Back at it? Hopkins confident in Victory defensive improvements

After recording three-straight clean sheet wins, Melbourne Victory A-League Women (ALW) coach Jeff Hopkins believes his side have begun to turn the corner on their defensive struggles. 

Following a stuttering start to their campaign – conceding just one goal less than their entire 2020-21 season across their opening five fixtures – defending ALW champions Victory has shown signs of defensive life in recent weeks: staging back-to-back-to-back shutouts against Western Sydney Wanderers, Wellington Phoenix, and Newcastle Jets. 

While captain and starting centreback Kayla Morrison’s absence – the 25-year-old lost in the opening week of the season to an ACL injury – still looms large, a mid-season COVID break that afforded extra time on the training track and the addition of American defender Brooke Hendrix has provided Hopkins’ unit with a much-needed boost heading into the season’s final stretch – which will continue for Victory on Saturday afternoon against Wanderers. 

Of course, with their recently vanquished foes sitting bottom, third-bottom, and sixth on the table respectively – the Wanderers, in fact, on track to set a new ALW record for profligacy – it must be acknowledged that Victory hasn’t exactly had to face a murderer’s row of attacking talent in establishing what they hope is a new foundation. 

Nonetheless, Hopkins believes that the improvements shown by his side on the defensive end would have been evident regardless of the foes they have faced.  

“We needed to do a little bit of work, especially on our defensive positioning, to deal with direct play,” he said on Friday. 

“The goals that we copped early on in the season were down to our poor positioning, I think, against direct play. Although the COVID break meant that we didn’t get to play games it meant that we could work on a few things as well. 

“We’ve spoken about that this morning. We had a big review this morning, going into the game, looking at all parts of our game. And we’re defending differently than we did at the start of the season, we’re defending better, we’re dealing with direct play much better than we had done.

“Look, the teams that we’ve played, they’re all good teams in this league and they’re all teams that are capable of beating you if you’re not on your game. So we don’t take the opposition into it, we put it down to us and the way that we’ve changed the way that we defend. Maybe arrogant, but that’s the way we look at things.”

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Signed on loan from NWSL side Racing Louisville, Hendrix started her first game in Navy Blue against the Jets and, though it probably wasn’t in her job description when she arrived Down Under, ended up making her side’s deserved breakthrough when she headed home the game’s only goal in the 55th minute. 

The American will likely start once again against Wanderers and her form looms as a major boost to Victory, who will soon lose her fellow centreback Claudia Bunge to international duty with New Zealand. 

“As a person, character-wise, [Hendrix has] joined the group and it seems like she’s been here all the time,” Hopkins said.  “She’s a good character and we only bring good characters into this club. We got that right, which is great. 

“But she’s fitting in really nicely, she already looks comfortable with her and Bungey together. She’s a good talker, she’s very reliable. And the way that she read the play the other night [against Newcastle], she reads the game really well. She’s a great addition to us and we’re really pleased that she’s here and looking forward to watching her more.”

One player that won’t feature against the Wanderers, however, is attacker Melina Ayres. 

The standout attacker has yet to feature in a single game for Victory this season; a long-running saga surrounding a hamstring injury continuing to prevent her from following up a 2020-21 season in which she was named to the bench of the PFA’s Team of the Season. 

There had been fears that the 22-year-old’s attempts to overcome her ailment would eventually stretch out beyond the end of the season but on Friday, Hopkins said that a return date, although not yet set, was becoming increasingly tangible – a return to full training hoped for next week. 

“I guess all I can say is that we’ll get her back as quickly as we possibly can without putting her at risk of re-injury,” he said. 

“We’ve got to be… she’s going really well and everything’s going really smoothly and is on target. But we don’t want to do anything to risk all the good work that she’s done already. 

“I would doubt [she’d miss the season] very very much. She’s really on target to be back in full training probably at some stage next week. 

“So, once that’s there we’ll have a bit of a better idea of how long she’s going to be. She’s still got a couple of areas she needs to tick off but once they’re ticked off we’ll have a bit of a better idea. 

“But if I was a betting man, which I’m not, but if I was I’d say she’d be back before the season scoring goals for us.”

Enjoying Joey’s coverage of Australian sport? Your support helps keep it possible.
You’re seeing this advert because this is an unpaid, self-published piece.

You can support his ongoing work by buying him a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/joeylynchy 

Header Image Credit: Melbourne Victory

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