The Central Coast Mariners put five past Palm Beach Sharks to become the first side through to the FFA Cup semi-finals.
While the final twenty minutes – and the game’s main talking point – was Matt Sim’s frankly ridiculous four-goal haul off the bench, the first hour was notable for the Mariners unexpected fluidity in attack.
Under Phil Moss, they have largely kept with the system and style implemented by Graham Arnold. It’s a 4-2-3-1, with the emphasis on structured, organised defending in two banks of four. Towards the end of the season, from an attacking point of view, they became increasingly reliant n counter-attacks. By the finals series, they had become extremely cautious, recording less than 40% possession against Brisbane, Adelaide and the Wanderers, and depending heavily on quick breaks.
For the first round of the new A-League season, they went back to the all-round play of the ‘Arnold era’ – mixing the counter-attacking with controlled build-up, looking to work the ball out from the back and create neat combinations in the final third. The Mariners rarely whip in crosses or play direct long passes from the back, and it’s always short, tidy passing to create chances in the final third, regardless of personnel.
However, they simply played very poorly against the Newcastle Jets, struggling to play out from the back (partly because the Jets pressed very high up the pitch). Malick Mane was impressive upfront, working the width of the pitch and trying to drive forward powerfully, but his supporting cast struggled to find space and time, and the Mariners created very little, scoring only from a set-piece right at the death.
Tuesday night’s FFA Cup match was an entirely different challenge. Against weaker opposition, they had to take the initiative. Palm Beach sat very deep in a 4-5-1, committed very few players forward when attacking, and tried to defend in numbers for long periods. This was a challenge the Mariners are used to setting for opponents, rather than tackling themselves. Given the way they’d become reliant on counter-attacks last season, it wasn’t unfair to suggest that they might struggle against a side denying them the space to break into.
However, Moss’s side impressed with a fluid, rotating front four. They started with no nominal striker – instead, Richard Vernes was the ‘centre forward’, but he often came short between the lines. In the #10 role was Glen Trifiro, who played a very free role and often moved into very deep positions alongside the holding midfielders, Anthony Caceres and John Hutchinson. In these positions he kept his passing short and tidy to help the Mariners progress moves forward.
The wide players had the most unusual roles, though, as both Isaka Cernak and Nick Fitzgerald, right and left respectively, played very narrow, often ending up in typical centre-forward positions. Fitzgerald popped up all across the pitch and was the most direct of any attacker with the ball, looking to take shots on (coming close with one from outside the box). Cernak’s narrowness on the right often created lots of space for right-back Hayden Morton to charge into, who looked to cut balls back into players inside the penalty area. Cernak himself got into goalscoring positions, and opened the scoring.
Perhaps most crucially, this rotation of positions was cohesive and integrated, so that when one player occupied a new zone, another would move so that the width and depth of the pitch was covered. Of course, there were times where players overlapped, and perhaps the ball movement was to slow for the positional interchange to be genuinely effective, but it was fascinating to see a normally structured side adapt their tactics for a game demanding a different approach.
Without the ball, the Mariners defended in their standard 4-4-2 shape, but again, were happy to ‘fill in gaps’ for each other – so that if Fitzgerald, for example, was too central to cover the left flank, then Vernes, who had moved wide, would cover for him down that side. This was also a feature on Saturday against the Jets, with Mane filling in for Mitch Duke on occasion down the right flank.
Therefore, Moss has built a hard-working squad who understand their roles defensively, but perhaps most impressively, on the basis of this performance, one that is flexible in attack not only in terms of positions, but also in approach. The jury remains out on their chances this season, but tactically, this was a good demonstration of their fluidity and adaptability.