How Paul Okon’s getting the best out of his brave Mariners

Tim Palmer Columnist

By , Tim Palmer is a Roar Expert

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    The Central Coast Mariners have been inconsistent in their results this season, but their football has been consistently impressive to watch.

    As discussed previously, Paul Okon laid down clear foundations for his brand of controlled possession play in his first year, before evolving the personnel in the squad to suit his style of play.

    His recruitment, particularly the Dutch pair of Wout Brama and Tom Hiariej, has been excellent, moulding well with the existing core of raw but talented youngsters.

    A valid criticism of Okon in his embryonic period was that he was too stubborn to change clear failings in his side’s approach. The suggestion was that the players weren’t capable of playing a style of football based on dominating possession, and more pertinently, moving the ball from one side to the other to open up gaps in the opponent through which to play through.

    It is an argument we have heard in the past with Ange Postecoglou, who, like Okon, believes in a certain way of playing and sticks with it through thick and thin.

    Both coaches believe changing the approach shows a lack of belief – and if there is a lack of belief from the coach, then the players will not be brave to continue that way when under pressure or underperforming.

    It is stubborn and stupid, or brave and admirable, depending on which way you think of it, but the Mariners have been playing some of the best football in the league.

    This is because they build up effectively from deep positions, drawing opponents forward to create gaps between the lines where the attacking players – Daniel De Silva, Connor Pain and Andrew Hoole – position to create overloads to receive the ball in dangerous positions away from opponents and can attack goal.

    They are also excellent at combining in tight areas, with the mobility of the aforementioned attackers meaning they can play quick sequences of passes to break in behind opposition defences.

    The main element of risk comes in the way Central Coast spread the pitch with their positioning, even when the ball is in deep positions. When the centre-backs have possession inside their own half, the front three are positioned nearly 50 metres ahead of the ball, trying to pin the opposition defence back and create gaps between the lines. Therefore, as the centre-backs circulate the ball through the back and middle third, trying to provoke the opposition first line forward to press, the defensive block can become stretched, creating space between the lines.

    The counter-effect, of course, is that the further you are away from the ball, the less easily you can defend the opponent in the moment when possession is lost. Therefore, turnovers of possession from the centre-backs, goalkeeper, full-backs or even the deep midfielders can lead to dangerous counter-attacking opportunities for the opponent – as was the case for Perth’s minimal, but occasional, chances in Sunday’s game.

    This is one possible explanation as to why Okon may have decided to make a tactical adjustment to his side’s shape. In the build up, he used an asymmetrical formation. Left-back Kye Rowles stayed deeper, in front of the Glory’s first line, while right-back Jake McGing was much higher, moving up the pitch to position between the second and third line.

    This lopsidedness is something Okon has done before, but it was particularly obvious here for two key reasons.

    Firstly, it meant when the Mariners built up from the back, as Rowles was narrow and deeper, Pain had to play wider and higher ahead of him. While normally Okon encourages the wingers to move infield to create a box, Pain noticeably stayed wider in these moments. This meant when Rowles received the ball, and Perth right-winger Chris Harold moved forward to press him, then the passing lane – a straight, vertical pass down the line – into Pain became open.

    When this occurred, Perth right-back Jeremy Walker had to move out to press Pain, creating a gap between defenders in his side’s back four, into which De Silva could make forward runs.

    De Silva’s influence from the left-hand side was excellent. He got the ball in pockets of space where the opposition’s back four was suddenly exposed, allowing him to drive forward and create goalscoring moments. From this zone, he created the game’s only goal.

    He’s a fine player in his own right, but playing in this system – where the back third players are brave to build up with width and depth to draw opposition teams forward, and create space between the lines – benefits De Silva enormously. He receives controlled passes in the attacking third in time and space, and is able to face forward – the prime position for an attacking player to be effective.

    Okon’s asymmetrical formation in the build up had a second, decisive effect. With Rowles deeper on the left hand side, left-sided centre-back Antony Golec could stay central, basically as the middle player in a back three, with right-sided centre-back Alan Baro moving wider, and McGing pushing high up the pitch.

    From these advanced positions, with Glory trying to defend very narrow as a unit, McGing constantly got the ball in wide areas of the middle and front third. The midfielders and Baro were constantly able to switch the ball out towards him. Shane Lowry, the left-back, was occupied with Andrew Hoole moving inside, so when the ball travelled to McGing, Lowry had to cover too much time and space to be able to close him down effectively.

    In these moments, McGing consistently delivered dangerous crosses into the box. He created a brilliant chance for Kwabena Appiah, whose header was saved spectacularly by Liam Reddy, then later, Pain missed a tap-in at the far post from a McGing tap-in.

    To stop McGing delivering these balls, Lowry started positioning closer to him – but this then opened up a gap between the Perth left-back and centre-back, into which Brama later played a cracking pass for Appiah to receive in behind and shoot on goal.

    McGing’s influence built a stream of pressure on Perth’s goal throughout the first half, and meant the Mariners’ possession had purpose.

    That, ultimately, must be very satisfying for Okon. His team has its obvious flaws, but he has evolved the system to try and protect them against these weaknesses, while keeping the strengths in the style of play that allows his attackers to flourish.

    Regardless of whether his approach will be vindicated by results, it is vindicated by the entertainment.

    Tim Palmer
    Tim Palmer

    Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He has worked with the Socceroos in an analysis role, has completed the FFA B Licence, is currently a player in the Australian Deaf Football Team and coaches in the NSW NPL. You can follow him on Twitter @timpalmerftbl.