A huge upset as the last placed side shocked the league leaders.
Frank Farina continued to tinker with his starting XI. He kept with the same back four that finished the previous match against Newcastle, while Peter Triantis’s fine performance in that fixture was rewarded with a start. Alessandro Del Piero played behind the strike partnership of Yairo Yao and Blake Powell.
Graham Arnold had to reshuffle his back four, having lost Pedj Bojic and Patrick Zwaanswijk to suspension and injury respectively, with Hayden Morton and Zac Anderson their replacements. The rest of the side was as expected.
The home side changed shape – and refined their strategy – to produce an impressive performance throughout the match. On the balance of play, they deserved their win.
The key talking point of the match was Sydney’s change in formation. Under Farina, a basic 4-4-2 shape has been preferred with the use of an ‘energetic’ player in the hole, but here he switched to a diamond in midfield, with Ali Abbas and Brett Emerton playing on either side of Triantis.
This was an unexpected move from the new coach, but a clever one. The three deeper players in the diamond could tuck in narrow and prevent the Mariners from overloading the centre – normally, Bernie Ibini-Isei and Michael McGlinchey draw the opposition wide players inside, opening up space for the full-backs to overlap down the sides.
But unlike in their most recent win, the 2-0 home victory over Melbourne Heart, they rarely created those opportunities in this match, and neither Ibini or McGlinchey had much of an influence. This problem was accentuated by the loss of Bojic, as Morton is a centre-back by trade and rarely made forward runs.
Furthermore, when the away side did work the ball into wide areas, Emerton and Abbas, both traditionally wingers, were comfortable in moving out towards the channels in support of their full-backs.
When Sydney had possession – and given the Mariners are a reactive side, it was unsurprising that they finished with 57% of the ball – the full-backs would advance high up the pitch, drawing the Mariners wingers deep and allowing either Emerton or Abbas to come towards the centre-backs and collect possession. The latter was particularly keen to shuttle from the left with some clever dribbles and looked dangerous when bursting forward from deep positions.
Del Piero had a key role in his favoured position behind the strikers. His awareness of space was outstanding, and he constantly roamed across the pitch trying to find pockets of space to collect possession by pulling wide, dropping deep and bursting forward.
He particularly targeted the zone behind Nick Montgomery, and frequently attempted to play chipped passes over the top of the Central Coast defence for the pacy Yao and Powell to chase. The two strikers worked hard and regularly attempted diagonal runs behind Anderson and Sainsbury, and Yao should have done better with a fine chance early in the game.
This wasn’t quite the story of the entire game, however, and the first fifteen minutes took on a different pattern. Initially, there was confusion from the away side at who was tracking who in Sydney’s new shape and Emerton made two good scampering runs past Josh Hutchinson, who was quite clearly torn between tracking Emerton or Del Piero.
This season has mainly been about battles between similar 4-2-3-1 formations, so it was little surprise that it took the Mariners a brief moment to adjust – which they did, by dropping deeper and reducing the space in behind for Sydney’s quick strikers.
Arnold might have briefly entertained the idea of reverting to the Mariners’ diamond system of last season as to match up identical against Sydney, but he would have been encouraged by the freedom of Rogic between the lines. The #10 positioned himself cleverly to the left side of Triantis and received quick passes to feet on the break, forcing a Sydney player to rush up quickly and tackle him from behind. Sydney conceded four identical fouls inside six minutes, and Triantis received a deserved yellow.
But the youngster recovered outstandingly – he sat off Rogic more, and allowed him to turn on the ball before quickly jockeying him away from goal. Triantis went from looking like a sure bet for a red card, to being one of Sydney’s best players.
Why then, considering what must seem like superiority from Sydney all across the pitch, was it 0-0 for so long? Part of the reason was that the Mariners, as standard, defended compactly in two banks of four, meaning Adam Griffiths and Sebastian Ryall had lots of time on the ball but little options to pass to.
That compactness also meant that Del Piero had to come deeper and deeper to collect the ball, and he was sometimes found deep alongside Triantis in midfield. That, of course, meant any passes he attempted were far more difficult given the mass of yellow shirts in front of him, therefore blunting Sydney’s clearest source of creativity.
Instead, the space was down the sides, but three of the four full-backs on the pitch were playing out of position and were uncomfortable in moving forward. Grant was the most attacking full-back on the pitch but is right-footed, meaning he rarely crossed on his left, preferring instead to cut inside onto his stronger foot.
Furthermore, the quality of Central Coast’s counter-attacks was very poor – their forward passes were too slow and not enough players were breaking quickly once the ball was won.
Those issues coupled together contributed to the long stalemate, but the eventual breakthrough from Emerton was testament to Sydney’s ambition. Grant and McClenahan, who had replaced the injured Sherlock, attacked more aggressively in the final twenty minutes, and the former had hit the bar with a fine shot from outside the area minutes before the winner.
It was Abbas who crossed for the goal, but it was the full-backs who had created the space by playing high up the pitch and pushing the Mariners wide defenders deep, which allowed Sydney to pass across the midfield in search of a breakthrough.
Farina’s formation prevented the Mariners from playing their usual transition-based game, and the full-backs reluctance to get forward was very surprising, considering that given Sydney’s diamond could have left the full-backs isolated. In this respect, Ibini-Isei and Rose could have done more to overlap down the left.
Sydney’s passing was crisper and their structure was far more solid, but relied heavily on the improvisation of Del Piero.