Phew! We made it. A season that began far later than usual has finally reached its arrowhead, with six teams still in the race…
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.”
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.
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.