Western Sydney Wanderers 0-2 Central Coast Mariners: Mariners champions

The Mariners won the Championship after four Grand Final appearances. They played a more complete, positive brand of football, and mixed possession with rapid counter-attacking to defeat the Wanderers 2-0.

Tony Popovic decided the two players under an injury cloud – Aaron Mooy and Jerome Polenz – were fit to start, which meant Yianni Perkatis was unlucky to not even make the substitute bench. Kwabena Appiah-Kubi, as expected, replaced the suspended Youssouf Hersi on the right wing.

Despite hinting (perhaps a bit tongue in cheek) that he might push Trent Sainsbury into midfield and play Zac Anderson at centre-back, Graham Arnold went with the expected side, meaning that Oliver Bozanic came into the centre of midfield to replace suspended Nick Montgomery.

The clash of systems in this match was always very obvious. Both sides have been consistent with their formation and strategy this season, and that clarity of understanding has clearly been a contributing factor to their success. Both sides knew exactly how they were going to play with and without the ball.

Shapes and strategy

For the Wanderers, that meant pushing the four attacking players high up the pitch to close down from the front, with the back four sitting deep inside their own half, and the two central midfield players ‘linking’ the two sides. When they win the ball, they would break quickly down the right hand side, using Shinji Ono’s intelligence in a central position and pushing Mark Bridge high up the pitch as a second striker, close to Dino Kresinger.

The Mariners also defended in this 4-2-3-1 shape, with the two wingers dropping off to form a second bank of four in front of the defence. They don’t press as intensely as the Wanderers, and instead shift their structure from side to side and try to ‘suffocate’ opponents, forcing turnovers. From here, they try to counter-attack quickly through the central playmaker, but are happy to play ‘safe’ balls and control possession. During long periods of build-up play, the two wingers come narrow into the centre of the pitch, opening up space for the full-backs to overlap down the sides.

There was no surprise to the intensity of the opening two minutes: both sides closed down quickly, as if they were simply relieved the match was finally underway. Gradually though, the match settled into an established pattern.

Mariners control possession

The first most notable thing was that the Wanderers did not press as intensely from the front as they normally do. Here, the front four sat about ten metres in front of the halfway line, allowing the Mariners centre-backs time on the ball. In the early stages, Mariners centre-backs seemed almost surprised at the space they had in deep positions, and both were guilty of hitting passes out for a throw-in.

There were, broadly speaking, two main reasons why the Wanderers didn’t press as intensely as they did in the semi-final against Brisbane. Firstly, it was probably intentional, as Popovic knew that the Mariners would sit deeper than the Roar, and therefore be much more difficult to break down. By allowing their centre-backs to come forward on the ball, he was trying to create space in behind for his attackers to break into.

The second issue was with how Shinji Ono and Dino Kresinger normally press. This season, they have predominantly come up against four-man defences, and in these situations, the two work as a pairing – one closing down the man on the ball, the other preventing the easy pass to the other central defender.

But here, John Hutchinson kept dropping in between Patrick Zwaanswijk and Sainsbury, creating a back three and freeing up the full-backs to play higher up the pitch on the halfway line. With essentially an extra centre-back playing deep inside the Mariners half, Ono and Kresinger weren’t quite sure when or who to close down.

Hutchinson enjoyed this freedom, spreading the play calmly and completing all his passes in the first half. Zwaanswjik was also very positive with his distribution and fired passes into the feet of Josh Rose, while Sainsbury was more ambitious and stepped forward into midfield to try and hit long passes over the top.

Mariners’ attack: balls in behind

That was the first key element to the Mariners’ attacking game. Sterjovski’s chip that clipped the bar was a good example of how they were trying to play into the spaces behind Nikolai Topor-Stanley and Michael Beauchamp. As you can see in the image to the right, Sainsbury has the time to move forward and pick out Sterjovski’s run.

That chance was typical of Sterjovski’s movement throughout the first half. He continuously peeled off the back of Topor-Stanley, making runs into the channel between the centre-back and left-back. Later, Bozanic hit a good long pass into space for the former Socceroo to chase, while Zwaanswjik also chipped a lovely ball over the top to find him.

Mariners attacks: Rose down the left

Importantly, this was not the Mariners’ only route to goal. As Leopold Method’s Grand Final Preview suggested, “the biggest strength of the Mariners’ attack is its variety. They can go around you, through you or straight over the top”. Their ability to move the ball quickly from side-to-side,  and switch the point of attack with long cross-field balls illustrated their improvement this season, and crucially, dragged the Wanderers out of shape.

A common pattern of play was to quickly retain possession down the right flank, and then quickly switch the ball across field towards Rose, who was often free on the left, benefitting from the fact Michael McGlinchey played narrow and drew Polenz inside. Take a look at Sainsbury’s chalkboard again, and note the amount of long passes hit towards the left channel.

The other key player was Daniel McBreen, who was excellent in his deeper role, dropping in between the lines into clever playmaking positions. He too benefitted from McGlinchey playing narrow, as the presence of two players in his zone occupied Aaron Mooy, and with quick interchanges of passes through the centre the Mariners created a constant stream of pressure. This great width on the left also meant that Ibini could play very narrow on the right, and he should have done better with the two chances he had inside the penalty area. Both times the ‘assist’ would have been a low Rose cross.

There was one attacking move that served as a neat microcosm for this tactical pattern. First, Zwaanswjik, free of pressure, hit a long cross-field ball to Bojic, who brings it inside for John Hutchinson. McBreen, who has dropped squarely in between the Wanderers pivot, executes a brilliant turn, plays a quick one-two with the narrow Michael McGlinchey, and then finds Rose, who is making a typical lung-bursting run down the left flank. The full-back then swings a low cross across the face of goal, it evades all contact and rolls out for a goal kick. This is an excellent example of how the Mariners were using the full-backs and quick switches of play, to drag the Wanderers defence out of shape.

Another fine illustration of this came in the first minute of stoppage time at the end of the first half. As the image on the left shows, McBreen comes into a pocket of space between the lines, and instinctively turns and immediately looks for Rose advancing on the far side. The move ends with Rose firing a shot just wide of the far post, but the entire play is an excellent demonstration of the cohesion and understanding from the Mariners unit. They deserved their lead at the break.

Wanderers in possession

By contrast, the Wanderers build-up play when they held the ball for long spells was frustratingly unambitious. Without the ball, the Mariners front two of McBreen and Sterjovski tracked Mooy and Poljak, cutting off passing angles towards the midfielders, while Ibini and McGlinchey stayed close to the full-backs. The shape of the side,like against the Victory, was near faultless.

White dots – Wanderers midfield; Yellow dots – Mariners attackers; Green dots – Mariners midfielders

That meant Beauchamp and Topor-Stanley both had no pressure on the ball (as is obvious in the left image above). When they looked up, all their short passing avenues were unavailable, therefore, the two centre-backs would pass the ball backwards and forwards. Beauchamp was particularly guilty of this – his passing chalkboard to the left reveals a staggering amount of unambitious sideways passes.

Eventually, they would give way to temptation and go long towards Kresinger. The Croatian’s hold up play was crucial to the 2-0 win over Brisbane last week but here Sainsbury was a much more willing opponent, contesting and winning the majority of the aerial battles. Equally key was the positioning of the Mariners midfielders when the ball was played long. Either one of Bozanic or Montgomery always made sure to come close to Kresinger, ensuring that even if he brought the ball down, he had little options available to lay the ball off. The two screenshots below illustrate this.

Wanderers’ counter-attacks

Instead, Western Sydney’s best chances came [predictably] on the counter-attack. Their best opportunity was the clever cross from Bridge that Kresinger just missed. The move started from a Mariners corner, when Ono hit a spectacular clearance into the path of Bridge.

That was the most significant contribution from Ono in a very quiet first half. Bozanic and Hutchinson shared duties marking Ono, not necessarily sticking tight to the Japanese playmaker, but cutting off the passing angles towards him and making sure that when he got the ball, he had his back to goal. Ono completed just one forward pass in the first half, and four in the entire match, summing up his lack of influence.

Instead, Appiah-Kubi was their best attacking player. He was always very positive whenever he got the ball, looking to run directly at Rose. He was clearly trying to use his pace to go around the outside of Rose and whip in crosses. He was sometimes guilty of trying too hard to beat the defender in one-on-one situations, and eventually Rose pushed him back towards his own goal by constantly bursting forward, as discussed above.

Save for the obvious dip in quality, it was exactly like how Western Sydney play with Hersi, keeping the right-sided player very close to the touchline and using that as an outlet for counter-attacks. The width provided by Appiah-Kubi allowed Mark Bridge to play closer to goal as a second striker, but the problem was with how little the Wanderers actually managed to create attacks – it is difficult to remember Aaron Mooy even touching the ball in the first half.

Zwaanswijk’s headed goal from a corner runs contrary to all the patterns described above, although the original corner came from Polenz having to clear the ball off a rampaging Rose. Furthermore, moments earlier Zwaanswijk’s designated man-marker, Kresinger, had allowed the Dutchman to get goal side of him at a set-piece. Zwaanswijk volleyed over on that occasion, but he made no mistake with the second opportunity.

2nd half

Immediately, it was clear the Wanderers were going to press higher up the pitch. That was natural, as they were behind, and needed to take the game to the Mariners.

This contributed to a decrease in the fluency of the Mariners midfield rotation that was so impressive in the first half. Hutchinson stopped dropping in between the two centre-backs, and played on the same ‘level’ as Bozanic, and in contrast to a first half in which the Mariners centre-backs always had options available, they were now struggling to complete passes.

This made the Wanderers pressing a simpler task, and they forced Ryan into a couple of rushed kicks. Gradually, the Wanderers began to dominate possession like the Mariners had earlier, and the game became a pronounced battle between one side defending a lead and the other chasing it.

Chalkboard depicting Polenz’s poor crossing game

This is where Popovic’s selection of Mooy became crucial. As the deep-lying playmaker, Mooy was the one who had to carry the initiative against the deep-lying Mariners defence. Mateo Poljak is an excellent all-rounder but his game is more about physicality, so it was up to Mooy to connect the side with positive, forward-thinking distribution. He had a far more significant impact on the game in the 2nd half, firing quick passes into the feet of the attacking third and hitting long, accurate diagonals across the pitch.

An additional factor to the Wanderers increased dominance was that Polenz got forward more often. He pushed Rose and McGlinchey back towards their own goal, however, the quality of his delivery was generally very poor. He was under a huge injury cloud heading into this match, and it is a shame Popovic’s decision backfired, for Polenz has had a fine season and this was not a true reflection of his consistency. The unlucky penalty he gave away was merely the killer blow for his performance.

Mooy and Polenz combined with Appiah-Kubi to create perhaps the best chance of the half, when Ono smashed a volley into Sainsbury from close range. It started with Polenz advancing down the right, cutting the ball back for Mooy who immediately found Appiah-Kubi inside the penalty area. The youngster showed great calmness to quickly pass it out wide towards the feet of Polenz, who floated a ball across the six yard box and eventually found Ono at the far post.

Interestingly, Arnold switched Ibini and McGlinchey on the hour mark. Presumably, he was concerned about Polenz’s increasing influence, and might have thought fresh legs down that flank might help nullify his presence. A more convincing argument is that he wanted Ibini to be able to break quickly in behind Polenz when the ball was turned over, and the youngster nearly did on one occasion.

Mariners defending and countering

The Mariners penalty-box defending was very good throughout. It was interesting to compare this game with their Grand Final against Brisbane two seasons ago, where they infamously threw away a 2-0 lead to lose the match on penalties. In that match, they were guilty of sitting too deep and inviting too much pressure. They didn’t fall into that trap here, always ensuring they pushed up away from goal after the ball was cleared. The second key thing they did was to retain possession, even if it was just for brief periods. This helped quell the Wanderers momentum, and also gave the Mariners the opportunity to ‘rest’ on the ball.

Finally, it was also important they kept their front two reasonably high up the pitch. Sterjovski replicated his movement from the first half, peeling away from the central defenders and running onto balls over the top, and in the sixty-third minute he fired a volley just over the bar. Later, it was McBreen who made the run in behind to meet a spectacularly accurate long pass from Sainsbury, leading to the penalty.

The image of McBreen smashing the penalty home was a fitting one to sum up this Grand Final. The Joe Marston Medal winner was outstanding throughout the contest, always a threat between the lines, helping to link the play on both flanks and breaking forward in support of Sterjovski. It was especially poignant that the 36 year old capped off his incredible season with a goal in the show-piece match.

2-0

At this point, Popovic really had to go for it. He had already substituted Kresinger for Labinot Haliti in an effort to add some fresh legs up front, and then later, he removed Appiah-Kubi, who had faded, and introduced Tarek Elrich in two like-for-like changes. It was surprising that Popovic didn’t take off Polenz for Elrich given how much the German had struggled, but eventually he made way when Rocky Visconte replaced him.

This was the last throw of the dice. Bridge went centrally behind Haliti, Cole switched across to right wing and with no defender behind him, Visconte was responsible for covering the entire left flank.There was no real structure to their desperate last attacks – more about getting the ball forward and hoping for the best.

Arnold’s only significant change was the most obvious one, as Mitchell Duke came on for Sterjovski, injecting blistering pace up front. The Mariners were going to play purely on the counter-attack, and Duke was their outlet, but his only real contribution of note was to win a corner. Nick Fitzgerald was the other Mariners change, replacing McGlinchey with two minutes of normal time to go.

Aside from the controversial Haliti incident, the Mariners defence was, as ever, rock solid. In particular, Sainsbury was outstanding. He dominated Kresinger in the air, wasn’t overawed in any of his one-on-one battles and helped set the tempo for the Mariners passing, playing some positive forward passes to help them build play out from the back, including the ball over the top for McBreen that lead to the penalty.

End notes

A fascinating final between two teams that had been evenly matched heading into kick-off. The Mariners nullified the Wanderers’ counter-attacking threat and constantly created goal scoring opportunities. The battle down their left (Wanderers right) was key. Rose diminished the presence of Appiah-Kubi by pushing him back towards his own goal, and then Polenz failing to make the most of the opportunities he had in the second half.

The Mariners scored from a set piece and a penalty, but showed great variety to their attack, and the cohesion and understanding throughout the side was obvious. Arnold’s only significant change was to introduce some fresh, faster legs up front, indicating how happy he was with the shape of his side.

The Wanderers faltered at the final hurdle, and this has been a tremendous debut season, but here they really struggled when the centre-backs were responsible for creating the play and looked significantly better when Mooy could get on the ball in the second half.

But this was all about the Mariners. They controlled the game, dominated possession and counter-attacked ruthlessly. They conceded just once in the final five games of the season, and have found a way to mix that defensive solidity with an all-round attacking threat.

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A-League 2013 Grand Final tactical preview

A-League 2013 Grand Final tactical preview