The Wanderers are into a second consecutive Grand Final thanks to a goal and assist from Youssouf Hersi.
Tony Popovic’s two selection debates were in midfield and upfront – he opted for Iacopo La Rocca and Brendan Santalab respectively, meaning Aaron Mooy and Tomi Juric were on the bench.
Phil Moss made one change from the starting line-up he’s preferred in the league recently, bringing John Hutchinson in for Glen Trifiro, and keeping with the 5-4-1.
Overall, this game was characterised by the Wanderers superiority both with and without the ball, particularly in nullifying the Mariners’ approach.
The game started quite scrappily, with lots of balls back and forth from either side and very little of a rhythm being established, and it took about ten minutes until the expected pattern emerged: the Wanderers controlling the majority of possession against the Mariners low-block 5-4-1.
While the formation battle was slightly unusual given it was 5-4-1 v 4-2-3-1, there were still fairly obvious match-ups across the pitch in terms of individual battles, and the game was generally about these factors – about players trying to take their direct markers 1v1, or dropping off a few metres to find space and pass the ball. In this regard, there were three interesting points.
Montgomery v Santalab
Firstly, with Nick Montgomery continued in the hybrid defender/midfielder role, he and the rest of the Mariners back five were being pushed back by Santalab, who constantly made runs in behind and looked to get in beyond the Mariners’ back five. It was a neat contrast to the type of striker they’ve faced in the past two weeks, where both Besart Berisha and Cirio played more like false nines, dropping into midfield and between the lines to find space, rather than trying to run onto balls in behind or attack crosses.
This was a much more ‘classic’ striker performance, and right from the start, it was obvious this suited the Wanderers. The centre-backs could hit balls over the top from a deep position to create attacks, and because Santalab was forcing the Mariners’ defence to drop deeper to accommodate his pace, more space was opening up between the back five and midfield four, with Ono finding space between the lines to hit a couple of dangerous balls in behind. A good example was the half-penalty shout early on: Santalab darts in behind Montgomery, latches onto a ball over the top, and the Englishman is forced into a rash shirt-pull from behind.
Duke’s defensive role
Secondly, Mitch Duke, as discussed in the preview, having been instructed to pick up deep-lying playmakers Luke Brattan and Isaias in the past two weeks, might have been asked to drop onto Aaron Mooy when defending – but in the absence of Mooy, the Wanderers’ best passer of the three midfield options, it wasn’t entirely clear who of Mateo Poljak or La Rocca Moss would have considered to be the bigger threat.
As it eventuated, it was the latter, with Duke drifting across to a left-sided position (as La Rocca plays to the right of the midfield pivot) to prevent passes into the Italian. This meant the majority of the Wanderers possession in midfield was built through Poljak, who was constantly free from a left-of-centre position to collect balls unchallenged, and work passes upfield.
It’s not entirely clear why this was the case, because neither Poljak or La Rocca is particularly stronger than the other when it comes to their distribution, and it might have simply been Moss’s attempt to nullify the Wanderers’ usual attacking threat down the right, where Jerome Polenz constantly overlaps past Hersi. The thinking might have been to block passes from the right-sided central midfielder towards that flank, which would have been the ‘natural’ flank for La Rocca to distribute towards had he been afforded time on the ball.
As it were – and this is the third feature – it didn’t work, because the Wanderers constantly got the ball out to Hersi in that period between 10-30 minutes, with the winger building attacking pressure with his dangerous dribbling towards the channels. He always positioned himself in a little pocket of space just in front of Eddy Bosnar and in between the centre-back and full-back, meaning he had time to receive passes into feet and then try and beat the defenders – which he did on a few occasions.
The more dangerous threat, though, was when Hersi brought the ball forward, held it up, and then laid it back for the onrunning Polenz, who was energetic with his forward movement and always a threat crossing on either foot. The Wanderers didn’t actually create many clear-cut chances, but they were building pressure in the lead up to the opening goal, tapped in by Hersi after Santalab had done well to make a run in behind (as aforementioned) and hold up a long ball over the top, eventually squaring a cross towards the far post.
Almost immediately after the goal, the complexion of the game changed – whether by coincidence or by design, the Wanderers sat off more, dropping the midfield line back to around halfway and the front two shutting off passes through the middle, making the side compact. Montgomery, Anderson and Bosnar were effectively passing the ball amongst themselves for a fifteen minute period before the break – and combinations between those three account for the game’s most frequent.
It demonstrated how the 5-4-1 has made the Mariners reliant on effective counter-attacking: when the opposition defence is set, they have a numerical advantage in deep positions, but lack players ahead of the ball in attacking positions. It was telling their only real chance of the half – Duke’s shot that hit the side netting – was from a quick counter-attack: the exact sort of chance they’ve been scoring in recent weeks, but the kind of opportunity they couldn’t create here.
In the first ten minutes of the second half, Hersi both drew a yellow card from Bosnar, and wasted a good shooting chance high over the bar, further demonstrating how the Wanderers’ attacking threat was primarily coming down his side – especially the Bosnar foul, which showed how the home side were pulling the Mariners back five out of shape.
The dominant pattern of the second half, however, was the Mariners continuing to control more possession than they’ve been used to in recent weeks. The positioning of the Wanderers defence was excellent – not too deep as to invite excessive pressure, but nullifying the Mariners favoured route of attack.
On the 70 minute mark, both sides made changes – Moss bringing on Kim Seung-Yong for Fitzgerald, and Popovic unsurprisingly bringing Juric into the fray for Santalab (having already had to replace the injured Bridge with Labinot Haliti). It wasn’t until Matt Simon replaced Caceres ten minutes later, however, that Moss really went chasing the game, pushing Duke into a deeper position to take the side towards more of a 4-4-2 formation.
Pushing more numbers forward inevitably opened up space for the home side to counter-attack, and La Rocca all but secured the win with a simple goal on the break.
The first goal is always obviously important, but felt particularly crucial here, because it effectively meant whoever scored it could defend the lead and play predominantly on the counter-attack thereafter. That was crucial in the Mariners’ wins over Brisbane and Adelaide: the defensive performances have been excellent, and by being clinical with a few chances on the counter-attack, have had the benefit of being able to continue with this strategy rather than having had to open up more in search of a goal. They looked distinctly uncomfortable doing that here, largely because of a simple lack of numbers in advanced areas – they were always outnumbered by the Wanderers higher up the pitch, and lacked genuine creativity.
This was an excellent all-round performance from Tony Popovic’s side: controlled, patient but also attacking at a good tempo when controlling possession, organised and compact when defending their lead.