After conducting a ‘global search’ for a new head coach, the Central Coast Mariners have appointed their technical director and current caretaker coach Tony Walmsley to the position, with the mandate that he will combine the two roles for the 2015/16 season.
Walmsley was appointed on the basis that (according to the enthusiastic press release announcing his appointment) he fitted the club’s new direction. As Walmsley himself explains…
“The club’s mantra is entertainment, youth and community. As Technical Director I was brought in to deliver a football program aligned to the commercial objectives of the club. This means a recruitment charter that identifies players with embedded talent that can be identified, contribute on the pitch, developed and sold. No hiding behind it. Something to celebrate.
As Head Coach I’m interested in exposing players to a style that stretches them beyond where they think their capabilities are and to get the staff to buy into the broader vision. Can we be more resilient, yet more expressive? Pretty on the eye? Courageous on the ball, can we be recognised for innovation?”
This theme of being positive and entertaining has been a mantra of Walmsley’s throughout his six game interim period. This has represented a shift away from the style of play implemented by his predecessor, Phil Moss. While Moss often experimented with different formations and approaches, the overriding theme of his tenure was that his side were very slow in possession.
They built up play from the back very patiently, and as a result, struggled to create genuine goalscoring chances because the slow tempo allowed the opposition to become organised behind the ball. Furthermore, the side sat off when defending, looking to defend in two organised banks of four behind the ball – similar to how they have defended in the past, but lacking the solidity that was so impressive during the Graham Arnold era. In essence, the Mariners were overly cautious both with and without the ball, which eventually proved fatal for Moss.
Right from the minute he took over, Walmsley took the opposite approach. “The club has had to decide how it plays football,” he said after his first match. “The crowd numbers are not where we’d like them to be and that starts with playing style. The fans will really love the players getting in the face of opponents and trying to win back possession. This is how the Mariners play now. There’s a peg in the ground … this is how we play.”
There have been two major alterations in the style of play since Walmsley took over.
Firstly, and most obviously, the side is now defending more proactively. As Walmsley was only in charge for 48 hours prior to his first match (against Melbourne City), the following game, against Adelaide United, was the first evidence of this.
Setting his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation (it could also be described as 4-4-2), Walmsley instructed his front four to close down high up on Adelaide’s back four when they looked to play out from the back, with Anthony Caceres and Nick Fitzgerald looking to press the two centre-backs, and the wide players on their direct full-back opponents. As this potentially left Isaias, Adelaide’s holding midfielder, free to receive passes, one of the two central midfielders (John Hutchinson and Nick Montgomery) were instructed to move high up the pitch to close him down.
This potentially could have left an overload in midfield in favour of Adelaide, as when one midfielder moved forward to close down Isaias it left the other Mariners midfielder defending 2v1 against James Jeggo and Marcelo Carrusca.
However, the pressure on Adelaide’s back four and Isaias meant they struggled to play into these ‘spare’ midfielders, with the Mariners able to prevent them from passing forward into midfield particularly in the first half.
In this example, Central Coast’s front two have positioned themselves high up on Adelaide’s centre-backs as Eugene Galekovic looks to take a goal-kick. At this stage, Isaias is unmarked – but as Nigel Boogaard receives the ball, Caceres moves forward to close him down, and John Hutchinson moves forward from his deep-lying position to pressure Isaias and prevent him from receiving a pass.
As a result of this, Galekovic receives a return pass and is forced to kick long.
The match against Melbourne Victory was another example of Walmsley’s positive approach to defending. In that match, using the same front four, he again instructed the side to close down high up on the opposition back four when they looked to play out from the back.
The Victory use a different format in midfield compared to Adelaide – they have two deep-lying midfielders (Carl Valeri and Rashid Mahazi in this fixture). That meant that both the Mariners midfielders (Hutchinson and Montgomery) pushed high up onto their direct opponents when the Victory were building up from the back, looking to prevent them from facing forward.
Again, as the Mariners were looking to press 2v2 on the opposition centre-backs, it left them overloaded in midfield. Here, Guilherme Finkler, playing as a #10, drifted across the width and depth of the pitch to find space in behind Hutchinson and Montgomery. The occasions on which he was able to receive the ball behind the Mariners midfield duo enabled the Victory to progress forward in attack.
For example, in this particular scene the Mariners front four and midfield two have pushed up the pitch to prevent Melbourne Victory from playing out. In the first image, the positioning of Hutchinson and Montgomery prevents either Mahazi or Valeri from receiving a pass, but it also creates space in behind for Finkler to receive between the lines, as can be seen in the second image.
The video below highlights another moment in the match in which Finkler receives a pass past the Mariners pressure.
Against Western Sydney Wanderers, the Mariners new pressing structure was again obvious. The Wanderers, like Melbourne Victory, also play with two deep-lying midfielders, which meant Hutchinson and Montgomery were again keen to close down high up on their direct opponents and prevent them from playing forward.
When the Wanderers centre-back Jonathon Aspro received the ball, Anthony Kalik (replacing Nick Fitzgerald upfront) moved forward to close him down. As this occured, Isaka Cernak moved across to block the pass to the full-back and John Hutchinson moved forward to close down Mateo Poljak, preventing him from receiving a pass from Aspro. This meant the young centre-back attempted a difficult long pass to Romeo Castelen, which was intercepted by Josh Rose.
This then lead to an excellent example of what has been the second major alteration in the Mariners style of play under Walmsley. They are now attacking much quicker and more directly, an immediate consequence of their new approach to pressing. By winning the ball higher up the pitch, they can attack the goal from a more advanced position, with less distance to cover and less defenders to overcome en route to goal.
The goal against the Wanderers was an excellent example of this. When Rose intercepted the ball from Castelen, he quickly played into a teammate and sprinted forward, receiving a return pass in behind. Winning the ball in that position meant his side could transfer the ball forward quickly, especially as the opposition need to transition from a position of attack to a position of defence.
This also contributed to Isaka Cernak’s goal against the Victory, with Montgomery robbing Valeri of the ball in midfield and then quickly launching a counter-attack via Cernak, who played in Hutchinson whose cross was eventually headed in.
Cernak is a player who has especially benefitted from the change in manager – his energy, work rate and directness makes him ideal for the new system.
The Mariners positive approach under Walmsley has had mixed results. There have been clear issues not only with being overloaded in midfield, but in maintaining the intensity for ninety minutes. As the intensity of the pressing has decreased during games, the more the Mariners have allowed opposition teams into the game. Pressing as high up and as energetically as they have been in the past six games can be very demanding, something Walmsley has identified.
“You really need to build on that through a pre-season if you’re going to do it properly,” he said. “The second half [v Adelaide United] highlighted the gap that we need to work on to be able to do that and sustain it for longer periods.”
Looking ahead to next season, Walmsley has set himself a clear yardstick upon which he can be judged. Having repeatedly stated the importance of having an attack-minded style of play, it will be expected that his Mariners side build upon the foundation of what has been established in the tail end of this season. “We’re in the entertainment business,” he says “and we have to really have a go and as the smallest club in the league we have to play with an expansive, risky, adventurous playing style.”