McBreen dominates midfield as Wanderers miss Poljak
Graham Arnold and Gary van Egmond are leading the A-League forward (AAP)
Central Coast Mariners manager Graham Arnold might have had an off night at Allianz Stadium 10 days earlier, but in Sunday night’s blockbuster at Parramatta he got it spot on by playing Daniel McBreen at number 10.
That was his big tactical play heading into this much-anticipated clash.
Tony Popovic and his Western Sydney Wanderers had been flying heading into the match, with four wins and one draw in their previous five games.
But here he was missing four key players in Mateo Poljak, Michael Beauchamp, Youssouf Hersi and Dino Kresinger, three of them foreigners.
Importantly, it meant that his powerful midfield enforcers, Poljak and Iacopo La Rocca, would not be paired together.
With La Rocca forced to move to central defence, in place of Beauchamp, it meant that Aaron Mooy would return to the starting XI and be paired alongside Jason Trifiro, another technical player, very comfortable on the ball.
But it meant that the Wanderers missed much of the midfield pressing power that has become their hallmark, with Poljak and La Rocca bossing the midfield in recent weeks.
Poljak, after a quiet start, has been a revelation the past two months, taking over from Mooy as the boss of Popovic’s midfield.
He is not only strong, but tactically mature. It was little wonder he was the first player recently re-signed by Popovic.
La Rocca, too, has improved rapidly in recent weeks after arriving at the club hopelessly under-done.
Without Poljak and forced to use La Rocca deeper, Popovic went for a more technical engine, with the hope no doubt being that Mooy and Trifiro would boss the midfield with their passing range and comfort on the ball.
In the early going it looked like another master-stroke from Popovic as the Wanderers controlled things, with Mooy and Trifiro often on the ball, and influencing high.
But soon enough it was the Mariners game-plan which started to dominate.
Arnold had some very tough decisions to make heading in and he didn’t shirk the responsibility.
With Tom Rogic suspended, he needed to find an effective solution at number 10, particularly after Adriano Pellegrino struggled to have an impact there on New Year’s eve.
The most likely option, it seemed, would be to slide Michael McGlinchey across, from the right, and restore McBreen to head of the formation, where he’s been such a hit.
But Arnold had other ideas.
He kept his skipper from last week on the right, retained Adam Kwasnik at number 9 and brought McBreen into the playmaker role.
It was a big call given how well McBreen had been going as a striker.
While he had been used there for large parts of last season, it was a gamble playing him deeper from where he had been effective this season.
Perhaps Arnold thought Poljak would be playing alongside Mooy and he needed some muscle in there.
After the game he reasoned that it was McBreen’s work-rate and ability to drop back as a midfielder that made his mind up.
Arnold’s other big decision was to retain Oliver Bozanic as a holder ahead of returning skipper John Hutchinson.
It would give the Mariners better passing to go with the work of McBreen.
It was ultimately from this area, in the centre if the pitch, that the Mariners got the decisive opening goal, and it was McBreen’s physicality which made the difference.
Picking up a neat ball into feet from Bozanic, with Trifiro on his tail, he flicked it around the corner with his first touch to Kwasnik and set off.
Bursting beyond Trifiro with a powerful run, he took Kwasnik’s return ball in his stride, driving beyond La Rocca and Jerome Polenz, before finishing with confidence.
It was power combined with technique, and as Arnold pointed out in the post-match press conference, he is happy to have the option of playing either a physical or technical game.
Later, when Bernie Ibini came on for Kwasnik, and there was space against a Wanderers side pushing to equalise, Arnold pushed the creative McGlinchey into the playmaker role, and McBreen to 9, with great effect.
While there was very little in the game and the Wanderers pushed hard when reduced to 10 men, there was no doubt Popovic missed the above-mentioned four.
While Joey Gibbs and Kwabena Appiah-Kubi worked hard for over an hour, there were a number of excellent first half crosses that were begging for Kresinger to attack.
This was an absorbing tactical battle, finely poised throughout, and while Popovic has been getting the most from his men this season, he will admit that the Mariners looked deeper here.
With a number of key players missing from both sides, it sets up another gripping battle between the two friends later in the regular season, and possibly in the finals.
On the evidence at Wanderland on Sunday, one can barely wait.
Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyTannousTRBA