- A comfortable win for the competition’s form side.
Both coaches had selection issues surrounding the return of their Socceroos players from international duty, but Graham Arnold’s choices were simple enough – Tom Rogic returned at playmaker, while Matt Ryan replaced Justin Pasfield in goal. The real dilemma was out wide, where Bernie Ibini-Isei retained his spot after a good performance against the Jets, but Oliver Bozanic missed out to accommodate Michael McGlinchey, who played on the left.
Richard Garcia, Aziz Behich and Michael Marrone all returned at right-wing, left-back and right-back respectively, while Josip Tadic was a late withdrawal with a back injury, meaning Dylan Macallister started up-front.
Both sides used 4-2-3-1 with the wide players tracking back, meaning this was a fairly basic formation battle. The real difference came down the flanks.
Specifically, the difference was the Mariners wide defenders, Joshua Rose and Pedj Bojic. Both are naturally attacking players and were key when Arnold preferred a 4-4-2 diamond as they were required to provide width high up the pitch.
But now, since a switch to 4-2-3-1, there is less onus on them to get forward given there are two natural wide players higher up the pitch. However both Ibini-Isei and McGlinchey prefer to play centrally and tended to came narrow when the Mariners had possession.
Rather than congesting the play as one would expect, this actually stretched the active playing zone, because it provided space for both Rose and Bojic to overlap down the sides. Both stormed down the flank quickly, and finished as the 3rd (Rose – 73) and 4th (Bojic – 72) highest passers for the match, with only Josh Hutchinson (75) and Simon Colosimo (80) completing more.
The most obvious movement of the first half was Ibini-Isei moving inside, then playing in Rose on the overlap down the left, and this exact move created a fine chance in the twenty-seventh minute where Ibini failed to square for the open Daniel McBreen.
McGlinchey and Bojic also worked some good combinations down the right.
Normally, when full-backs are free to get forward, blame can be attributed to the opposition’s wide attackers for failing to track their runs, but this wasn’t really a feature here, as David Williams and Garcia are both hard-workers and came back into decent defensive positions. Sometimes, they’d be drawn too narrow when trying to track the winger, but in truth this was more about expertly timed runs from Rose and Bojic rather than lacklustre defending, as can be seen in the example below.
Some more examples of the Rose/Ibini combination:
Melbourne Heart looked good when they could get their own fullbacks got forward – Michael Marrone sent in a good cross in the fourteenth minute which was nearly scrapped over the line – but simply didn’t do this enough, as they would have been concerned with leaving even more space in wide areas for the Mariners. John Aloisi suggested fatigue was also a factor, and given the limitations on A-League substitutions, he didn’t have any way of changing things from the bench to solve the problem.
This was undoubtedly the game’s key feature, and although both goals were the consequence of poor goalkeeping from Clint Bolton, it was befitting of the game’s overall pattern, especially considering how much time Bojic had down the right flank to take a speculative shot.
But the Mariners were simply better all across the pitch, not just down the flanks. The home side was more comfortable in possession and enjoyed some good sequences of quick, sharp passing play across the midfield, helped by the fact that the two wide players tucked in narrow to help overload the Heart in that area.
Josh Hutchinson’s intelligent play was also key, as he would drop deep and split the two centre-backs, and with Fred and Macallister working as a forward duo defensively, the addition of a third player gave the Mariners a numerical advantage and allowed them to play out from the back.
The Mariners defend in a similar fashion to the Heart with McBreen and Rogic the most advanced pairing on the pitch, but their job was made simpler by the fact that neither Jason Hoffman or Matt Thompson moved vertical to create a spare man. Colosimo and Patrick Gerhardt enjoyed lots of time on the ball – as evidenced by the passing statistics mentioned earlier – but failed to make it count against the Mariners supreme organisation (although Colosimo did create a fine one-on-one opportunity that Mebrantu squandered in the second half).
The tendency of both sides to defend deep is evidenced by a comparison of their return of ball possession statistics, with the excessive dots inside the Heart penalty box summing up their approach.
The Heart also struggled to counter-attack quickly, guilty of dropping too deep and isolating Macallister up front. With the Mariners defending with two deep holding midfielders and two centre-backs, there were obvious spaces down the sides, but with the wide players dragged deep by Rose and Bojic, they couldn’t work the ball into those positions fast enough.
That made the introduction of Nick Kalmar at half-time a sensible move, because Aloisi was presumably going to instruct either him or Williams to play high up the pitch and threaten with their pace down the side.
But Kalmar went central, and Fred went right, a curious move. Fred didn’t offer any increased defensive protection and with his relative lack of pace, didn’t offer the threat of exploiting the space in behind. Aloisi might have preferred to keep Garcia on the pitch as when used centrally, the Australian drifts from flank to flank to provide support, but as mentioned already, he had problems with fatigue and had to be withdrawn.
2-0 down, the Heart had an obvious obligation to attack, but the Mariners were equally happy to sit back and soak up pressure. They kept Rogic and McBreen high up the pitch to counter-attack, and the former created a fine chance in the sixty-third that was undone by McBreen’s wastefulness. Rogic eventually came off for Mitchell Duke, who provided fresh energy against tired Heart defenders
Aloisi didn’t make any changes to his side’s shape, and having lost the versatility of Garcia, couldn’t really make any significant tweaks beyond the obvious move of introducing last week’s goal hero, Golgol Mebrantu, to offer more speed up front.
A typical performance from the Mariners settled by an atypical goal scorer – remarkably, Bojic’s only goals this season have come against the Heart. But his contribution summed up the key difference between the sides, that being the Mariner’s eagerness to get their full-backs high up the pitch.
But there were contrasts all across the pitch, particularly in how either side reacted to regaining possession. The Mariners have very obvious set patterns of play that were absent in the Heart’s gameplan tonight, a clear endorsement of the work that Arnold has done in creating his highly impressive side.