Mariners finally have clear direction under Paul Okon

Tim Palmer Columnist

By Tim Palmer, Tim Palmer is a Roar Expert

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    The Central Coast Mariners have a clear identity as a family-friendly community club, but their on-field identity has been less clear in recent years.

    While Tony Walmsley pledged an all-out attacking approach, his regime ended in confusion as he made changes to try and protect his side against counter-attacks. That inconsistency also extended to the squad, with an odd mix of raw, inexperienced youngsters, solid if unspectacular squad players and the bizarre addition of Luis Garcia.

    The sacking of Walmsley weeks out from the 2016-17 season summed up the mayhem, with Paul Okon left to salvage the mess.

    Okon has done an admirable job rebuilding what was, and arguably still is, a weak side. The Mariners simply do not have the same quality across the pitch as a Sydney FC or Melbourne Victory. Their place in the league hierarchy (even with a salary cap) was illustrated by James Troisi’s comments last week: “No disrespect, but I wouldn’t be moving to a Central Coast or a Newcastle or anything like that.”

    Instead of Socceroos playmakers, Okon has focused on recruiting talented youngsters such as Daniel de Silva, Andrew Hoole and Tom Glover, mixed with strong foreign pedigree including Wout Brama, Tomi Hiariej and Asdrubal. Overall, the squad feels far more balanced, and most importantly, feels like it suits Okon’s type of football.

    We saw significant evidence of how Okon wants his teams to play last season, even if he did not necessarily have the players to suit it. The Mariners dominated possession in nearly all of their matches, focusing upon controlled, purposeful build up from the back to get players free, facing forward and able to play penetrating passes to runs in behind in the final third. It is a similar approach to that of Ange Postecoglou, who unsurprisingly nominated Okon for the role.

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

    Ange Postecoglou and the Socceroos

    (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

    Now, after a full pre-season and the chance to rejuvenate the squad, the identity of Okon’s Mariners is clear. They want to dominate opponents with the ball, using possession as a tool to open up gaps in the opposition defensive structure to play forward into attackers between the lines.

    A double No.6 pairing of Dutchmen in central midfield of a 4-2-3-1 formation has been pivotal. Brama and Hiariej understand their roles intuitively, with their primary task being to get free behind the opponent’s pressing line to be able to receive the ball in a position where they ‘break’ that line. To achieve this, they perform ‘rotations’, where they make movements off the ball to manipulate opponents and get into positions where they are free to receive forward passes, or can create space for others to receive.

    An example of a rotation is when one of the two No.6s move level and outside of the opposition’s first pressing line. Against Newcastle Jets, for example, Ronald Vargas and Roy O’Donovan formed the first pressing line as a front two, so sometimes Brama or Hiariej dropped outside of them into the position of the fullback (who moves high to push the opposition winger back) so the No.6 could receive a pass to break the line.

    Another example is when one of the No.6s drops in between the two centre-backs, in front of the pressing line, with the other No.6 positioned behind the pressing line. When the No.6 that has dropped receives the ball, the other moves on the blindside of the nearest opponent so the player in possession can play a pass that breaks the line and gets the other No.6 on the ball facing forward.

    When the No.6 gets on the ball, the Mariners perform a second set of rotations higher up the pitch. The key task here is to create a ‘box midfield’, similar to the shape Postecoglou has created with his controversial 3-2-4-1 formation. In the Mariners’ 4-2-3-1, however, there is only one No.10, De Silva, who will typically move to one side of the pitch. Therefore it is the job of the winger on the opposite side to come inside, becoming a second No.10, and creating the ‘box’ with the two No.6s.

    (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

    This is important, because the two opponents the Mariners have faced so far have defended with two screening central midfielders. The box creates two forward passing options for the No.6 on the ball to play into, making it more difficult for two defensive midfielders to defend against, especially when compared to one No.10.

    It is the same rationale as Postecoglou’s 3-2-4-1 formation. A pitfall for both the Mariners and the Socceroos, however, has been the lack of penetration when the No.6 plays forward into the 10. In this moment, the team should look to play forward in behind the opposition last defensive line (i.e. the back four) with forward runs from the attacking players. The timing of the run and pass is naturally critical – and if it is not possible, both teams will circulate the ball to try and recreate the moment. Long periods of ball circulation, however, makes the system sterile.

    Yet when the Mariners constantly get their No.6s and No.10s on the ball between the lines, and combine that with forward runs, they play some of the best football in the league. It is an enterprising, if risky approach – look at the way the Jets were able to counter-attack effectively quickly after winning the ball in that 5-1 defeat – but it is a style of play that suits the development of the young players Okon has available to him. As Ange himself says, “the more teams we have trying to play good positive football will benefit the game.”

    The challenge, of course, is to marry those developmental goals with the competitiveness needed to win games. It remains to be seen whether Okon can achieve success in the way that Postecoglou has in the past, but there is no doubt about the new identity of the Central Coast Mariners.

    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 (10)

    • October 17th 2017 @ 7:06am
      AGO74 said | October 17th 2017 @ 7:06am | ! Report

      Troisi’ comments on the mariners are somewhat amusing given the array of clubs he has played with over the years……and who can forget his magical mystery tour this year post Confeds Cup which included a bizarrre photo of him holding some Israeli clubs scarf over his head. Good player but I think his ego needs a reality check sometimes.

      Okon is doing some good things up at CCM – I think they were the better team against wsw on Saturday night. The Dutch import look quality. And you’d figure if anyone can rejuvenate Daniel de silva it would be the likes of someone of okons ilk.

    • October 17th 2017 @ 7:33am
      punter said | October 17th 2017 @ 7:33am | ! Report

      Great analysis Tim, the more people who understand what some teams are trying to do the better, with more quality foreign players, used to playing this style, we are seeing a better quality football.
      Please keep up the football analysis & let us debate them.
      There is a lot of criticism of Ange, some justified, but some of it, basically have no idea of what he is trying to do.

      WSW had better players, but CCM had a better style.

    • October 17th 2017 @ 8:50am
      Fadida said | October 17th 2017 @ 8:50am | ! Report

      CCM looking much better but unfortunately they are weak in central defence and Conor Pain is never going to be good enough, Hoole too arguably.

      • October 17th 2017 @ 5:02pm
        punter said | October 17th 2017 @ 5:02pm | ! Report

        Pain s clearly not good enough, with Hoole, he has the attributes, his first touch, his dribbling skills, his speed, but his decision making is dreadful, apart from the pass to De Silva.

      • Roar Guru

        October 18th 2017 @ 1:18pm
        Griffo said | October 18th 2017 @ 1:18pm | ! Report

        I think Hoole is an emotive player whose personal mentality affects his confidence and decision making far too easily.

        He can throw in the towel as they say when it gets a bit tough or the pressure of contributing gets too great, not really thinking of the best passing options in the moment.

        Not for the first time he could do with some sports psychology work.

        Improving his decision making (or more accurately, being consistent) and handling the pressure a bit better could see him a handy player.

        I think you could compare him with Leckie in a lot of ways. Hoole could perform a similar role with more consistency imo.

    • October 17th 2017 @ 9:13am
      Midfielder said | October 17th 2017 @ 9:13am | ! Report

      Very decent analysis and love the respect .

      Okon could find himself sort after if he has a good season position wise.

      We are pretty to watch … we have in our youth team a player to replace Pain …

      His name is Peter Kekeris, he is tiny would be the smallest in our squad, still very young and I think being held back because of his size and age… but I expect to see him at some stage and he played in some of the pre season matches a name to look out for.

    • October 17th 2017 @ 11:08am
      Rudi said | October 17th 2017 @ 11:08am | ! Report

      Very good Tim!

      The Mariners have been great to watch and have some similar parallels to the national team which is important.

      There are not many teams that try to play good football and instead we see alot of running and physicality, we need teams trying to play like this.

      Would they get into the top 6 playing this way? i don’t know but what is certain they will be a neutral’s favourite.

    • October 17th 2017 @ 11:49am
      Midfielder said | October 17th 2017 @ 11:49am | ! Report

      Whats interesting is we are being hacked a lot …. and what I consider fouls are being let go … yet we incur very soft penalties …

      If the player I mentioned above gets game time … Peter Kekeris is fast, ball skills and a Football brain…however he is very small which makes his ability to turn and change direction and dribble easier ….

      We will then have a front four of huge skill, and very nimble very very very nimble… but we will need these players protected by the refs who to date have done little…

      Our weakness is at the back, we need one more high quality CB and maybe a left back as well…

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