Melbourne City turned in another five-star performance with a comprehensive win in what was their first ever away victory against the Central Coast.
Tony Wamlsley picked what was, by his standards, a conservative team, with Nick Fitzgerald fielded out wide rather than the central position he’s been preferred in this season. Instead, Anthony Caceres, Liam Rose and Harry Acroft started in midfield.
John Van’t Schip made two changes from last week’s 5-1 romp over Perth Glory, with Patrick Kisnorbo and Stefan Mauk starting in centre-back and on the right wing respectively.
The biggest tactical talking point in this match was Ascroft’s man-marking of Aaron Mooy. Mooy has had a spectacular start to the season – making his national team debut and quickly becoming one of the Socceroos most important players, while blossoming into one of (if not the best) A-League players. Therefore, Walmsley would have been keen to prevent him from influencing the game as much as possible.
Here, Van’t Schip used Mooy at the tip of the midfield triangle, with the dual protection of Jacob Melling and Erik Paartalu behind him essentially allowing the #10 to roam across the pitch. This proved particularly important, because Mooy seemed to realise very early on what Ascroft’s role was, and manipulated it excellently.
The trouble with man-marking is that it is inherently a reactive tactic – the defender is always reacting to the movement and actions of the player he is marking. Mooy constantly moved into wider areas, or darted forward into positions befitting of a striker, in order to drag Ascroft across the pitch and test how far he would follow. At one point, Mooy moved all the way forward alongside striker Bruno Fornaroli, and the Mariners temporarily looked like they were playing a back five with Ascroft deeper than the two nominal centre-backs.
While Ascroft actually did a decent job of preventing Mooy from being effective on the ball, critically, Mooy’s movement created space for others. Melling, for example, often darted forward into little pockets of space where Ascroft theoretically should have been – the trouble was, of course, that he was busy tracking Mooy. There was an excellent example of this early on when Melling was able to receive in time and space near the penalty area, and played Franjic in behind in a dangerous crossing situation.
Another example was for the second goal, which began with Clisby driving the ball forward from left-back. As Novillo brings it inside, Mooy drifts towards the opposite flank, taking Ascroft with him – which allows Paartalu to drift forward unmarked into space in front of the Mariners backline, from where some clever combination play freed up Fornaroli to cooly finish at the far post. Mooy wasn’t even directly involved in the goal, but the absence of Ascroft in front of the back four is telling.
This was similar to how Rashid Mahazi and Finkler combined to create space for the former when Melbourne Victory beat the Mariners 2-1.
Novillo also benefitted from Mooy’s drifting. As Mooy could drag Ascroft away from that holding midfield position, it meant Novillo, as he loves to do, was able to cut inside on the ball into space in front of Central Coast’s backline. The French winger had a couple of good opportunities, and scored City’s third (his second) with a shot from outside the box – again, in precisely the area Ascroft should theoretically have been occupying, had he not followed Mooy upfield earlier in the move.
Mariners press in midfield
Interestingly, the Mariners sat off more when City had possession, often allowing Kisnorbo and Chapman to receive the ball unchallenged from Thomas Sorenson. Instead, they pressed when the ball entered the midfield zone, with Caceres and Rose man-oriented in closing down Paartalu and Melling respectively.
This meant both Chapman and Kisnorbo often had lots of opportunities to drive forward on the ball and carry it into space, although neither did this particularly effectively. In fact, the opening twenty minutes were characterised by some sloppy turnovers by City inside their own back third, with Sorenson almost gifting Roy O’Donovan a goal with an underhit pass in the tenth minute.
Mariners attacking approach
The Mariners had two alternate routes of attack. On the left, Mitch Austin drove forward powerfully and used his athleticism to take defenders on, something Walmlsey waxed lyrical about post-game. Austin’s end product was inconsistent, however, perhaps because of the accepted attacking inefficiency of lofted crosses.
On the right, Storm Roux constantly got forward to combine and support with Fitzgerald, significantly more so than Josh Rose did on the opposite side. This appeared to be the Mariners’ most promising avenue, with Roux able to get free on a number of occasions, playing in a couple of dangerous low crosses. Fitzgerald also benefitted from being able to move infield, and he came close with a fizzing long-ranger at the start of the second half.
Unfortunately, Roux’s advanced positioning caused problems when the ball was turned over. This was most obvious for the opening goal, where Fornaroli and Novillo were able to counter-attack directly into the space on the right-hand side, with the latter scoring with a smart low finish.
Inevitably, Walmlsey’s response to going behind was to become even more attacking. In the second half, however, this simply meant the game was more stretched. Although the Mariners had some decent chances to score, City ran riot on the counter – the attackers simply had more space to work in, with Ascroft finding it particularly difficult to man-mark Mooy in the vast expanse of space between the lines of Central Coast’s midfield and defence.
Fornaroli hit the post, as did Novillo (albeit from a goalkeeper error) – the only question was how much City would win by.
If this analysis makes it sound like Ascroft was most at fault for his side’s defeat, the reality is that the Mariners failings were in the instructions themselves, not the execution. Man-marking, once hugely popular, has all but died as a tactic because of its inherent limitations as a reactive strategy. These have been exacerbated by the increase in intelligent attacking players who are able to recognise what the man-marker is doing, and take advantage of their strict responsibilities by dragging them into uncomfortable areas of the pitch.
That is exactly what Mooy did here almost from the opening minute. As a result, other attackers were able to take advantage of the space vacated by Ascroft. While Ascroft, generally speaking, actually did a decent job of shutting down Mooy when he was on the ball, the Mariners midfielder was unable to do that as well as protect his nominal area in front of the back four.
The specific tactics for this match are reflective of Walmlsey’s overall strategy – there are clear, inherent dangers in his all-out attacking approach, dangers the coach seems to be plainly aware of, buthe is happy to gamble these risks in pursuit of the overall philosophy. Therefore, the result here also feels reflective of the general feeling that while we can admire Walmlsey’s boldness and persistence, it simply doesn’t feel like this will be a sustainable approach in the long-term.
After all, this might have been an entertaining game for the fans, but it certainly wouldn’t have been entertaining for the defenders or Ascroft to continually be exposed in such a comprehensive defeat.