Melbourne Victory were second best in the Christmas Derby

Saturday's Christmas Derby between Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory may have finished in a 2-2 draw, but the reigning A-League Men's champions turned in their best performance of the season.

The same can't be said for Victory, though. In the face of recent thrashings at the hands of City, coach Tony Popovic fairly asserted there was a need to compete. However, despite Popovic adding that Victory are "back," that is far from the truth at the moment. However tumultuous life post-Kevin Muscat has been for the Victory and their fanbase, there is a lot of room for improvement.

The question is, though, how does one define "competing" in this instance? It's what made a particular comment from Popovic in the post-match press conference so striking.

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"It [City's equaliser] was actually in a period where we were in control," Popovic said after the match. "We lost the ball, with the quality they have they punished us.

"We were in the ascendancy and we were controlling the game. One loose pass and one through ball and they can hurt you quickly, and that's what they did."

Despite the scoreline, Victory largely did not have control or positive influence on the complexion of the game, particularly after Marco Rojas' injury-forced substitution for Chris Ikonomidis after 39 minutes. Even then, the scoreline itself was preventable from City's standpoint.

Victory's first shot in open play came in the 51st minute, from a situation that City eventually exploited. Until Ivan Kelava's inadvertent assist for Nicholas d'Agostino in the 81st minute, their only other shot in open play was a blocked Ben Folami effort in the 53rd, coming from a quick throw-in and switch of play.

Here lies the crux of Saturday's game -- if Victory went ahead, they were inevitably going to try to absorb City possession. Coming into Saturday, despite the small sample size, Victory were still conceding the highest average xG per shot in the ALM this season. Meanwhile, City ranked 10th in the competition for xG per shot in attack while in losing positions.

City's ability to eventually take the lead has to be viewed within this context of game state, but why did it eventuate in the way it did? Zooming in, why was the Rojas-Ikonomidis substitution so debilitative for Victory and how were City able to probe through them as the more active team in possession?

Let's start by trying to answer that first question. Consider Victory's four highest pass combinations for the match. In just over 20 minutes of total time in possession for the match, they were all between the back four, with Matthew Spiranovic to Jason Geria being the highest at 15. From the very opening, Victory's possession predominantly filtered down their right-hand side, and Rojas retreating from an advanced position gave Victory an outlet into City's half.

Despite coming off in only the 39th minute, Rojas received the most passes from Geria, Victory's right-back, for the entire match. Notoriously reticent to receive the ball in tight areas, Josh Brillante was thus given an avenue to receive the ball facing forward, as Victory's right-sided midfielder. Although it didn't translate to shots on goal, there was at least a territorial gain for Popovic's side. The territorial gain meant parity in terms of complexion, but that parity was a fragile one, despite Francesco Margiotta's opening goal. Rojas winning the free kick that leads to Jake Brimmer's assist shouldn't go unnoticed here, in comparison to Brimmer and Margiotta's quick thinking from the free kick or City defender Curtis Good not facing the ball.

Ultimately, though, Rojas' substitution effectively severed outlets into City's half for Victory and they increasingly struggled to penetrate in possession as the match wore on. That this was the one solution for Victory in possession, in what's arguably their biggest regular-season fixture, is damning in itself for Popovic.

Coupled with that consequent lack of territorial gain and increasingly panicky phases of possession, City were already starting to dominate the ball following Margiotta's goal. It's from here we can start to answer the second question, both in relation to how City attacked and how Victory defended. Because it all flies in the face of Popovic's claims his side was in control before City's eventual equaliser.

From the opening phases of the game, Brimmer and Margiotta wouldn't commit to either City's centre-backs or Aidan O'Neill as they advanced the ball. Victory's front two would hedge their positions in this sense. Meanwhile, Brillante and Rai Marchan were respectively tasked with following Connor Metcalfe and Florin Berenguer's movements. One distinct aspect of City's play in possession is Metcalfe and Berenguer advance from midfield while the wingers leak out in possession. It all meant ample room was available for O'Neill and City's full-backs as they came in centrally.

Victory's first shot in open play -- as well as Brillante's intercept from Good trying to pierce a pass into Metcalfe before Margiotta's opener -- came as a result of this. Another misplaced pass from Good allowed Victory to transition, but in terms of net gain, that was City's. O'Neill became increasingly aware of the space he was effectively allowed, and became much more involved in the second half.

Although City equalised via Victory's then-established inability to penetrate in possession, Andrew Nabbout's goal to put City comes as a mere consequence of that space.

Now, Marco Tilio's assist in stride for an unmarked Nabbout poses particular questions of City's composition in the front third going forward, as well as Leigh Broxham's deployment at left-back for Victory. The former's an intriguing subplot going forward but more importantly, consider how scrambled Victory are defensively in the preceding phase. By this point, Brimmer has to pay more attention to O'Neill but Brillante and Marchan are still stretched beyond function, following Metcalfe and Berenguer. It allows Nathaniel Atkinson the space to receive the ball from Nuno Reis and get it to Tilio to begin with.

In ALM, however, transition and chaos can provide salvation. Along with Tom Glover's effort in the City goal, D'Agostino beating Good in a foot race to get a shot off and score following Kelava's frantic clearance, belies the nature of Saturday's game. City coach Patrick Kisnorbo was slightly but justifiably annoyed with the draw post-match.

In contrast to the 1-0 loss against Western United, Victory's defensive approach facilitated City's possession, but they weren't able to capitalise. However, Kisnorbo remained positive, with some reason.

"The two lapses in concentration cost us, but I think for the 90 minutes overall, we played some really good stuff," he said.

"I thought we were dominant in both games [against Victory and Western United]. There's nothing to worry about. We showed great character but in both games, in my personal opinion, we created the better chances."

Popovic stated post-match Victory didn't specifically allow O'Neill space or open up the middle of the pitch.

"We didn't allow space for O'Neill. There was no plan to do that," he said.

The distinction, however, is that the allowance was consequential and at least in Saturday's game, there was no running repair or adjustment at all. The occasion and the result, meanwhile, arguably obscured the current gulf between the two sides, both in terms of the match in isolation and where they sit overall.

There is still a long way to go this season but, considering performance on Saturday, in both attacking and defensive senses, Victory were second best by a significant distance.