Earlier this week I discussed Tom Rogic’s start to the season using Once Football data, where I suggested that his troubles could be linked to the new 4-2-3-1 formation that Graham Arnold has used this season.
While this seemingly ubiquitous formation presents great benefit defensively with the two midfielders able to screen the back four, with a static playmaker like Rogic, it places a burden on the wide players to storm forward beyond the lone striker and provide support. Mile Sterjovski has been ever-present on the right flank and prefers to link up play rather than motor into attacking positions, while selection on the left has been less consistent: against the Wanderers, Michael McGlinchey was conservative, moving inside frequently and preferring to play calm passes into midfield to maintain the rhythm of the Mariner’s passing game. Against Perth Glory, Bernie Ibini was clearly unsure of his role, often found sometimes too deep, sometimes too wide, and sometimes too narrow.
With that in mind, it was interesting to see Arnold’s comments to the media ahead of this weekend’s match against the Melbourne Heart. “I’ll probably go with two strikers,” Arnold told The World Game. “Just to make more of the chances we’re creating. It will give a player like Tommy Rogic more options to look at when he’s coming out of the middle.”
That suggests that Arnold is, as was suggested at the conclusion of my Rogic piece, that he is concerned about his side’s attacking output. The Mariners have only scored two goals so far this season and have played with little creativity in open play. Whether the diamond will rectify this remains to be seen, but it will ensure a fascinating tactical battle against the Heart.
If you consider the likely formation matchup as shown by the image on the left, it’s clear to see that the Mariners have a clear numerical superiority in midfield, and regardless of whether Aloisi presses high (as they did against the Victory) or drops deep (as they did in the first half against Perth Glory), there will be a spare man for the Mariners between the lines, whether that be the holding midfielder (likely captain John Hutchinson, but could possibly be Nick Montgomery) or the advanced playmaker, Rogic. Aloisi might instruct his playmaker, Fred, to pick up the holding midfielder and will certainly look to exploit the Mariners’ reliance on width from the fullbacks by pushing David Williams and Mate Dugandzic high up the pitch, either forcing Pedj Bojic and Josh Rose back, or more likely, finding space in behind.
More broadly, the diamond’s main strength is in how it provides a clear dominance of the midfield. With four players in that zone, they are rarely outnumbered and generally assured the lions’ share of possession. The downside is that it places a great emphasis on the fullbacks to provide width, and with no protection in front of them, often leaves them isolated against opposition overlaps.
To solve this, Arnold assumes a 4-3-3 shape in the defensive phase, instructing the strikers to take up wide positions and leave the no.10 as the most advanced player in the defensive shape, although they do still drift wide even in attack, looking to play one-twos with the fullbacks.
(It’s worth keeping in mind that against the Heart Arnold might take a different approach, most likely Bernie Ibini-Ibsi and Nick McBreen, to stay narrow and prevent Simon Colosimo, who returns from suspension, from playing passes from the back.)
That means the midfield three flatten and become a shield for the back four, with the two outside midfielders, termed ‘carrielos’, moved out to wide positions if necessary. Arnold’s side, as Brett Taylor notes, “do less wrong than the other teams. The players are well drilled in the various phases of play and their mentality is such that they repeat the patterns the right way every time.” Such a well-drilled side is able to overcome the obvious flaws of their system by virtue of knowing how to deal with the tactics used to try and expose said flaws.
Beating the diamond
The key to beating a diamond system is to, rather than try and engage in a midfield battle, clash with them on the flanks. A 4-5-1 system where the wide players play in advanced positions to block the fullbacks storming forward is seemingly undone by the 3v4 fallacy in midfield, but it does allow for your own fullbacks to become spare men, as they face no direct opponent. Arnold will certainly be aware of these flaws, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be undone by them.
The staple stereotype for the Mariners is that they are hard to beat, and while it’s true that their system doesn’t aim to produce the aesthetics of say, the Brisbane Roar side, it’s hard to argue against a team that plays to its strengths and does so effectively.