As if it were possible, Graham Arnold’s work at the Central Coast Mariners has been almost underrated.
Last season’s Championship win – the first Grand Final win in three appearances – came off the back of a Premiership in 2011/12, but not only that, Arnold harnessed and produced some of Australia’s most promising Socceroo prospects, including Tom Rogic and Mustafa Amini, two of the younger players in a crop that also includes Alex Wilkinson and Oliver Bozanic. He has a remarkable ability to get the best out of a wide range of ages and positions, best illustrated by Daniel McBreen’s stunning season in 2012/13, where he finished as the Golden Boot despite being 35 years old.
It is also a great tribute to Arnold (and Ange Postecoglou) that the assistant, Phil Moss (and Kevin Muscat, in Postecoglou’s case), is able to step up into the main role. Not only does it illustrate the mentoring process the coach has undergone – and in the case of both, the succession plan has been mooted for some time – it also shows the stability that has been created by the previous regime.
Certainly, Arnold’s success has been built on a solid platform, despite a seemingly never-ending stream of talented players moving to pastures new. This season, Arnold lost five players from the team that started the Grand Final, but tellingly, the replacements fitted the system, and there’s been no dramatic upheaval or significant dip in form. Unsurprisingly, he’s kept with the 4-2-3-1 that was favoured all of last season, having previously used a 4-4-2 diamond in his first two seasons at the club.
The key is the organisation and structure. Every player knows their role, and the system is incredibly balanced – there’s no overemphasis on a particular element of the game, but particularly when the Mariners aren’t at their best, the defensive strengths shine. In the three seasons Arnold spent at the club, the Mariners never finished below the top two for goals against – and in the final five games of last season, conceded just once.
The team’s overall structure, with the wide players tracking back alongside the midfield pivot to form a second bank of four in front of the defence, and the front two dropping to make the side compact, makes it so difficult for opponents to play through them: the Mariners don’t give away space between the lines, and are rarely caught on the counter-attack.
That makes the defensive job of the centre-backs easy – in the Grand Final against the Wanderers, Patrick Zwaanswijk and Trent Sainsbury didn’t complete or even attempt a single tackle…
…and it was more or less the same case in the Preliminary Final against the Melbourne Victory.
This can be largely attributed to the midfield duo ahead of them, who sit in a disciplined position in front of the back four and protect them keenly. With the full-backs often motoring forward in attack, there’s always a “box” of Mariners defenders in the centre of the park, and Nick Montgomery in particular does an excellent job of breaking up play.
However, Montgomery and John Hutchinson aren’t just scrappers, and the latter in particular is very accurate with his distribution, facilitating passing moves by dropping into the back four and spreading the play wide. As statistically depicted above, he set the tempo of the Grand Final by completing the most passes of any player, frequently teeing up Josh Rose to motor forward and provide overlapping support – the left-back provided a stream of dangerous low crosses into the middle, building up the pressure that lead to the crucial opening goal.
Arnold constantly encourages his full-backs to get forward, because it’s so important they provide the width made absent by the movement inside of the wide attackers. After experimenting for most of the season, he eventually settled on the combination of Michael McGlinchey on the left, and Bernie Ibini-Isei on the right – the former is a clever dribbler, can skip past one-on-one challenges and is surprisingly excellent in the tackle (as seen above), while Ibini is more explosive and provided attacking drive down the right.
Probably encouraged by the similarity between him and Mitchell Duke in terms of pace and energy, Arnold decided to redeploy the latter out wide for the current season, where he’s proved a constant menace with his bold, direct running. His versatility is also useful, arguably better as a central striker, and in that position against Adelaide he constantly drifted out towards the space made vacant by Michael Zullo’s forward runs to receive long, ground passes on the break.
Duke’s also struck up a good relationship with the new Mariners no.10, Marcos Flores, as epitomised by ‘that’ goal they scored and created respectively against the Wanderers in Round One. On paper, Flores was the perfect fit for Arnold’s 4-2-3-1 – having already seen Tom Rogic and Daniel McBreen flourish in that position behind the striker, it’s no surprise the Argentine has been revitalised by his move up the coast from Melbourne and slotted seamlessly into the main creative role.
Arnold’s replacement, his assistant Phil Moss, knows it would be foolish to do anything but “keep the ship steering in the same direction.” Taking the metaphor of the ship further, no boat works without all its parts working together in harmony, in balance – and considering this is a club on the Coast called the Mariners, it’s a very apt way of summarising Arnold’s legacy at the club.