An astute manager prepares his team not just to play a certain way, but to play a certain way against certain opponents.
The dogmatic pursuit of an over-arching philosophy will only be rewarded under specific circumstances; pragmatism is so often the most sensible way forward, especially for teams that aren’t laden with the very best players.
Central Coast manager Paul Okon began the season with a very specific playing-style in mind, and his pursuit of that pass-heavy, possession-based endgame led his team to one solitary win over their first 13 games.
It was not wise for a new manager to be so ambitious with the youngest playing group in the league.
But the Mariners, and their coach, have eased their tactical strictures lately, and the win last weekend over Western Sydney – the Mariners’ third victory in a row – exemplified how a new strain of pragmatism has entered the Okon approach.
The Wanderers are a team with very visible weaknesses, and opponents hoping to succeed against them are well advised to try and exploit those weaknesses. The Mariners did that, even though it meant partially abandoning their normal game-plan.
Tony Popovic decided to start Mitch Nichols in a nominal strikers position in this match, despite having Brendan Santalab available. Nichols is not a striker, and the result was – as it so often has been for the Wanderers, who are the joint third-lowest scoring team in the league – an attack that, more often than not, lacked a focal point.
Jumpei Kusukami, Terry Antonis and Nico Martinez intermingled constantly, and with Nichols’ natural predilections as an attacking midfielder taking over, much of the Wanderers’ attacking play was muddled down by crowded, pointless interplay.
Here, inside ten minutes, having won the ball back in a dangerous area, the Wanderers overplayed the situation, eventually being crowded out by the vigorous and numerous Mariner defenders.
This was what the Mariners were relying on, in fact they were set up to draw the Wanderers in, crowd them into errors, then break quickly, activating their most dangerous attackers from deeper areas. Connor Pain’s (No.11 on the left of the diagram) average position in this game was actually behind his full back, Scott Galloway (No.3).
At times, Central Coast would use their wingers to assemble a back six – when Jake McGing dropped back, it was often a back seven – and when the Wanderers’ attack broke down, they had their best counter-attackers right there, ready to launch.
It wasn’t a plan completely devoid of risk; no plans are. When the Wanderers did click in synchronicity, the moves that were assembled were compelling in the extreme. But it was a risk worth taking, and the narrowness of the Wanderers’ front line only helped the Mariners; here, with the entire near flank open, Pain is allowed to collect the ball with a huge swathe of park to himself, and is free to wander up the wing. Only a poor return pass scuppers things.
If you return to that average formation diagram above, you’ll be struck by how all the Wanderers forwards are in such tight proximity to one another; this is not the picture of a healthy attack, with them tripping over each other’s toes, and leaving the responsibility of providing width entirely to the full backs.
It was 0-0 at halftime. Naturally, the longer the Mariners shut out the Wanderers, the better. Western Sydney were getting frustrated, with all this possession and passing coming to nothing, and were more and more likely to overextend as they fatigued. That the Mariners had created almost nothing of note in their own attacking third in the first half wasn’t a problem.
As the Western Sydney fans held aloft sardonic banners, urging their team to “shoot!”, it was simply a matter of time for Okon, assuming his defence held.
The Wanderers are yet to enjoy a match in their temporary home stadium, and as the match crept toward the hour mark, a warning shot was fired. A counter-attack, starting deep in Mariners’ half, ended up, via a fortunate deflection, at the feet of Roy O’Donovan in front of goal. It was well saved, but the speed with which that first Mariners chance was created made the Wanderers’ inconsequential fiddling seem even more pedestrian.
Fabio Ferreira shot narrowly wide a few minutes later. Something was brewing. Brendan Santalab might have rendered it all moot, had he converted a Jack Clisby cross that came next, but – perhaps because he’d only just arrived on the pitch as a sub – he couldn’t.
When Kris Griffiths-Jones awarded a penalty against Jonathon Aspro for some regulation grappling at a corner, the Mariners’ luck had arrived. 65 minutes of tireless defending was rewarded, as O’Donovan put them in front. Santalab then missed a pair of headers that might have equalised immediately, but the Mariners were invigorated.
Breaks like this became a constant threat, with Western Sydney sweating and cursing the mire they were suddenly bogged in.
O’Donovan iced the game with a delightful chip, made possible by a simple lofted ball, exposing Aspro’s heavy legs, and Vedran Janjetovic’s dodgy positioning.
Okon gatecrashed a rehearsed celebratory routine, halfway up the touchline, joyfully divebombing his goalscorer.
Compare this match to, say, the 4-1 defeat to the Melbourne Victory earlier in the season: the Mariners had more possession in that game, played more passes, and had more corners. Against Melbourne, they played 20 per cent more passes in their opponent’s half than they did last weekend, whipped in more crosses, and played fewer long balls. Pain’s average position was well in advance of his full back against the Victory, in fact he was the most advanced Mariner on the park. They tackled less, intercepted less, were caught offside more.
And yet, because they fashioned a more pragmatic, less offensively ambitious game-plan here, one that forced their opponents to play in a way that exacerbated their pre-existing weaknesses, they earned their first away clean sheet in 27 games.
This was no insipid smash-and-grab, as much as it may have seemed that way. Asking the Wanderers to break down a packed defence is asking them to do something they are very bad at, and all this match showed was that Okon is clearly maturing as a manager, knowing when to stick to his philosophy, and when to twist.
A team that won one of their first 13 matches is now pushing for a finals spot, and they deserve all the credit in the world.