Graham Arnold rejected the overtures of Sydney FC to remain coach of the Central Coast Mariners, much to the club’s delight.
After putting financial troubles and managerial rumours aside at the start of the summer, the A-League’s perennial “under the radar club” has done exactly that – stayed under the radar. There has been little business in or out of the club, with four players in and four players out. However, crucially, two of the new signings bolster two areas made weak by the mid-season departures of Matt Simon and Rostyn Griffiths. In Mile Sterjovski, Arnold has taken a gamble on the former Perth Glory forward, while in Nick Montgomery the signs are there that they have found an adequate replacement at the base of the midfield diamond.
That diamond system will remain the Mariner’s primary formation heading into the new season, with the squad well drilled into specific patterns of play and extremely familiar with the nuances in the defensive phase. Those nuances include how the two forwards drop wide to create a front three to shut down opposition channels of passing, and the flattening of the midfield trio so that the shape is distorted to appear like a 4-3-3. While this secures the middle of the park and often provides an extra man in midfield, it also reduces natural width in attack. Therefore, great onus is placed on the wingbacks, normally Josh Rose and Pedj Bojic, to push forward and provide width higher up the pitch. The Mariners play direct football largely on the break, with the strikers quickly tucking inside to create one-twos with the fullbacks near the byline. The Mariners also place a creative burden on a playmaker playing at the tip of the diamond: in the past, this was Mustafa Amini, but his return to Borussia Dortmund coupled with the form of Tom Rogic means the latter will take this position into the new season.
There is also much excitement surrounding newly promoted youth player Mitchell Duke, who looks set to start upfront following a highly impressive pre-season. The Roar analyst Tony Tannous was particularly gushing in his praise, suggesting Duke “looks to not only have the work rate and tenacity of Simon, but looks a far more refined player technically.” The Australian should be right at home in a system that demands a large work ethic and intelligence.
Nick Montgomery is the other new face on the Central Coast that provides much excitement. His predecessor Rostyn Griffiths, who is now plying his trade at Guangzhou R&F in China, was a calm, intelligent passer playing a disciplined role sitting in front of the back four. His absence has sorely felt in the finals series as the Mariners lacked their anchor man who allowed the fullbacks to storm forward. In Montgomery, they have seemingly found a strong successor. “Nick adds bite in midfield, and he moves the ball very simply,” says Arnold. “He’s a physical player, breaks up the play, but he’ll move us around the park.”
That transition from defence to midfield was one of the Mariners major flaws last season, which may have informed Arnold’s decision to tinker with a new formation in pre-season, which provides them with new options, something they have lacked in the past. “We’ve been working on something different for a Plan B,” says Arnold, “games when we might be struggling, to be defensively stronger.” That something different appears to be a 4-2-3-1, which will presumably see Montgomery paired with one of Hutchinson, Bozanic or Pellegrino, the latter being deployed in a deeper position despite being nominally a no.10. Not only would this, as Arnold suggests, be defensively stronger thanks to the shield of the double pivot, it would also place two players in more natural, wider attacking areas, reducing the onus on the fullbacks to get forward.
You know the cliche: “you can never count the Mariners out”, but it’s a cliche because it’s true. Arnold is one of the more astute tacticians in the league, perhaps second only to Postecoglou, and with a hard working squad that has a strong balance, they should do well.