Both the Wanderers and the Mariners put an emphasis on denying the opposition space and neither side could find the breakthrough.
Tony Popovic chose to keep marquee signing Shinji Ono on the bench, which saw Mark Bridge partner Dino Kresinger up front. Aaron Mooy and Mateo Poljkak manned the midfield zone.
Graham Arnold elected to start Adriano Pellegrino alongside Josh Hutchinson in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Mitchell Duke lead the line.
An interesting tactical battle between the two managers, but neither could find the winning goal.
First look at the Wanderers
For the Wanderers, both the club and manager were making their competitive débuts and there was much interest surrounding how Popovic would set his side out to play. “We’ll try and play a high tempo, a quick passing style,” said Popovic to Simon Hill, but ultimately that would depend on the calibre of players the Wanderers could lure. With an average age of 25.6, the squad has a good mix of youth and experience.
Against the Mariners, the Wanderers played in what seems to be their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. When in possession, the wingers Youssouf Hersi and Labinot Haliti made direct runs into the space between the centre backs and full backs, with Kresinger playing as a target man and Mark Bridge roving in behind. Mooy would push forward to support with Poljak dropping is a holding midfielder.
In defence, the two wingers would track back and form a bank of four, looking to soak up pressure and break quickly on the counter attack. In the defensive line, Topor-Stanley is the more combative defender, and he and Michael Beauchamp showed a good understanding, as Beauchamp would often drop in behind to cover.
Mariners new formation
On the other hand, the Central Coast Mariners are a familiar foe in the A-League, and teams know they’ll be structured and cohesive as long as Graham Arnold remains coach. However, in a widely anticipated move, the Mariners have shifted away from their usual diamond formation to the 4-2-3-1, with Hutchinson and Pellegrino playing in the pivot. That still accomodates Tommy Rogic in his preferred playmaker role, but it does shift Michael McGlinchey into an unusual left wing position, with Miles Sterjovski on the opposite flank.
Where the diamond offers dominance of the midfield it sacrifices natural width high up the pitch, placing a great onus on the fullbacks to get forward and provide legs out wide in attack. Pedj Bojic and Joshua Rose both play this role superbly with storming runs down the flank, but were often vulnerable to overloads in defence: in this formation, the presence of wingers provides them with more protection. The diamond is probably our preferred system,” says Arnold, “it’s worked well for us in the last two years.” Presumably, Arnold is trying to provide his side with greater flexibility in game to change things around.
Clash of systems
Still, it was unusual to see the Mariners play with the new system right from the outset, which meant that both sides were playing similar formations, and there were clear match ups all across the pitch. The key battle then, was in midfield, where both sides were looking to control possession and funnel play through to the central playmaker. The Mariners were more effective at controlling the ball, but struggled to provide Rogic with service and support. Mooy and Poljak were an effective partnership, working as a shield to prevent space opening up between the lines, where Rogic likes to operate. His movement was disappointing: he rarely dropped deep to try and drag the pivot out of position, and only rarely did he drift out to the wings. Furthermore, the two wingers rarely made runs in behind Duke, which left the striker isolated.
The Mariners full backs were more cavalier, bombing forward as they normally would in the diamond formation. This gave the Mariners extra options in attack, but the Wanderers were also able to effectively exploit the space in behind, with passes into the channels on the counter attack clearly their most effective strategy (similar to the Heart’s tactics against the Victory the night before). Hersi and Haliti were constantly driving into space, but Bridge’s sloppy passing and some poor finishing meant the Wanderers were unable to capitalise.
Arnold’s reaction was to instruct his fullbacks to sit deeper, and while this neutralised the threat on the counter attack, made the Mariners less dangerous. The game progressed slowly, with the most exciting plays coming from individual moments of brilliance.
Return to diamond
After seventy minutes, Arnold made his move, bringing on Bernie Ibini-Isei and Nick Montgomery for Sterjovski and Pellegrino, and the Mariners played the diamond for the last twenty minutes.
This seemed not only a return to a familiar system but a reactive move to the substitution of Ono, who had replaced Hersi in the sixtieth minute. Ono had been dangerous with some attempted passes nearly finding Kresinger in the penalty area, and by placing Montgomery into the zone, restricted his influence. The second effect the change had to was to restore the Mariners usual dominance of the centre, with four midfielders now able to press Mooy higher up the pitch – he had been the best player of the first half with some fantastic passes, but his influence waned from this point.
The formation switch also Rose and Bojic begin to play higher up the pitch again, and although the Wanderers had fresh legs on the right flank with Appiah-Kubi, their transitions weren’t as smooth. Furthermore, Bridge was now on the left, and the Australian wasn’t as disciplined as Hersi, constantly drifting inside and being slow to track back, allowing Bogic to push past him and into space. However, Popovic only made one more substitution, an enforced change with the injured Poljak coming off, Shannon Cole coming on at left back and D’Apuzzo moving into midfield. This had little effect on the match: the Mariners dominated the majority of the possession, but the Wanderers were well organised and hard to break down.
A promising start for the Wanderers, although it will be interesting to see if they are more proactive to keep possession in future matches. Here, they were happy to counter attack directly into the flanks, and created little during long spells with the ball.
The dilemna for Arnold is whether to stick with the 4-2-3-1 or keep with the diamond. “You could see when I changed it in 70th minute and went two up front,” he said after the game, “because it was so entrenched in them (from last season) they know exactly how to play it.” The diamond has its obvious, natural flaws, but it has been an effective strategy for two seasons and by being the only side to play in the league, they offer a different challenge to every side.