Hands up if anyone saw Manchester United as a potential buyer for the Central Coast Mariners? No? Didn’t think so.
The 2012/13 A-League season saw a number of coaches promise to try and play “attack based, possession based football”, but two teams remain – the two that have consistently played structured, organised, counter-attacking football.
Here are five key questions that will dictate the pattern of Sunday’s Grand Final.
The Wanderers and the Mariners are, broadly speaking, similar sides – both are well organised, use the same 4-2-3-1 formation and counter-attack quickly. But where there is more guile to the Mariners passing game, Tony Popovic is happy for his side to play more direct from the back, with Dino Kresinger’s strong frame a useful target for long balls.
“The Wanderers style is quite direct; they’re happy to let you have the ball then they’ll hit you on the break,” says Mariners midfielder Nick Montgomery.
“It’s quite an English style and I’m used to playing against teams like that.
“They’ve got some good physical players, five very good foreigners and obviously a player like Shinji Ono who can change the game in an instant.”
That summarises the sentimental favourites nicely, and the key word in there is directness. Trent Sainsbury and Patrick Zwaanswijk will know they are in for a physical battle against Kresinger, who will not only incessantly challenge for aerial balls but also press relentlessly from the front.
By now, everyone has heard the infamous stat about Youssouf Hersi, but what does it actually mean for the Wanderers? Offensively, they lose perhaps their key player, the one who can navigate his way out of tight situations and launch counter-attacks.
Shinji Ono has a similar contribution and scores headline-grabbing goals, but lacks the ‘explosiveness’ of Hersi, who positions himself close to the right touchline but then dribbles directly towards the channels.
Defensively, Hersi provides lung-busting, sometimes jaw-dropping recovery runs, pivotal to Popovic’s pressing game. His tackling is haphazard, but his effort is faultless, and when teams play around his initial presence, he works extremely hard to track back and protect Jerome Polenz.
There are two potential replacements for Hersi: Labinot Haliti, or Kwabena Appiah-Kubi. The latter is younger, rawer but boasts blistering acceleration – and appears likely to start – but Popovic might be tempted to start Haliti.
The Albanian scored the decisive goal in the last clash between these two sides and might be the better option to mark the forward runs of Joshua Rose for the first hour, before making way for Appiah-Kubi who can provide fresh energy and pace in the final thirty minutes.
Duke or Sterjovski?
A similar issue might also settle Graham Arnold’s own selection quandary. With Tom Rogic’s departure to Celtic, the Mariners needed a new number ten, a role which has been filled by Daniel McBreen. Withdrawing his top scorer into a deeper position means Michael McGlinchey and Bernie Ibini-Isei can continue to play the wide roles they understand so well – coming narrow to create overloads in the centre of midfield, and allowing the fullbacks to storm forward on the overlap.
But then who plays upfront? In recent weeks this has been Mile Sterjovski – the former Socceroo has played particularly well, but as Brett Taylor explains in the excellent Leopold Method Grand Final preview, this means “by using Sterjovski as an experienced placeholder for the first hour, Arnold maximises Duke’s strengths against a tired and perhaps more open opponent.”
Besides, Sterjovski’s experience in what will be a fervent atmosphere is probably preferable.
The rest of Arnold’s side is predictable – the back four has been virtually unchanged, and Josh Hutchinson and Nick Montgomery have struck up a good understanding in the centre of midfield. But the latter’s late red card against Melbourne Victory means a change is required in that zone, and Oliver Bozanic will start instead.
A few weeks ago Arnold was forced into the same change when Montgomery was suspended, but the switch was surprisingly positive, as Bozanic provided clever distribution and calmly swept the ball from flank to flank.
That suited the Mariners when they needed to take the game to opponents, but Arnold would have surely preferred the more tenacious Montgomery for this clash. The threat of Ono in between the lines requires close attention, and the Mariners midfield two will sit a little deeper, to negate this threat. In this regard, the Englishman provides more security.
Joshua Rose and Pedj Bojic are your typical modern day full-backs – full of running and always looking to get forward. On the left, Rose gets forward more and is technically the better of the two, but Bojic is a very powerful runner and arrives later on in attacking moves.
As Popovic’s fullbacks have less freedom to get forward, the individual battles are clear – Bridge will have to track Bojic, while whoever replaces Hersi will be responsible for Rose. The battle between Bridge and Bojic might be key – Bridge is a striker turned winger and less attuned to his defensive responsibilities than Hersi.
Last week Ben Halloran got the better of Shannon Cole, filling in for the injured Adam D’Apuzzo, using his pace to good effect in one-on-one confrontations, but his final product was hugely disappointing.
Ibini-Isei will try and replicate Halloran’s role in this match, but hopefully with improved decision making – but the real difference might come from Bojic, who will storm past Bridge and presumably find space in wide areas.