After a season of consolidation, Phil Moss has the opportunity to put his own footprint on the Central Coast Mariners.
After three years under Graham Arnold, we’d become much accustomed to their system – a simple 4-2-3-1, with two very compact banks of four without possession, and the ability to mix counter-attacking with more measured build-up play when on the ball. Arnold rarely sprang tactical surprises or made significant deviations to his side, but instead prioritised cohesion and familiarity with specific patterns of play that the Mariners could execute supremely well. In many ways, they were the perfect embodiment of a team – everyone knew their roles, and performed them consistently week in, week out.
Moss, unsurprisingly, having worked under Arnold for many years, continued with the system when his predecessor left for Japan. There were no drastic changes in personnel or sweeping adjustments to approach, but simply more of the same.
Therefore, it was a big surprise when the Mariners changed formation in the final regular season game, against Brisbane Roar. Moss switched to a 5-4-1, with Nick Montgomery playing a very unusual, but effective hybrid role as a centre-back/holding midfielder – moving forward into the midfield zone when the Mariners had possession, and dropping back into the backline when they were defending. However, because the formation change also signalled an overall shift in approach towards a more cautious, conservative style, the formation appeared 5-4-1 rather than 4-3-3 for long periods.
The Mariners hadn’t had huge problems defensively prior to this, but this pragmatic switch had enormous benefits. They conceded just once over three games using this formation. In tight 1-0 wins over Brisbane and Adelaide, they soaked up pressure for long periods, then counter-attacked ruthlessly through the pace of Nick Fitzgerald and Bernie Ibini. In that aforementioned match against Brisbane, for example, the Mariners completed just 41 passes in the final third compared to Roar’s 195, which sums up their caginess.
This defensiveness, though, had clear limitations – an extraordinary reliance on the wide players being able to carry the ball nearly 40-50 metres at transitions – and the feeling was that this purely a short-term approach for the finals rather than a reflection of Moss’ long-term vision for the side. It was telling, though, that he made the adjustment in the first place, and probably shows he’s more pragmatic than Arnold.
Pre-season, rather, has seen the return of the ‘usual’ Mariners, with 4-2-3-1 the predominant formation in all their friendly matches. The structure of the side without the ball has been an obvious feature, with the front two dropping off close to the midfield four to make the side compact, and the defensive block as a whole shifting across the pitch in response to the movement of the ball. It’s ‘standard’ defensive play, but no A-League side does it as well as the Mariners.
In terms of personnel, Moss’s major changes have come in the final third. New signing Malick Mane will compete for the no.9 spot with Mitch Duke and Matt Simon, although he can play wide. Against Melbourne City in a pre-season friendly, he showed a willingness to work very hard off the ball, before exploding forward powerfully on the break with great strength and mobility. He’s ideal for leading the transitions. Other options at striker include Mitch Duke, who tailed off last season but works the channels nicely and gets in behind, and Matt Simon, a more static, physical forward who can hold up the ball.
Isaka Cernak, meanwhile, has been prominent in pre-season, often used as a right-winger. It’s a new position for Cernak, and he tends to play quite narrow and making runs in straight lines in behind. On the opposite side Matt Sim has been pushed further forward from his usual left-back berth, but it’s difficult to see what he really offers in this role. Although capable defensively, he tends to stay quite wide, is rarely involved in play and hits unambitious crosses into the middle. Rather, Nick Fitzgerald will probably be first-choice. He’s quick and athletic, and suits the system because he works hard before springing forward on the break.
The concern, though, looking at the Mariners squad, is a lack of genuine wide options. They seem to have a lot of players capable of ‘doing a job’ out wide but very few that could be classified as excellent in 1v1 situations, or providing creativity. Nevertheless, in the #10 position there is Kim Seung-yong, Anthony Caceres, Glen Trifiro and Richard Vernes, with some of these players likely to play wide and drift inside into playmaking positions (as McGlinchey used to do so well). Finding a balance in the attacking band will be Moss’s biggest challenge in the opening rounds of the season.
In midfield, Montgomery and Josh Hutchinson will continue their dependable partnership. Montgomery is the more combative player and is strong on the challenge, while Hutchinson is more technical and spreads play calmly. Caceres can also play deep and turns defence into attack with a clever turn of pace – in games where the Mariners have to take the initiative, he might play in the pivot, as could Glen Trifiro, a solid, all-round midfield player.
A minor talking point of pre-season is Moss’s occassional switches to a 4-3-3, where he flips the midfield triangle so the point faces backwards. Against Melbourne City in Lismore, for example, he used this after half-time, putting Montgomery deep – but importantly, rather than dropping back to create a back five, the Englishman held his position in front of the back four and allowed the two midfielders ahead of him to push higher up. This seemed a more effective way of controlling possession, and got more numbers into the final third.
Meanwhile, at the back, Eddy Bosnar and Zac Anderson are the clear first-choice pairing, are protected by the solidity of the midfielders in front of them, and complement each other nicely. Bosnar is the more proactive of the two and is more ambitious with his passing. Depth at centre-back is a slight worry with Brent Griffiths out with injury, and Moss has indicated another defender could join the squad.
At full-back, Josh Rose and Storm Roux will continue their usual attacking roles, pushing forward into space when the Mariners build up play slowly. Matt Sim, too, can play in place of Rose, who has been used at right-back in pre-season because of injuries elsewhere but should return to his usual berth. Behind the defence is Liam Reddy, a solid, dependable keeper capable of spectacular saves.
It’s difficult to get truly excited by the Mariners this season, especially as recruitment has been limited, and the squad feels weaker as a whole. It’s not to undermine what they do well, but because we’ve become so familiar to it, there’s a certain predictability to their system. They’ll defend in structured lines, and concede little. However, the format of the attacking quartet remains a key question, and while Moss tinkers to find the right combination, the existing defensive organisation – and the solidity it ensures – will be vitally important.
Furthermore, Moss has already shown himself to be more conservative than Arnold, and it’s likely the Mariners will be more counter-attacking than they have been in the past. It’ll be fascinating to see more of Moss’s own philosophy be revealed with this opportunity to take the side in a new direction.