Two of Australia’s most exciting young strikers scored to give their sides a point apiece.
Despite heading into this season as champions, Graham Arnold still had to deal with great upheaval over the summer. His starting line-up was predictable, however – Storm Roux and Marcos Flores made their debuts, while Nick Fitzgerald and Mitchell Duke started out wide in the 4-2-3-1.
There were two major surprise omissions from Tony Popovic’s starting team. Shinji Ono and new striker signing Tomi Juric were on the bench, with Aaron Mooy and Labinot Haliti starting instead.
These were the two best organised teams in the competition last season, and the initial impression here suggested that may remain the case.
Although both the Mariners and Wanderers use the same 4-2-3-1 shape, there are major differences in the way they apply it. The Wanderers effectively ‘break’ the team into two, with the front four closing down high up the pitch, whereas the Mariners defend extremely compact as a unit, without little space between the three bands.
Both strategies work extremely well defensively – and contributed to a cagey, and at times, scrappy opening. Although the overall pattern was clear, it took a while for the game to settle, and on the whole, in what seems to be a trend for opening round games (particularly the Melbourne derby), there was a lack of fluency in attacking moves.
From a statistical point of view, there was great interest in the possession statistic – considering they averaged the least possession of any team last season, it was enormously surprising to see the away side finish with 51% of the ball.
However, in the context of this particular fixture, it made sense. In last year’s Grand Final, the Mariners were happy to drop off into their two banks of four close to halfway, allowing the Wanderers centre-backs time on the ball in deep positions. Michael Beauchamp and Nikolai Topor-Stanley are excellent in defensive aspects, but their passing from the back isn’t particularly incisive.
Often, they bypassed the midfield zone altogether and played directly to Dino Kresinger, who was obviously not very prolific but useful for holding up the ball under pressure. In this particular match, the same strategy was never going to work with Haliti – and so the two Wanderers centre-backs spent lots of time on the ball looking to work it forwards through midfield.
They finished as the first (Beauchamp) and third (Topor-Stanley) highest passers, but as the diagram below shows, the vast majority of those were unambitious sideways balls.
It’s unclear whether this was by design or by circumstance. The Mariners always sit off in this manner but it seemed like there was a particular focus from the front two – Mile Sterjovski and Flores – to block passes into the two central midfielders, Iacopo La Rocca and Mateo Poljak.
As the Wanderers season preview discussed…
the key for ongoing success is to evolve. It is always fascinating to see how a winning side adapts to being the team to beat, and compared to 2011/12, the Wanderers’ opponents this season will probably play deeper and more cautiously. The Premiers will have to mature in their approach, and probably become more complete in possession, happier to spend longer periods with the ball.
…and it will be interesting to see whether the Wanderers’ focus on retaining possession in deep positions was merely a result of the Mariners’ tactics, or a wider switch in strategy from Popovic.
It was interesting to observe the Wanderers’ relative struggles with playing out from the back compared with the Mariners, because Arnold has done an excellent job in devising a system that both encourages rapid counter-attacking and more controlled, calmer periods of possession to break down deep defences. John Hutchinson drops into the back four, allowing the defenders to split towards the edge of the penalty box – here, he enjoyed great freedom (finishing no.2 for passes completed) and spread play calmly to either side.
When Trent Sainsbury picked up the ball on the left hand side of the field (switching field position after playing to the right of Patrick Zwaanswjik last season), he was pressuredby Youssouf Hersi – which promptly left either Josh Rose or Nick Fitzgerald free to pick up a first time pass in the channel, because the Wanderers right-back, Jerome Polenz, didn’t want to move too high up the pitch.
It was the same on the opposite side – Haliti or Mooy would shut down Hutchinson, who’d then shift it across to Zac Anderson, and because of the 3v2 advantage the Mariners had in those deep positions, it was easy for either of the right-sided players to receive the ball unchallenged.
In fact, this tactical feature should have been predictable. It was perhaps the key factor in the Mariners grand final win, with their build-up play down the right sucking the Wanderers narrow, before quickly switching to the left, giving Rose lots of time on the ball to get forward and create chances – leading inadvertently to the corner from which the opening goal was scored.
Storm Roux and Mitchell Duke, a new partnership for the Mariners down the right, enjoyed great freedom, and were heavily involved in a large proportion of the game’s most promising moves. Sterjovski’s movement towards the ball was key – it dragged Topor-Stanley upfield, and Duke repeatedly drove into the space in behind. Marcos Flores also tended to drift out towards that right channel, and the opening goal was a beautiful combination between him and Duke.
Also, by Duke taking up a narrow position infield, he opened up space for Roux on the overlap, forcing Mark Bridge to track back into extremely deep positions and in turn nullifying one of the Wanderers’ key attacking players.
The introduction of Juric and Ono changed the game – but in an individual sense, rather than tactical. Both were like-for-like moves (with Mooy dropping into deep midfield when Poljak came off), simply about fresh legs and new quality. Unsurprisingly, Ono created a number of chances, and Juric scored the equaliser.
It’s probably worth mentioning Arnold’s substitution for Anderson for Marcel Seip – he obviously wanted to give the Dutchman his debut, but changing around your central defenders with ten minutes to go is something you rarely see a top level coach do. Of course, you can’t directly link the equaliser to the goal, and it may not have even affected things – but it might have been a factor.
This was more of what we’ve come to expect between these two sides – a tight, edgy encounter, with sporadic attacking inspiration.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s a shame the FFA scheduled this, and the Melbourne derby, for the opening round – it robbed both high-profile fixtures of the cohesion and fluency that develops as the season progresses, particularly in attack. However, the strength of both the Wanderers and Mariners defensive organisation can’t be overlooked – it seems it will again be key for their success this season.