The two key attacking players were the Mariners former full-back pairing of Pedj Bojic and Josh Rose, but the latter was far more effective as Sydney struggled for creativity beyond Bojic’s forward runs.
Phil Moss dropped Brent Griffiths – who he’s favoured at centre-back because of his left foot, which he says creates a ‘balance with the right-footed Trent Sainsbury’ – for Marcel Seip. The rest of the side was as expected.
Pedj Bojic returned against his old club, with Ali Abbas pushing higher up from the left-back role he’s impressed in in recent weeks, meaning Frank Farina reshuffled his defence once more – Sebastian Ryall shuffled across to the flank and Matt Jurman started in the centre alongside Nikolai Petkovic. Alessandro Del Piero was unavailable through injury, so Richard Garcia dropped into the no.10 role, as new striker Ranko Despotovic got a first start at his new club. This was Sydney’s now favoured 4-2-3-1, although they showed many of the patterns of play attributed to their 4-3-3 from pre-season, as Matt Thompson dropped into a deep, right-sided position to allow Bojic to move forward, temporarily creating something of a back three.
Rose was consistently a threat down the sides thanks to McGlinchey’s drifts inside, and created two goals – although one was disallowed.
Although this worked well against the Melbourne Heart, with David Williams often overloaded down that side by Brett Emerton’s movement across from a right-sided central midfield position, here it was less successful, because the Mariners simply have a better defensive structure – they get players behind the ball and defend in a solid, compact unit. McGlinchey does a very good job protecting Josh Rose, and there’s the obvious caveat of Del Piero’s absence, who is, despite his poor performance against Newcastle last week, clearly Sydney’s most talented and creative player.
Furthermore, the Mariners front two, Mitchell Duke and Marcos Flores, made sure to track back and block the passing lanes of the central defenders, helping to keep the side compact. This made it very difficult for Sydney to work the ball from the back.
Furthermore, Nick Carle was often left isolated in front of the defence by Thompson shuffling across to the side to allow Bojic forward – Sydney needed to work the ball higher up the pitch quicker before doing the rotation of positions, because they were getting caught in that transition into the middle third because of how slow the tempo was.
As a result, nearly all of Sydney’s attacks were coming down the sides – Bojic finished as their highest passer in the attacking third, and often motored forward to receive passes, with Nikola Petkovic hitting some nice cross-field balls towards him.
The Mariners defended the inevitable crosses well enough, although there were three noticeable chances – one very early on nearly bundled in by Ali Abbas, another the same player headed straight at the keeper, and the third a long-range shot from a Bojic cutback that went just over the bar. Overall, though, Sydney became very predictable. They also struggled to retain possession in the first half, and had to repel waves of Mariners attacks.
Mariners left-sided bias
By contrast, the Mariners worked the ball forwards with great ease – John Hutchinson finished as the game’s highest passer, illustrating the calm distributive role that he’s become quietly excellent at over the past two seasons.
Surprisingly, though, Michael McGlinchey was similarly influential, and was third overall for that particular statistic. Considering he’s the left sided attacker, that’s fairly impressive – and in misplacing four passes all game, he did a fine job retaining the ball. It wasn’t purely ‘safe’ possession, though, and he constantly got into clever spaces to link up play and play incisive balls, hitting a particularly excellent ‘assist before the assist’ for the game’s only goal. He also got into shooting positions, taking three shots, including the one fired straight at Vedran Janjetovic after McBreen’s original effort had been repelled.
His combinations with Marcos Flores were key, and the intricate interplay between the two for Flores’ curling shot just before half-time was a good microcosm of their relationship. Flores normally works the right channels more but tended significantly to the left here, and combined neatly with McGlinchey in little pockets of space that helped create space and momentum.
In doing this the Mariners were creating overloads in a left-of-centre zone of their attack, the space that Thompson was occupying. The midfielder was constantly drawn towards Flores, had Joel Chianese (the Sydney right-winger) coming inside to help occupy McGlinchey, but that meant no-one was picking up Rose, who was free to get forward throughout the game and sent in balls from deeper positions but also got in behind Bojic for dangerous crossing situations.
In terms of the game’s significant moments, this was the most important feature, as Rose provided the assist for the only goal – McBreen’s delightful backheeled finish. It was a fascinating battle, seeing as Bojic and Rose are old teammates and formerly the pair of attacking full-backs that were so key to last season’s Championship win – despite the former’s off-season move, and the departure of Graham Arnold, this performance showed how the additional threat from deep positions is still a key feature of the Mariners game plan.
The Mariners bias towards their left is summed up by the fact their seven top pass combinations are between players down that side of the field, with Hutchinson’s positive forward balls to McGlinchey ranking highest.
In terms of substitutions, there is little to comment on. All were effectively like-for-like changes, and despite Sydney chasing the game, there was little invention from Farina on the bench – in fact, the introduction of Terry McFlynn for Carle was particularly odd, as the defensive midfielder, much maligned last season with his lack of forward passing, was hardly going to help with the issue of tempo nor provide an extra source of creativity.
Instead, the predominant feature of the second half was the Mariners getting in behind Sydney’s back four, with substitute Matt Simon squandering a number of chances after darting in behind the high line – especially prominent as Sydney chased the game and dominated possession in search of an equaliser.
The Mariners haven’t played particularly well this season, but this one of their better, and easier, performances. It was surprising that they got so much freedom down their left hand side – it’s been a dominant feature of their system for the best two years, although McGlinchey was particularly inspired here. It would be a shame if he left to join Arnold in Japan, although it would be a fine reward for his consistency.
Sydney, meanwhile, inevitably struggled without Del Piero. There’s been rather loud protestations from the squad that they’re not a one man team, and while it’s true they have another consistent source of attacking play via Bojic overlapping down the right, crossing is too varied and unpredictable an attacking play to be truly successful. Without Del Piero, they clearly suffer for creativity.