vacated. Metcalfe escaped his marker before beating the centre-back who had been forced across and playing a ball into MacLaren. MacLaren was allowed space in the box thanks to the movement which took place beforehand. No-one drew in the full-back forcing the centre-back to cover Metcalfe’s run.
This movement can be seen again below. Lachlan Wales this time drops deep prompting Metcalfe to run into the space left by Ziggy Gordon. Metcalfe doesn’t rush when he gets the ball as he gets his head up and picks his moment to play a low cross. Adrian Luna runs across the box and has a simple finish. Before making his run, Metcalfe had already positioned himself in a good amount of space. This allowed him to provide a short option, enticing the holding midfielder to follow him before turning and breaking behind the full-back.
The opposite of this movement is also used a lot by Melbourne. As shown below, Metcalfe drops in between the defence and midfield which attracts the right-back. This allows space for Noone to attack on the outside as Metcalfe plays the first-time ball between the two defenders. This is a good display of his game intelligence as he is capable of fulfilling both roles successfully. This intelligence is further demonstrated as the move progresses.
After playing the ball wide, Metcalfe re-positioned himself on the edge of the area where space opened up thanks to his pass out wide attracting the defenders. On this occasion, the ball into the box is cleared. However, on another day it could have broken for the midfielder who had himself in a good position.
Linking with midfield
While a lot of his work goes into linking with the left side of his team, Metcalfe is also capable of linking with his other midfielders. Melbourne are a possession-focused side with the third-highest average possession in the league at 51.3%. This adds importance to this area of a midfielder’s game, an area which Metcalfe could look to improve on. He makes an average of 35.54 passes per 90 while the league average sits at 43.7. This suggests he could be more involved in the game and look to have an impact on the ball. This would make him an even more dangerous player when partnered with his off the ball runs.
Above is an example of some of the good work he does in the midfield. After winning the ball ahead of two defenders, he calmly played it back to Griffiths at the base of midfield. As soon as he did this he turned and looked to make a move forward. This meant that when Griffiths played it to Luna a new option had opened up, and this was then combined with his bursting runs forward as mentioned above.
He broke forward into the half-space when Luna opted for a long ball rather than the option which Metcalfe had provided. This is a sign of what Metcalfe can do and is encouraging as he develops further as a player. His 1.14 smart passes per 90 also ranks him ninth among midfielders, showing he does provide a creative spark to his team.
With this being Metcalfe’s first season in the first team, he is still adapting to senior football. This has meant his influence in front of goal has been fairly limited. He has provided two goals and one assist this season, which on the surface seems underwhelming. However, his sample size is relatively small, playing 884 minutes. Despite the low influence he has outperformed both his xG of 1.61 and his xA of 0.9. This shows that he is making the most of the opportunities which have come his way.
Both of Metcalfe’s Melbourne City goals have came from headers. As is a theme in his game, it’s once again his off-the-ball movement which helps to get chances. As shown above, it is his late runs which are effective in these situations. The striker had dropped deep attracting the attention of Metcalfe’s marker. This allowed the midfielder the freedom to burst between the two centre-backs into the box. He ran on the blindside of the left-side centre-back meaning he wouldn’t be picked up. Noone’s cross from deep was headed away on this occasion however, Metcalfe had gotten himself into a dangerous area. He wins 52.17% of his 2.62 aerial duels per 90 which places him in the top bracket of midfielders.
Metcalfe also has a tendency to break from midfield and run beyond the striker. This is shown above as he sees the gap between the centre-backs. Brillante lifts the ball over the defence which Metcalfe latches onto and runs in on goal but can’t finish. This is another element of his game which could prove dangerous but still needs some fine-tuning. His 1.82 shots per 90 sit him eighth amongst midfielders, however, only 25% of these are on target which is below the league average.
As shown below, his shots tend to be taken in and around the box with only a few exceptions. The two shots on target from outside the box is a sign of encouragement that this is an area of his game that can improve as he develops. His goal conversion rate of 12.5% has him seventh among midfielders, however, he has a way to go before reaching the top performers in the league.
The defensive side of Metcalfe’s game is an area he could look to improve but it doesn’t hold him back. He’s successful with 56.14% of his 6.49 defensive duels per 90. While these figures aren’t particularly impressive, he does play a more advanced role than most of the other players he is compared to.
Often it is his defensive positioning and awareness to cover space which can catch the eye rather than his duels. In the example below, left-back Scott Jamieson steps out to press the ball. Noticing this, Metcalfe quickly drops into this position to close down the wide man. When the ball was played to the wing, Metcalfe was well-positioned to force a rushed ball which was cleared. This is another display of his intelligence and reading of the game which is impressive at his age.
Metcalfe shows up fairly well when it comes to counter-pressing. His 4.67 counter-pressing recoveries per 90 sits him 17th amongst midfielders in the league. These make up most of his recoveries and are spread evenly around the field. This shows he does get involved defensively rather than staying up the park. He certainly shows signs this is another area of his game which could become a real asset in the future.
Metcalfe is one of a number of promising midfielders in the A-League. He suits Melbourne City’s tactics well with his bursting runs from midfield to support the attack. While he could do with brushing up the technical side of his game, it isn’t holding him back. He is an intelligent player for his age and demonstrates good reading of the game in both the attacking and defensive phase. He isn’t an outstanding defensive player yet he shows signs this is capable of improving on.
Metcalfe would benefit from a few more years in Australia where he could become one of the top midfielders. Following this, he could look to make a move to Europe with aspirations of playing in the Champions League. He is well on his way to becoming an outstanding A-League player and getting involved with the national team.