A flurry of second half goals secured an incredible margin of victory for the Mariners.
Graham Arnold made no changes from the side that defeated the Melbourne Heart last week, despite Tom Rogic being under a mild injury cloud.
Rather, the biggest news in terms of selection was the absence of Alessandro Del Piero: the Italian was omitted from the matchday squad as an injury precaution, meaning Yairo Yao came into the side, playing in advance of Kruno Louvrek.
The Mariners were the better side throughout the contest, and their seven goals flattered a poor Sydney defence.
Yao scored early with a neat chip after Louvrek seized on a loose ball inside the Mariners half, but this goal was indicative of the game’s early pattern: a high tempo and lots of sloppy passing. Both sides were set out in similar 4-2-3-1 formations, where the two midfielders sat deep and distributed the ball upfield to the attacking four.
The Mariners tend to sit deep as to soak up pressure, but they’ve been slightly more proactive this year, but it was Sydney that set the rhythm of the game as they attempted to play a disjointed pressing game. The clearest battle was that in midfield, where Paul Reid and Ali Abbas picked up John Hutchinson and Nick Montgomery respectively, and attempted to prevent them from playing passes from deep.
The person to benefit most from this clash in midfield was playmaker Tom Rogic. I’ve been critical of Rogic’s movement in the opening rounds of the season, suggesting he’s too static, too focused on attempting to play goalside of the nominal holding midfielders. Here, Rogic certainly played in those spaces between the lines, but key to this was how he would drop deep, play a quick one-two with the double pivot and then move quickly into the space behind Reid and Abbas. Granted, the openness of Sydney’s midfield was a huge benefit, but his intelligent, dynamic vertical movement was key to allowing the Mariners to move the ball up the pitch, and it was fitting that he scored a brace as well as a brilliant assist.
By contrast, Sydney’s player ‘in the hole’, Louvrek, had a poor game, summed up by his substitution at half-time. Clear differences in technical quality aside, Louvrek’s quite similar to Del Piero in how he likes to move deep and collect passes in left-sided positions, and was a suitable replacement for the Italian as the central player in Sydney’s band of three.
But Louvrek simply doesn’t have the same supreme awareness of space as the marquee, and against an inherently defensive pairing of Montgomery and Hutchinson; he was always likely to struggle to find space. The two simply sat deep as a shield in front of the back four and forced Louvrek into deeper, less dangerous positions, as shown on his chalkboards to the left, and it was the influence of the ‘playmakers’ that summed up the first half.
Yet that wasn’t the complete story behind the Mariners’ quick turnaround of the score-line. Joshua Rose and Pedj Bojic are fantastic attacking full-backs, and they constantly stormed forward down the flank to overlap Miles Sterjovski and Michael McGlinchey near the by-line. Their attacking intent, combined with the fact Mitch Mallia and Brett Emerton were rarely tracking back, added width to the Mariners attack and crucially, allowed McGlinchey and Sterjovski to move inside into the penalty area. Emerton was the more disciplined of the Sydney wingers and more willing to close down Sterjovski, but Daniel Petkovski was constantly isolated, allowing Bojic to bomb forward regularly as the chalkboard on the right demonstrates.
Crook switched Yao and Mallia midway through the half in an attempt to give Petkovski more protection, but Yao is not a competent defender (as his yellow card illustrated) and only allowed the Mariners to concentrate their play down the right even more.
3-1 down, Crook decided to make a double change, introducing Terry McFlynn and Blake Powell for Louvrek and Petkovski, and switching to an unusual, lopsided 3-1-4-2 formation. Ryall, Grant and McClenahan became the three-man backline, while, on paper, Emerton and Powell were the nominal wing-backs, but rarely played in those positions. Rather, Emerton played high up the pitch and tried to push Josh Rose back, while Powell, ostensibly a striker, attempted the same with Bojic by playing in a left-sided forward position, but the result was to provide Bojic with even more space to push forward.
Besides, the Mariners didn’t really need to push full-backs up the pitch – with McFlynn given a man-marking job on the dangerous Tomas Rogic, it meant one of the two wide players could simply sit in a pocket on halfway and wait for passes on the counter-attack.
This problem for Sydney was compounded when Ryall picked up McBreen, leaving the two outside centre-backs with no clear opponent. Therefore, when in possession, they moved outwards to the flanks in order to provide width, meaning quick counter-attacks were often simple 2v2 situations (McFlynn and Ryall v Rogic and McBreen), often originating in the channels where Grant and McClenahan theoretically should have been positioned.
Although the immediate result of this change in formation was early pressure on the Mariners goal and a fantastic goal from Abbas, it was clear how chaotic and unstructured the side really were. Neither McFlynn or Grant has extensive experience as a central defender and were constantly caught out of position, while Abbas and Reid were poor defensively and frequently overrun during transitions. The clearest fallacy of the Sydney formation was the lack of wing-backs, who provide width in three-man systems. Pushing Grant and McClenahan up the pitch was essentially suicidal, as it left open space on either side, and the Mariners rarely had to commit men forward, happy to leave Rogic and McBreen high up the field.
With Sydney players all over the pitch, it was easy for the Mariners to play on the break with quick, simple passes towards Sterjovski and Daniel McBreen. The amount of times the Mariners simply broke forward and attacked through sheer strength of numbers was incredible, and Crook must shoulder blame, as Sydney clearly had little understanding of their roles, a fact that casts serious doubt over Ian Crook.
At some point during the goal flurry Crook returned to the usual 4-2-3-1 shape, but the damage had been done, and introducing Hagi Gligor for Reid was an inconsequential change.
The last twenty minutes were a non-event, as Sydney were more comfortable with a back four and the Mariners were content to slow the tempo of the game.
A monumental result that summed up the differences between the two sides: the Mariners have played under Arnold for years and are settled in his preferred style of play, while Sydney are transitioning to a new style as well as a new squad, and were completely unfamilar with their shape in the second half.
It’d be lazy to suggest Del Piero’s absence was the key factor: the marquee might have improved Sydney’s attacking play, but the real problem was in defence, and in Crook’s half-time change. “We took a risk second half and that was down to me,” he said. ‘The blame lays at my door I took the chance on playing three at the back. We got back in it and I thought we were good again for the first fifteen of the second half.”
Sydney’s defensive troubles aside, the Mariners were simply very good – their passing was crisp, their attacking fluid and constantly won loose balls. That said, Arnold will be concerned at the two goals conceded, and restoring the tactical balance that characterises his management style will be the focus for next week’s match.