Central Coast defeated Perth with a lone goal from substitute Bernie Ibini-Isei.
Despite suggestions of a return to the diamond, the Mariners kept with 4-2-3-1 despite making five changes to the side that lost to Sydney FC.
Ian Ferguson made just one enforced change from his ‘first-choice’ side, with Steve Pantelidis replacing the injured Michael Thwaite.
The first half was the typically cagey encounter that we’ve come to expect in this fixture, before the Mariners took advantage of Perth’s clearest weakness down their right hand side.
This was a fairly simple battle. Central Coast had two banks of four, with Adriano Pellegrino and Adam Kwasnik paired upfront, a fairly uninspiring forward duo that lacked the mobility of Tom Rogic and Daniel McBreen. Oliver Bozanic and Nick Montgomery sat much deeper.
Ferguson asked Liam Miller to stick tightly to Pellegrino when he came deep. Pellegrino, who is also comfortable in a deep midfield role, frequently dropped off to the halfway line and found it difficult to turn on the ball. Steven McGarry was higher up near the Mariners pivot, but there was little space for Perth, as the home side packed their own half with eight very narrow players.
The space was generally in the wide zones. Although Josh Risdon and Scott Jamieson got forward well, with the latter creating Perth’s best chance with the cross that led to the Smeltz chance, they rarely caused significant danger.
That was the story of the game in general – little creativity, and both sides being forced to work the ball into wide positions. Pantelidis and Van Der Brink were afforded an enormous amount of time on the ball, but both are poor technically and frequently chose the safe, sideways pass to their partner. The absence of Thwaite, whose distribution is markedly better, was crucial.
The tempo of the game was very slow, and Perth become visibly frustrated at their inability to create chances, and they increasingly attempted hopeful long balls towards Smeltz. McGarry also started dropping extremely deep to collect possession, while Liam Miller drifted into a pocket of space just to the left of the Mariners front two – a similar position to where Manny Muscat kept drifting in Wellington’s 1-1 draw – but the problem wasn’t so much with their creativity, but with the effectiveness of the Mariners structure.
While the home side defended expertly, their attack was less impressive, as was the case against Wellingtonand Sydney. Their transitions were slow, and they struggled to create their favoured 3v2 overloads in the centre.
The performance of Pellegrino was particularly disappointing. In Arnold’s 4-2-3-1 system, the central playmaker is free to position himself where he wants in order to launch counter-attacks. Pellegrino stayed very central, close to the halfway line, rarely passed the ball forwards, and after half an hour, he was shifted right, with McGlinchey coming central, summing up his lack of influence.
That was the only significant progression of the first half, but immediately after the break, the overall feel of the game was far more positive. Heat and fatigue would have also been factors, but greater proactivity from the home side was crucial. They passed much quicker, and the front two were allowed to press higher up the pitch, with Van der Brink in particular looking far more uncomfortable when under direct pressure.
Mariners attack down left
The game was increasingly becoming about Mariners dominance, and they were particularly keen to work the ball down their left hand side, where Josh Risdon was increasingly isolated. Travis Dodd is usually disciplined in tracking back, but here he focused on breaking into penalty-box positions from the right. Risdon was expected to overlap down the side to provide width – he was clearly uncomfortable in doing so, and had little protection when the Mariners overloaded him down that side. Rose naturally broke forward from the back (and whipped in a fine cross for Kwasnik’s disallowed goal), while McGlinchey often drifted out to that side to increase the numerical advantage. So a Mariners goal stemming from the left seemed inevitable, and Ibini’s tap-in was a fair reflection of the second half.
Perth change to 3-5-2
After going behind, Ferguson made drastic changes, replacing his entire right wing with Nick Ward and Billy Mehmet, and switching to an unexpected 3-5-2 system. The midfield maintained their 2-1 triangle, but Dean Heffernan moved to the left side of the back three, and Scott Jamieson and Ward became wing-backs.
On paper and in conventional wisdom, a three man defence could handle the Mariners front two – ideally with one defender tracking McGlinchey’s movement – and keep a spare man at the back. But the threat of being overlapped down the flanks, as there is no natural width high up the pitch, which was very obvious. Given the course of the second half, it was a very risky move, especially when considering that Ward has barely played in defence.
Unsurprisingly, Perth went down to 10 men almost immediately after the change when Van Der Brink was forced to cover in behind Ward, who had been drawn high up the pitch.
Predictably, the Mariners continued to target that channel, and had the bonus of being able to soak up pressure and play purely on the break.
By contrast, Ferguson failed to adapt. Ward moved into Van Der Brink’s position in the centre, but there was no defined wing-back, and a brief moment when McGarry shouted towards his bench as the Mariners broke down the left illustrated Perth’s confused tactics.
It seemed McGarry and Mehmet would take turns to cover the flank, but given the strength of the Mariners left, this seemed suicidal. Although a brief cameo from Ryo Nagai, who played a floating role in behind Mehmet, provided excitement, it didn’t significantly change the course of the contest.
The first half was dull and unimaginative, but the Mariners played more positively in the second half and cleverly overloaded Risdon at right-back. Perth’s formation switch was startling, and lead directly to Van Der Brink’s dismissal, which was a pity – it would have been interesting to see the clash between 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1.
Central Coast’s shape was good, but their transitions were disappointing because of Pellegrino’s anonymity. The playmaker is the key player in this system. A combination of Perth defending well, and a poor performance, nullified his influence. Arnold would have been pleased with the shape of his side, considering the amount of changes he was forced to make from his preferred starting XI.
Perth were certainly the more positive side, and they put Mariner’s defensive unit under persistent but never particularly strong pressure. They moved the ball too slowly to draw Mariner’s players out of shape, and probably needed more variety and movement from their midfield triangle. Both these sides look better when they can play counter-attacking football, and this was the second consecutive 1-0 between two inherently reactive sides.