Central Coast’s two first half goals meant they leapfrogged Melbourne Victory into third place.
Mike Mulvey, knowing his side had the benefit of a full week off in the finals series, named his strongest possible side. Besart Berisha returned after suspension.
Phil Moss made four changes from the surprise defeat to Perth Glory, with Mitchell Duke, Bernie Ibini and Nick Montgomery all returning to the starting lineup. Captain John Hutchinson was omitted from the squad altogether.
The Mariners attacked very rarely and rode their luck – but overall, this was a very disciplined defensive performance.
Even considering the expected approaches of either side, this was a remarkably obvious clash between two contrasting sides. Brisbane dominated the ball, with Thomas Broich coming inside from the left to become an extra midfielder, the full-backs pushing forward to be passing options out wide, and even Berisha sometimes dropping deep to help the Roar retain the ball.
The Mariners, in comparison, started cagily, dropping ten players behind the ball early on and sitting off without the ball – packing the defence rather than the midfield, as Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Heart have done so this year. Controlling space rather than possession – as reflected in the passing totals (586 to 141).
In attack, the Mariners countered quickly – nothing unusual for them, although it was more exaggerated than usual here, as they committed very few players forward.
Mariners change formation
More interestingly was Moss’s change of formation, which was the most significant change in the Mariners’ tactics in nearly three years. We’ve become accustomed to their 4-2-3-1, aside from a few dalliances with a diamond, and they’re probably the most consistent side in the league when it comes to shape.
Here, though, Moss radically switched to a 5-4-1, pulling Nick Montgomery into the centre of defence and switching to one (Duke) upfront. At kick-off, it appeared a 4-3-3, with Montgomery deep in a midfield triangle, but it quickly became apparent he was sticking tight to Berisha when the striker played high up the pitch, and letting him go free when he moved wide or deep.
The key difference between the 5-4-1 and their usual 4-2-3-1 is that instead of a supporting attacker, there was now an extra supporting defender – and, in fact, the midfield line of four defended as they do in the 4-2-3-1, bringing the wide players back alongside a double pivot and tucking in narrow, to force play out wide.
Upfront, Duke first looked to occupy Luke Brattan, then momentarily looked confused when McKay and Liam Miller switched into that deep-lying position, before eventually just sitting high up the pitch as Brisbane’s possession dominance became clear. That effectively made Brattan’s usual holding role redundant, and he pushed forward to join attacks, as Matt Smith and Jade North were comfortable defending 2v1 against Duke.
The biggest beneficiaries from this formation change were the centre-backs, who now had two covering teammates when they stepped forward to pick up deep-lying attackers, with Bosnar often sticking very tight to Dimitri Petratos when the right-winger moved into the pocket of space just in front of him. That was key – not diving in, but pressuring ‘gently’ from behind to prevent them from turning on the ball, so that Brisbane were always playing in front of them.
The area in which the Mariners looked vulnerable was in midfield, where Glen Trifiro and Anthony Caceres were sometimes dragged apart, being pulled up and back by Brisbane’s movement between the lines – when this happened, there was time for Brisbane attackers to pick out runners in behind. Berisha’s fluffed shot on 24 minutes is a good example – Broich passes inside from the left touchline into McKay, who quickly fires a return pass to Broich, made possible by the channel created in behind Caceres, who’s moved forward to press McKay.
Again, on 39 minutes, Smith finds McKay in a position directly between Caceres and Trifiro, knocks it back to Berisha and runs onto the Albanian’s return pass – Petratos hits the post from the resulting McKay cross.
The Mariners had two approaches with the ball. First was to hit Duke long from the back, and he spent most of the match battling manfully in the air against Smith.
It was interesting that Moss opted for Duke over Matt Simon, a more physical striker probably able to provide more of a physical presence upfront (but admittedly, out of form), and besides, Moss probably wanted Duke’s pace to threaten on the counter.
Instead, it was the speed of the wide players that was most dangerous, with both Ibini and Nick Fitzgerald playing tireless roles on the flanks – tracking back to get behind the ball, then bursting forward to provide the Mariners’ only real attacking inspiration.
Their main threat was in carrying the ball forward on the run, getting into the channels vacated by the forward movement of both Ivan Franjic and Shane Stefanutto – most obviously for the opening goal, where Ibini drives forward on the ball, receives rare overlapping support from Storm Roux, who crosses for Fitzgerald at the near post.
The general theme, though, was of incredibly efficient finishing – the Mariners were simply playing very direct and took their few chances on the break (their second was a Caceres shot from range). It’s an unsustainable way of attacking, and unlikely to be as successful in recent weeks, purely because Moss can’t rely his players being so clinical.
The Mariners taking the lead allowed them to sit even deeper as the match progressed, soaking up pressure, forcing Roar players to attack higher up and take more risks, which inevitably gave the Mariners more opportunities to counter attack. Taking the lead relatively early on was key – had the score still been 0-0 at the break, Moss probably would have asked his side to play more positively, which would’ve opened up space for Brisbane.
The Mariners being able to sit deep caused real problems for Brisbane. Their best moves in the game came through direct vertical balls through the lines – they needed more of this, and less of the slow, methodical build up from side to side. Mulvey’s changes didn’t really help change this, although he made a somewhat attacking change in removing Miller for Henrique, who tried to dribble past defenders in the box.
Moss simply kept the shape of his side and introduced fresh legs as the game progressed – Matt Sim came on for Fitzgerald at 70 minutes, while Trifiro was forced off with injury late on.
A classic case of a side doing well by defending deep against a possession-based side – the main interest came from Moss’s change in formation, rather than his actual approach. By packing the defence, he gave his central defenders the freedom to step out and force Brisbane’s attackers away from goal, as well as tempting the full-backs forward, which created space for Fitzgerald and Ibini to counter into. The fact there was contextually little to play for here was also important – a motivated Brisbane probably wouldn’t have been as sloppy. I
t’ll be fascinating to see if Moss sticks with the 5-4-1 in the finals. As delighted he would have been with the win, the feeling was that the Mariners rode their luck, packing the centre of the pitch and testing Brisbane’s ability to break down a deep defence, which surprisingly, they seemed unable to do.