Brazilian Muriqui scored the winner as the Chinese giants scored two crucial away goals.
Graham Arnold was without Trent Sainsbury due to injury, so Zac Anderson partnered the retiring Patrick Zwaanswjik. Mitchell Duke started upfront ahead of Mile Sterjovski, while the rest of the side was as expected.
Although they started with ten men, due to a bizarre piece of officiating, Marcelo Lippi elected for a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Dario Conca playing in behind Lucas Barrios, flanked by Gao Lin and Muriqui. Zheng Zhi, formerly of Charlton Athletic and Celtic, was partnered in midfield by Zhao Xuri.
Although this wasn’t a classic, there was a great intensity to this game – exemplified by the terrific Guangzhou support.
While the Mariners, as A-League champions, have a familiar system to most Australian viewers, Guangzhou Evergrande’s side were slightly more mysterious. Much was made of their financial clout, but very little was known about how they played, aside from laughable assertions that they would be extremely defensive (based on Lippi’s tactics in the 2006 World Cup).
Instead, Guangzhou were reasonably proactive – the centre-backs split very wide when they had the ball, pushing the full-backs towards the half-way line, and they dominated possession for most of the proceedings. It was hard to determine whether this was a consequence of the Mariners counter-attacking gameplan or a specific strategy from Guangzhou, but there was a discernible effort from the two central midfielders to keep the ball with long passing moves.
The format of their attack was fairly straightforward – Barrios stayed high up the pitch, playing a target man role, and he was particularly keen to hover around Anderson, as if the youngster had been identified as the side’s weak link (which would be surprising, considering Sainsbury’s omission was a surprise). Meanwhile, Conca drifted into the ‘usual’ playmaking positions. Meanwhile, on the flanks were two wide forwards – both Gao Lin and Muriqui can play central striker, and generally took up a position in between the centre-backs and full-backs.
Graham Arnold was particularly keen to focus on Guangzhou’s pressing game post-match, eager to point out what he identified as their main weakness. “We analysed during the week where their spaces are. The front three give a false press and don’t put too much pressure on the ball and it was a matter of finding McBreen because he was free the whole time,” Arnold said.
That’s a fair summarization – the front four pressed high up the pitch (and so the defence kept a high line), and the Mariners usually calm play out from the back was unusually sloppy, with Pedj Bojic particularly culpable of some cheap giveaways. Part of the problem was that they simply weren’t moving the ball as quickly as usual, probably a consequence of their rustiness, and there were several occasions in which Daniel McBreen was in a good position between the lines, but didn’t receive a pass.
Matt Ryan’s distribution has improved significantly this season, as this scouting video illustrates, and he was always keen to kick/throw passes immediately after he won the ball, and early on, his best opportunities came down the right flank, where Bernie Ibini benefitted from the fact the Guangzhou left-back, Sun Xiang, was in two minds about whether to follow the lanky winger high up the pitch, or stand off him. Furthermore, he was, somewhat inexplicably, drawn inside on a couple of occasions, which meant Ibini could stay wide and receive the ball in space.
The Mariners repeatedly built attacks down his side in the opening twenty minutes – and it was Ibini, from the right flank, who set up Duke for the opening goal. It was interesting to revisit Mike Tuckerman’s preview for this clash, where he noted:
The goal conceded on the road at Thai side Muangthong United was farcical and when the Guangzhou defenders backed off Kim Jung-Woo on their trip to Jeonju, the wily veteran responded by cracking home a right-footed strike in off the post.
It was a similar sort of situation – Ibini was afforded too much time on the ball in an extremely dangerous position.
Eventually though, the Mariners simply stopped playing down the right flank, and instead their attack became varied, with Joshua Rose bursting forward on the left to receive passes in good positions. The issue for Lippi was when the pressing of the front four was bypassed, the Mariners full-backs were happy to ‘leave’ their man and get forward on the overlap. Furthermore, this pressing– comparable with the Wanderers system – also meant the Mariners band of three attackers enjoyed good freedom, because there was space on either side of the two Guangzhou midfielders.
However, their final product was very poor, with Rose especially culpable for some atrocious balls into the box (although he somehow tested Zeng Cheng in goals from one attempt).
The negative consequence of this freedom to get forward was that, inevitably, Guangzhou could counter-attack into the spaces that Rose and Bojic left vacated. Although the latter got forward with less frequency, it was his flank in which the move for Barrios’ equalizer stemmed, with Guangzhou quickly working the ball forward after defending a Mariners corner.
That nature of the build-up play was a contrast to the previous moments, where the Mariners solid two banks of four had forced Guangzhou’s passing sideways, with the two central midfielders working the ball nicely across the width of the pitch. Zheng Zhi was particularly impressive, chipping some clever balls over the top into the feet of Gao Lin on the right hand side – but Guangzhou lacked penetration, and it was credit to the Mariners structure that they this was to case.
Dario Conca’s movement was interesting – he dropped deep into midfield to create overloads, and then tried to position himself between the lines to receive passes. That was always going to be difficult when you consider the ‘wall’ of Nick Montgomery and Josh Hutchinson, and he looked more effective when he came short, moving to the ‘other’ side, closer to his own goal. In these positions he drew the close attention of the Mariners pivot, and Montgomery was yellow carded for a rash challenge whilst trying to close him down quickly.
Wary of the increased threat posed by the three central Guangzhou players, Arnold instructed his front two to drop very deep, goalside of Zheng Zhi and Zhao Xuri, which helped limit their influence – although again, the by-effect was that it nullified the potency of the Mariners counter-attack, simply because the front two were deep inside their own half when they won the ball. It might have been better if Mitchell Duke was allowed to play off the shoulder of the last defender, using his pace to push the Guangzhou high line deeper.
But Guangzhou didn’t really create too many chances of note in the first half – instead, they looked more comfortable when they invited the Mariners forward, and opened up space in behind that they could break into.
That said, they built up good momentum as the game progressed, testing the Mariners defence by sweeping the ball from side to side, using the width of the full-backs to good effect: this then allowing the wide attackers to take up more central positions. It also meant that Barrios became more and more involved, holding up the ball in an advanced position as well as dropping deep to link up play, looking more comfortable with the closer support.
This much was obvious in the Gao Lin chance that struck the post, and later when the two combined in a central area (thanks to a bizarre Mariners offside trap) for the third goal of the match.
Mariners change momentum
Having gone behind, Arnold’s side had to turn reactivity into aggressiveness – and to their credit, they did this very well, immediately holding more of the ball and building meaningful attacks. Michael McGlinchey became more involved, drifting out into wide positions on the left to challenge Sun Xiang in one-on-one situations. He won a number of corners on the left hand side, and created the best chance of the final twenty minutes – the Mitchell Duke shot that went fell straight into the hands of Zeng Cheng.
The substitutions had little impact – Nick Fitzgerald replaced Ibini on the right, while Lippi introduced Huang Bowen to play a deeper, more defensive role in midfield, which allowed Zheng Zhi to play a little bit higher up the pitch.
The Mariners defended decently, and attacked decently, and were unlucky to concede twice, which Arnold acknowledged post-match. “In the end the quality of Guangzhou Evergrande showed through. They were lethal in transition and we got punished for not making the most of our chances,” he said.
The home side enjoyed great freedom on the right in the opening minutes, but looked more threatening down the left as the game progressed, with Rose squandering crossing opportunities and McGlinchey creating the best chances in a tense finish. In the reverse fixture next Wednesday, Arnold will want to take greater advantage of the space afforded to his three attackers behind Duke – and so Oliver Bozanic might play an important role, as a more ‘positive’ passer than Montgomery in the centre of midfield.