Cast-offs and youngsters: The Mariners are still a work in progress

Tim Palmer Columnist

By Tim Palmer, Tim Palmer is a Roar Expert

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    This season represents a period of transition for the Central Coast Mariners. Paul Okon is rebuilding from Tony Walmsley’s reign with a squad pieced together by the cast-offs of other A-League clubs combined with several promising but very raw youngsters.

    This may seem a harsh indictment on the likes of Jacques Faty, Mickael Tavares and Connor Pain but the reality is very few Mariners players would feature as prominently at other clubs. Hamstrung by budget limitations and two seasons of poor form, Okon has to make do with what he has, in the limited time he has had with the squad.

    Results, and the style of play, have marginally improved, but these are the first steps in what is a long-term plan.

    Arriving halfway through the pre-season and two months out from the first round, it was always going to be difficult for Okon to imprint his preferred brand of football immediately. It should be no surprise what school Okon subscribes to, having coached at national team level during this current Ange Postecoglou era of proactivity.

    Postecoglou himself was part of the decision to appoint Okon. The Socceroos coach said at the time of Okon’s appointment that “I want the level of football here to improve…the more teams we have trying to play good positive football will benefit the game.”

    “I’ve worked closely with Paulo for the last few years and he can get his team to play in a certain way in really tough international conditions when you only have limited time.”

    The Mariners exhibit clear hallmarks of the Okon, and ‘national’, style of play. In a 4-3-3 formation, they have a clear emphasis on playing from the back to build attacks.

    They also defend proactively, pressing teams high up the pitch. While there is a clear difference in quality, speed and execution, stylistically, you can see similarities between Okon and the Socceroos, and with many of the other teams in the A-League and NPL attempting to implement this ‘modern’ approach.

    However, where Postecoglou’s Socceroos build up with intent, Okon’s Mariners initially felt very ponderous in possession. Perhaps too keen to satisfy their coach’s reputation, the centre-backs often spent long periods passing across the width of the pitch, albeit deep inside their own half.

    Yet even after a heavy defeat to Sydney FC Okon insisted that his team outplayed the league leaders. “I think we were the better side and I challenge anyone to disagree with me,” Okon said. “It’s the way we want to play, to come here and dominate Sydney and play the way we want to. I’m happy with the team.”

    Okon was probably simply trying to instil confidence in his young team with these hyperbolic comments, but it also belied his current emphasis on the style of play, rather than results. Even if the process proves challenging, he will persist with this learning process, with faith in its eventual ability to create a possession-dominant, attacking team in the vein of Josep Gombau’s Adelaide United, or Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar.

    However, the Mariners continue to be plagued by issues of both territory, and execution. In their New Year’s Eve clash against Melbourne City, for example, they struggled in the first half to control possession in meaningful areas of the pitch.

    Their back four, stretched across the full width of the pitch, with the full-backs moving high and wide and the centre-backs splitting to the edge of the box, moved the ball slowly from side to side in the back third, but struggled to play genuinely penetrating passes into the middle or front third.

    Part of the problem lay in the positioning of the full-backs. Often, Michael O’Neill and Scott Galloway received passes from the centre-backs with the opposition winger in front of them. This meant as the full-backs took their first touch, City could press them immediately. As City’s wingers defend from a narrow starting position, this pressure often come from ‘inside’.

    This meant the Mariners full-backs could only play straight line passes down the line to the feet of their teammates on the wing. These extremely vertical passes, to Trent Buhagiar and Kwabena Appiah, were easily read by City’s full-backs, who could then intercept or tackle to win the ball back.

    This common scenario illustrates the perils of building up through full-backs. Their positioning against the touchline, while helping to make the field as big as possible, restricts the space they have to play in when they receive the ball.

    It is often said the touchline is the best defender, because it automatically halves the available area to the player on the ball from 360° to 180°.

    By a similar rule of thumb, it is more beneficial to build up through central areas, where the player on the ball has theoretically a 360° field of view. By the design of their 4-3-3 formation, however, the Mariners find it difficult to achieve this. This is because Okon instructs his front three to stay high up the pitch, against the opposition’s last line. The wingers try to go 1v1 against full-backs, and Roy O’Donovan makes runs in behind – he has been caught offside more than any other player this season.

    Young Socceroos manager Paul Okon

    Therefore, the only players occupying central areas are the three midfielders. These are a #6, usually Nick Montgomery, a #8 who drops deep (Adam Berry against Melbourne City) and a #10 who plays high, typically Blake Powell.

    Opposition coaches also know that is more effective to force a team to build out wide rather than centrally. Defensive blocks, therefore, focus on restricting space in the middle. Melbourne City do this, as aforementioned, by having the wingers tucking in to block passing lanes centrally. Additionally, in their last game, Van’t Schip instructed Tim Cahill to drop back and occupy Montgomery when the Mariners had the ball.

    With Luke Brattan and Anthony Caceres positioned behind Cahill, picking up Powell and Berry, there were very few moments where any Mariners midfielder was able to receive passes facing forward in that congested midfield zone.

    This has been a common problem throughout the season. The Mariners understand the first phase of possession play, but struggle to link it to the second, or third phase, which would allow them to consistently and effectively create chances.


    Theoretically, an extra player in that midfield zone could help overload teams that defend man to man. It was telling that in the second half against Melbourne City, when O’Neill began making underlapping runs down the left-hand channel from left-back, that the Mariners made inroads. His forward movement inside – rather than outside – meant a City midfielder had to vacate their man to press him, creating space for a Mariners midfielder in the centre.

    Getting players facing forward on the ball in the middle third is a critical component of Okon’s game plan. When a midfielder faces forward in possession, it is the cue for attackers to make forward runs in the final third, creating opportunities for penetration. This can only come about as a result of good build up play that has drawn the opposition up the pitch to press, creating space between the lines.

    The Mariners second goal against Melbourne City was actually an excellent example of this. O’Neill receives a lofted pass from the goalkeeper in the inside-left channel. Luke Brattan shifts across to press, creating space inside for Berry to receive facing forward.

    As he does, Connor Pain drifts wider on the outside-right, and receives a cross-field switch. This gives Buhagiar the opportunity to make a forward run in behind from the #10 position, receiving in behind the defence. He squares for Roy O’Donovan to tap home.

    It’s a simple goal that goes from back to front in four passes, and encapsulates the Okon philosophy. Tellingly, though, it came in a period of frantic end-to-end play, when both teams began to tire and the pressure on the ball significantly dipped.

    When City defended solidly throughout the first half, the Mariners did not come close to creating anything similar. The challenge is to consistently produce these types of passages against organised defences.

    The bare framework is in place, but more work is required for Okon to continue to build this fledgling Mariners team in his preferred image.

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (32)

    • January 4th 2017 @ 7:46am
      KP said | January 4th 2017 @ 7:46am | ! Report

      Great read!
      I’m typing this so there’s a few comments on this as its a wonderful read and I’d love more of it – but its unlikely to create significant “comments” . Maybe as a football population we become more educated we’d have more involved discussions on this…

      • January 4th 2017 @ 8:00am
        CG2430 said | January 4th 2017 @ 8:00am | ! Report

        Agree. More articles like this, please.

        • Roar Rookie

          January 4th 2017 @ 3:38pm
          At work said | January 4th 2017 @ 3:38pm | ! Report

          Yes thank you for the great read Tim.
          Not a code war comment in sight.

          I wonder if Okon sticks with his philosophy or tries something new. As we’re seeing, I don;t thin he has the quality in the team, particularly the back 4 to implement his tactics well enough.

          Also signing Faty was just lazy, good guy but inconsistent player and a liability at the back.

    • January 4th 2017 @ 8:01am
      lesterlike said | January 4th 2017 @ 8:01am | ! Report

      Mariners are a waste of time. They’ve had it so easy in an equalised league and still flop around hopelessly with second hand journeymen and no real ambition. There is no hunger in the club to genuinely improve, compared to the top clubs at the NPL that are frothing at the mouth for the chance to have a genuine go at competing.

      You shouldn’t get a pass for finishing last just because you produce a handful of decent players over 10 years or play pretty football.

      • January 4th 2017 @ 8:20am
        Fadida said | January 4th 2017 @ 8:20am | ! Report

        Thanks for that oh so valuable and insightful comment.

        Tell us genius, which “frothing” NPL clubs have a COE and have produced a dozen internationals in the last 10 years? Not to mention winning titles

        • January 4th 2017 @ 8:26am
          lesterlike said | January 4th 2017 @ 8:26am | ! Report

          “COE” (which the Mariners don’t even properly own anymore) is just some fancy marketing name for an academy and training facilities, which dozens of NPL clubs have had and even then comparing their production of international players over the last 10 years to clubs who have been locked out from the highest tier is nonsense.

          Winning a title in a league where the biggest clubs are restricted from reaching their potential is hardly that impressive. They might as well be gifted a title because it was their turn at winning.

          • January 4th 2017 @ 8:44am
            Fadida said | January 4th 2017 @ 8:44am | ! Report

            Thanks for that oh so valuable and insightful comment.

            The article is about the Mariner’s system of play. Keep your bitter comments to yourself

          • Roar Rookie

            January 4th 2017 @ 9:35am
            Lancey5times said | January 4th 2017 @ 9:35am | ! Report

            You’re a grub mate. Did you at least read the first paragraph of the article or just stopped at the headline?

            Go light a flare

            • January 4th 2017 @ 10:31am
              lesterlike said | January 4th 2017 @ 10:31am | ! Report

              You got grub and flare from thinking the mariners take their spot for granted.

              Cool, rookie indeed.

              • Roar Rookie

                January 4th 2017 @ 12:20pm
                Lancey5times said | January 4th 2017 @ 12:20pm | ! Report

                No I got grub from using a great article regarding the rebuilding of one of the A-Leagues foundation clubs as a platform for an attack. Your post has zero to do with the article and seems caked in personal bias. Fadida asked you to back up your statements with facts and instead you attacked further. Attitudes like yours are holding back the game in this country. Not proud clubs likes the Central Coast.

          • January 4th 2017 @ 9:00pm
            Nebakke said | January 4th 2017 @ 9:00pm | ! Report

            Except they do. They’re separate entities, yes, but under the same management.
            I’d be surprised if any club with investment in property doesn’t have a similar setup to shield themselves from liabilities.
            If doing poorly in the league was really the deciding factor you’d have to gave thrown out just about every other team except MV and Brisbane by now. Heck WSW only narrowly avoided the spoon two years ago.

    • January 4th 2017 @ 8:43am
      Fadida said | January 4th 2017 @ 8:43am | ! Report

      Great article again Tim.

      One of the issues for the Mariners, and is one that JB raises at times, is the difficulty in playing a system for which players patently aren’t (yet) good enough to play. Tim, you rightly highlight the difficulty the CCM have in moving the ball from the back third into the middle. One of the biggest, if not the biggest factors, is the technically ability of the players. The CB’s are not good enough, though Tavares would improve this. More crucially, given they have less time on the ball than the defence, the midfield 3 you name are invariably a weaker trio than their direct opponents. Montgomery is a useful spoiler but Berry is technically very average and Powell not a 10, or a midfielder full stop.

      Again, as you highlight, the receivers are too often facing their own goal when they receive, and not good enough to turn and face an opponent, leading to the ball either going back, or being lost, often with the result that opponents immediately counter attack and create a chance. Compare this to Sydney, where you have Brillante, O’Neill and Ninkovic, one more defensive, one very creative with Ninkovic able to easily turn,beat a player the breaking the line and looking to penetrate into the final third.

      What can the Mariners do? Either a)change their system to suit their fairly limited personnel, or b) recruit better players, cut those not up to it, and keep those who promise to reach the required level. I’d go the latter, though it will take longer to get results, but those results will be more profound and perpetuated. A proper, creative number 10 is essential, as is a technically talented 8.

      I’m in favour of the latter, aim for the sky, where JB (correct me if I’m wrong) would I think change the system.

      I’m really enjoying watching the Mariners, and can see a clear improvement, even if the results are inconsistent. Let’s hope Okon gets the backing to make the necessary personnel changes

      • Columnist

        January 4th 2017 @ 9:29am
        Stuart Thomas said | January 4th 2017 @ 9:29am | ! Report

        Agreed Fadida, trust is the key when a new system is implemented. It will click, yet the problem for managers is whether boards and owners have the same long term vision and the patience to stick with it. Okon’s cred should give him a long period of grace as long as the odd good result pops up. You are spot on with the midfield. Mariners passing stats against Sydney were astronomical. Over 600 passes to Sydney’s 320. Trying to play the style he wants, yet cheap possessions and as Tim pointed out, not quite the skill to turn, face and push forward. They will only look better, but Connor Pain needs some improvement in basic skills, he’s a little one dimensional.

      • January 4th 2017 @ 11:26am
        j binnie said | January 4th 2017 @ 11:26am | ! Report

        Fadida – An excellent analysis of this present CCM starting eleven. Cheers jb.

    • January 4th 2017 @ 9:10am
      Nemesis said | January 4th 2017 @ 9:10am | ! Report

      Interesting to get such in depth analysis. As a football observer, rather than a football academic, and having watched the Mariners a couple of weeks ago, I say they have 2 major deficiencies that hold them back from playing consistently winning football:

      1) a consistently good play-maker who will feed Pain, O’Donovan, Fereira & Buhagiar regularly.
      2) an experienced, ball-playing central defender who can organise the back 4. CCM concede too many goals & they all come from poor positioning laterally or vertically

      Imagine this CCM team under Okon with: Rogic or Amini pulling the strings in midfield & Wilkinson or Sainsbury in defence. I’d be tuning in to watch every CCM match.

      More realistically, if Rhys Williams is unhappy at Perth maybe a move to CCM? Williams would learn so much under Okon.
      Also, Bozanic may find he’s more comfortable back home in Gosford than at Victory?

      • January 4th 2017 @ 10:41am
        Midfielder said | January 4th 2017 @ 10:41am | ! Report

        Would love Olly back in a 10 role.

        He could feed That Trent Boy and Pain .

        • January 4th 2017 @ 1:26pm
          Squizz said | January 4th 2017 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

          Sorry Mid – but it is That Boy Trent – not That Trent Boy.

      • January 4th 2017 @ 11:19am
        j binnie said | January 4th 2017 @ 11:19am | ! Report

        Nemesis. You are in “dreamland ” again, but it makes good reading.
        Paul Okon is a coach. He is at a club not blessed with great following “in numbers” or in “fiscal assets”.
        So what to do for the new coach?. Does he “dream” about Amini. Rogic, or even Bozanic, or does he set to and make do with what he has,
        That is where the man is at. He has two fast wingers, one a novice, the other a tried and tested (elsewhere) operator and as you correctly point out is sadly lacking in experienced defenders and a skilled playmaker, ,always a threat in today’s football.
        Okon has a job to do,he is not over blessed with talent,and until that is sorted out his job will be a difficult one to handle.
        My one worry is that in adopting his ‘passing mantra” is he actually asking the players to perform above their talents,always a dangerous path to follow.
        Explain??? We have Sydney, and to a lesser extent Victory, now committed to a retreating defence game, with fast devastating counter attacking attempts on goal, and when playing the passing game against this tactic, the standard of passing has to be of the highest standard or you will be punished sooner rather than later.
        Can Paul teach his old horses new tricks? Time will tell. Cheers jb.

        • January 4th 2017 @ 11:33am
          Nemesis said | January 4th 2017 @ 11:33am | ! Report

          j binnie, I agree. My wishlist for CCM seems fanciful.

          Having said that CCM have always been low on financial strength.

          Yet CCM recruited, nurtured & provided the finishing touches to players of the calibre of:
          Jedinak, Amini, Ryan, Ibini-Isei, McGlinchey, Fitzgerald, Rogic, Bozanic, Sainsbury, Caceres, Duke

          Before anyone jumps in, I’m not saying CCM produced these footballers. I’m saying CCM gave them all a chance at pro-football when no one else wanted them.

          Look at them now.

          No reason why another Amini & Sainsbury cannot be found in Gosford.

          • January 4th 2017 @ 1:19pm
            Franko said | January 4th 2017 @ 1:19pm | ! Report

            Was big talk of Robbie Slaters boy a while back, any word on him now?

    • January 4th 2017 @ 10:55am
      j binnie said | January 4th 2017 @ 10:55am | ! Report

      Tim – While it is always heartening to read an article in which the writer attempts to “educate” the “newer” fan to the game,I wish in the attempt, the writers would stop referring to 4-3-3 as something “new” in our game.
      4-3-3 was a tactical development that actually morphed out of the system 4-2-4 which the brilliant Braziiliian teams of the early 1950’s used, with almost unlimited skilled players, Garrincha ,Pele etc.
      The change to 4-3-3 is thought to have been “developed” due to the running power and attitude of a left winger in that 4-2-4 system,Mario Zagalla,who, as soon as the team lost possession, immediate took up a defensive position helping out his midfield.duo.
      By the time the 1956 World Cup came around Brazil were deemed to be playing 4-3-3.( this was 18 years before the Dutch claim to Total Football)
      Our team of part timers that went to Germany in 1974 used the system with Rooney, Richards,and Mackay as the mid-field trio.
      For some obscure reason the FFA chose to put forward the system as a “must” in the Dutch generated National Curriculum, hinting that it was the only way to play the game.
      All the ex-players now coaching in the HAL would be well aware of the 4-3-3 system and how it is supposed to work,the problem is that , as in any system, the players must have the basic skills and football “know how” to make it work.
      Unfortunately I suspect that is why the FFA’s Dutch influencers suggested we go back to a 1956 Brazilian system (remember Verbeek’s comment re. the HAL standard) and use it until our skills and knowledge levels picked up to a level that could see more difficult systems introduced.
      Today there is little doubt our standard has improved, but still the ratio of “cheap turnovers” to “killing passes” is still out of sinc. with what would be desirable. Cheers jb.

    • January 4th 2017 @ 10:57am
      Midfielder said | January 4th 2017 @ 10:57am | ! Report


      Excellent analysis.

      Re Okon is a long term appointment by the Mariners.

      We had two terrible years mainly caused by poor management off the park.

      We appointed two top draw consultants to turn us around but returning to what made us successful I.e. the best juniors supported by excellent junior coaches.

      We are two years into a five year plan to win everything again.

      We are making a small profit. We have arguably the best two coaches of youth in the country. The COE without peer as a training facility.

      Next season the plan is to spend the full salary cap.

      Okon played a smart player swap in Pain for Austin .

      Again great read wil. coment more latter

      • January 4th 2017 @ 4:09pm
        Waz said | January 4th 2017 @ 4:09pm | ! Report

        Mid, you made a profit last season through the transfer income of Ryan ($2m) and Caseras ($350k). Logic says that unless you have the same transfer income coming in again you will lose about $2m this year, which is in line with many HAL clubs.

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