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Opinion

Commentary in the A-League: A look at Central Coast Mariners vs Newcastle Jets

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Roar Rookie
25th July, 2020
15

I watched Friday’s game where Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets battled out a bit of a boring draw which ended at 0-0.

There’s not much to write about for the game, but about 18 minutes into the game, one of the FOX commentators Andy Harper gets into a bit of a rant about Central Coast Mariners’ defence and press.

Here it is in full:

Andy Harper:
The problem here for the Mariners is that they’re displaying no ability to control this game without the ball. They’re just allowing the Jets to go down one avenue, and if it doesn’t work then go the other. At some point, you’ve gotta shepherd your opponents into one sideline and outnumber them. They’ll just keep playing this forever, with no pressure on the ball until a gap is available, and through will go Roy O’Donovan or Nick Fitzgerald.

[as the ball comes to the right centreback Nikolai Topor-Stanley]

You see Silvera here has to get inside [centrally] Topor-Stanley and push him to the line or there’s no point in the press. As the first defender, your job is to make sure the ball doesn’t get past you. And Samuel Silvera, Milan Đurić to a lesser extent, Alou Kuol, they’re just too easily beaten.

Adam Peacock (the voice of reason):
It’s dangerous – they’ve got three at the back there, the Jets – the Mariners, do they press three for three and just leave someone right at the last line at the other end?

Andy Harper:
The whole point of the press is, it’s gotta be coordinated. And once you get the troops forward, how are you shepherding your opponents into an area where you’re going to trap them? Otherwise you’re just running around for fun!

[A bit of time passes, and Newcastle have won a corner. The ball comes back out and Kuol engages as Newcastle try to play a cross back into the box]

That’s better! See that’s what the first line of defence does. He stretched twice there, the youngster.

Hearing this really annoyed me – let’s break this down to see why.

It’s important to first understand what the Mariners were actually doing in defence. The two strikers would take up wider positions to allow them to be somewhat in line with the outside centrebacks Topor-Stanley and Johnny Koutroumbis. There were two main reasons for this; firstly, these two are more comfortable on the ball, so the strikers would close them to ensure they didn’t have a lot of time on the ball to pick a pass or dribble; and secondly, to block passing lanes into the centre.

They were happy to allow them to shift the ball between the centrebacks – there’s no danger if they can’t pick penetrating passes.

Central Coast Mariners' defensive structure: protect the centre

Central Coast Mariners’ defensive structure: protect the centre (Image: Nick Gerver)

The Newcastle wingbacks were left open, and when the ball found its way to them, the Mariners would shift over to make it difficult to play out. The biggest threat was from Bernie Ibini-Isei and Fitzgerald, who would drop into the midfield, often shaking off Gianni Stensness or Jacob Melling (more on this later).

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Ibini really tore through the Mariners’ defence here, which made it seem like their defensive structure was really poor.

Central Coast Mariners' defensive structure: pressing the wingbacks

Central Coast Mariners’ defensive structure: pressing the wingbacks (Image: Nick Gerver)

Now back to what Andy Harper was saying:

The problem here for the Mariners is that they’re displaying no ability to control this game without the ball. They’re just allowing the Jets to go down one avenue, and if it doesn’t work then go the other. At some point, you’ve gotta shepherd your opponents into one sideline and outnumber them. They’ll just keep playing this forever, with no pressure on the ball until a gap is available, and through will go O’Donovan or Fitzgerald.

That’s exactly what they want to do. Their goal is not to win the ball back, it’s to protect the centre. As long as the ball isn’t getting into threatening positions centrally, they’re pretty happy with not having the ball. Not pressing hard is a calculated risk that the Mariners are taking – giving the opposition time on the ball, but keeping an extra man at the back (more on this later).

You see Silvera here has to get inside [centrally] Topor-Stanley and push him to the line or there’s no point in the press. As the first defender, your job is to make sure the ball doesn’t get past you. And Silvera, Djuric to a lesser extent, Kuol, they’re just too easily beaten.

Silvera's position

Silvera’s position blocks balls into the centre of the pitch. If he’s further inside, the ball into the left midfield is easily played. Additionally, Silvera has no support here to win the ball back on his own. (Image: Nick Gerver)

The Mariners aren’t pressing – Silvera’s role is to block the pass into the centre. In this situation if he were to go inside, the entire centre of the pitch would be open. Is that preferable? In addition, the ball isn’t getting past them into the centre – instead Newcastle would play it to the flanks, where it’s not their responsibility to win the ball back, rather the responsibility of their fullback and central midfielder.

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Adam Peacock (the voice of reason):
It’s dangerous – they’ve got three at the back there, the Jets – the Mariners, do they press three for three and just leave someone right at the last line at the other end?

Adam Peacock’s comment is an excellent rebuttal. The Mariners’ defensive structure is such that they have a spare man at the back, which is always quite handy to act as a covering defender if an attacker manages to escape his marker. With this structure, who would come forward to press the additional centreback?

If it’s one of the wide midfielders, suddenly there’s an easy pass into the midfield, especially when Ibini and Fitzgerald drop deeper and all of a sudden, there’s a 2v2 at the back for the Mariners.

Central Coast Mariners' defensive structure: Spare man at the back

Central Coast Mariners’ defensive structure: Spare man at the back (Image: Nick Gerver)

The whole point of the press is, it’s gotta be coordinated. And once you get the troops forward, how are you shepherding your opponents into an area where you’re going to trap them? Otherwise you’re just running around for fun!

Again, the Mariners aren’t pressing. They’re not even running around, just shifting side to side. The intention is not to win the ball back high up the field, but rather win it in the middle third, and break out from there with the direct running of the forwards. This is another reason why Mariners didn’t want to press – the fitness component.

If you press high and hard from the start, your team will not be able to sustain for the entire 90 minutes, and on top of that, they won’t be able to run at the defence, which is their primary objective.

Kuol stretches, prompting praise from Andy Harper

Kuol stretches, prompting praise from Andy Harper (Image: Nick Gerver)

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That’s better! See that’s what the first line of defence does. He stretched twice there, the youngster.

The reason why Kuol commits here is because of two reasons – it’s a set piece situation, and it’s in the defensive third, where there’s a lot more urgency required. The defensive setup is significantly different here than to when your opponent has comfortable possession far away from your goal.

Central Coast Mariners midfield
Stensness and Melling is an extremely shaky pairing for the Mariners. I like Stensness – he’s okay technically and has a good engine, but can be a bit slack with his positioning.

Back when Kim Eun-Sun was still around, they had a decent pairing – Kim would direct Stensness, telling him to shift over, press or come back, while Kim was comfortable in possession and able to spray long balls into the forwards. Kim is really severely missed by the Mariners in midfield.

Melling, on the other hand, was all over the shop. His passing was extremely slack and he looked very awkward on the ball. I get the feeling that he has some fitness/sharpness issues – time after time he was walking around the pitch, his running style looked extremely awkward and he was extremely slow to react or adjust his position. When he was on the left Ibini would skip past him or just jog past him to receive the ball, and when he was on the right, Fitzgerald/Connor O’Toole were continually open in dangerous positions to receive the ball.

It looked like he was yelled at by his teammates (Jack Clisby a few times, Mark Birighitti and Ziggy Gordon). I will say that he tackled well when the ball came to him, but I’d be very surprised to see him start the next game for the Mariners.

But they did press high at the end of the game?
Yes, they did. But look how much space they had in behind:

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This probably wasn’t a sustainable solution for the Mariners for the entire 90 minutes. It was a bit surprising to see Newcastle not playing more direct as the game became more stretched.

Having said all that, the Mariners did press when Newcastle had goal kicks – these were controllable situations where the team had time to organise their setup and prepare, and also where the pressing has a higher risk versus reward ratio – it’s a lot easier to score if you are able to win the ball back in and around the opposition’s penalty area.

So he made a few incorrect comments, so what?
It’s a bit surprising that in such a frustrating game, the thing that annoyed me most was this passage of commentary.

The commentary team has a duty to explain and educate the viewer about what is happening, and why. This judgement of Central Coast Mariners’ play inevitably shapes the narrative for everyone who watches the game, with the conclusion drawn of “the Mariners should have pressed way higher, they are so bad tactically”, along the lines of the common cliche “why isn’t the forward pressing the defender?”.

I hope I’ve shown how this judgement is a bit unfair, and encouraged people to think critically about what the commentary team is saying. I think the commentary team (and probably the wider media) holds a significant amount of responsibility towards the negative sentiment that football faces in Australia, which saddens me when we have analysis like this.