Newcastle Jets v Central Coast Mariners is often touted as an interstate derby, but in recent years the trend has been for it to be quite a ‘tactical’ battle.
Lawrie McKinna was in charge for the 2008 Grand Final in which Van Egmond sprung a surprise by pulling Joel Griffiths into a deeper, playmaking role to occupy Mile Jedinak, and switched to a back three to catch the Mariners off-guard. The change proved decisive, with the top goalscorer for that season, Griffiths, turning creator for Mark Bridge, whose fine strike proved the difference.
Then, a few seasons later in 2012, Arnold and Van Egmond played out a fascinating January fixture – again, Van Egmond switched to a three-man back line to not only counter a front two of Bernie Ibini-Isei and Troy Hearfield, but to push back the typically attacking Mariners full-backs. It worked a treat, with makeshift Mariners right-back Brad Porter struggle against a remarkably attacking wing-back, Jeremy Brockie, resulting in a Jets goal.
Arnold reacted by switching from his diamond 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 – a clever move, seeing as the front three and natural width high up the pitch could press the Jets’ back three, nullifying their ability to build attacks. That forced Van Egmond to switch back to a back four, forcing Nikolai Topor-Stanley out into an uncomfortable left-back position, which quickly became the game’s key feature – Arnold was keen for his right-sided attacker to take him on, and his substitutions revolved entirely around attacking that zone. Again, Van Egmond had to react, introducing a natural left-back, Sung-Hwan Byun, to give the defence more protection.
Here, Arnold and Van Egmond again reacted to the pattern of the game and the other’s changes – making it a ‘true’ tactical battle.
That said, the first half wasn’t particularly interesting, even though Newcastle scored twice – one a lucky free-kick, the other a goalkeeping error.
The most interesting feature was Van Egmond’s instructions to his full-backs – he asked them to stick very tight to their opponent, so Scott Neville and Sam Gallaway were often dragged into very unnatural positions by the typical movement of the Mariners wingers inside, so that when Michael McGlinchey and Nick Fitzgerald drifted in, they had little space to receive or turn on the ball.
The consequence of this was that the Newcastle wingers – Andrew Hoole and Jacob Burns – were forced to track the usual forward runs of the Mariners full-backs, so much so that Arnold commented post-match that “Hoole was ending up at right-back”. It meant they had to cover a vast amount of ground, but importantly, neither Josh Rose or Storm Roux were particularly dangerous.
Arnold goes for it
At 2-0 down, Arnold had to change something, turning to his bench to make a dramatic double change. Nick Montgomery and Fitzgerald were withdrawn, and a pair of strikers, Mile Sterjovski and Matt Simon, were introduced.
More importantly, Arnold changed formation. He switched to the 4-4-2 diamond favoured in his first two seasons at the club (changing to 4-2-3-1 at the start of last season), with Simon upfront alongside Mitchell Duke, and Sterjovski and McGlinchey going to either side of the diamond.
On paper, this was a effectively perfect move – it meant if the full-backs continued to track their players inside, the central defenders would be left 2 v 2 against the new strike partnership, and furthermore, there was no-one nominally picking up the Mariners extra man in midfield, so there was the threat of Marcos Flores running free.
Van Egmond reacts
The strange thing was, there’d barely been time to register the changes before Van Egmond made his own moves, probably having identified the problems and realised the potential danger. Still, the decision to shift to 3-4-3 was extraordinarily quick, a purely reactive move – and there was obvious confusion immediately after he’d introduced Jacob Pepper, as if the players were suddenly uncertain of their positions. It seems particularly unforgivable if Pepper didn’t know where he was playing – he had, after all, just spent a good minute talking to Van Egmond.
However, the 3-4-3 move made sense, at least on paper. It restored parity in the midfield zone, as Ben Kantarovski could now pick up Flores from a dedicated holding role, while retaining a spare man at the back (three centre-backs against two strikers). In fact, both sides now had a spare man in defence, with the rest of the formation battle effectively like for like.
Broadly speaking, though, it probably caused too much confusion – Newcastle’s defence, having previously appeared settled and comfortable with their instructions, now seemed too loose, and were dragged out of position too easily by the Mariners’ fluid attacks. Duke and Simon took turns to come between the lines and link up play, leaving the other to play off the defensive line and threaten with pace in behind.
The equalising goal came largely because of Kew Jailiens’ injury, which completely ruined the Jets’ structure, but on the balance of play, it felt fair.
Van Egmond always feels particularly reactive against the Mariners, and seems particularly keen to tweak his side in order to nullify the strengths of Arnold’s side. It’s a bit strange that this particular fixture has now become one of the most memorable ‘tactical’ fixtures in the league, but it certainly provides interest – and in this case, excitement.