As always, the Mariners are having to cope with losing key players despite success. Last year’s Championship triumph wasn’t enough to stop five starters from the Grand Final – Matt Ryan, Bernie Ibini-Isei, Pedj Bojic, Patrick Zwaanswijk and Oliver Bozanic – leaving for pastures new.
Ryan’s replacement is Liam Reddy. While the disgraced Sydney FC goalkeeper’s chance at redemption is interesting enough, it remains to be seen whether he can replace Ryan’s quality directly, not only in shot stopping but also the quick, accurate distribution that was an underrated feature of Ryan’s game – pinpoint diagonals that helped launch quick counter-attacks.
In defence, meanwhile, the Mariners have effectively copied the Zwaanswijk blueprint – Marcel Seip is Dutch, experienced and will play left stopper, allowing Trent Sainsbury to step into midfield and hit probing, long diagonals towards the flanks.
Bojic, meanwhile, is a powerful, athletic defender whose overlapping down the right will be sorely missed. Arnold relies heavily on attacking full-backs, and it’ll be intriguing to see if Storm Roux can replicate Bojic’s forward surges.
Bozanic, meanwhile, has been replaced internally, with Anthony Caceres set to take on a more prominent first-team role. Capable of playing any of the three ‘divisions’ in midfield, Caceres is an exciting young playmaker of whom there is great excitement about on the Coast – Arnold even touted him as the next Tom Rogic, although Caceres should play deeper than the Celtic playmaker.
Rogic, meanwhile, was not directly replaced when he left midway through last season – instead, Daniel McBreen shifted into a deeper role. It’s likely the prolific 35 year old will move back further forward (competing with the returning Matt Simon), allowing new signing Marcos Flores to play his preferred no.10 role. Used as part of a dual no.10/false 9 setup by Ange Postecoglou, the ‘classic’ playmaker role he’ll play at the Mariners better suits his deft touch and vision. Provided he regains form, Flores’s individual quality, and ability to glide past defenders, should help the Mariners break down the deeper defences they’ll inevitably face this season.
However, there are questions about the right flank. Ibini-Isei became a fixture there towards the end of the season, and while his move to China was pre-empted by the signing of Nick Fitzgerald, the former Brisbane Roar forward remains an unconvincing option. He has a similar directness and pace, but it feels like he lacks the understanding and maturity of the system that Ibini really grasped towards the end of his time in Australia.
An interesting pre-season development has been the redeployment of Mitchell Duke on that right flank. Duke is an exciting, up-and-coming striker whose reputation is fixated somewhat unfairly on his pace – it’s an asset, but his intelligent movement and bursts into the channels illustrate his all-round game. In some ways, it would be a shame if he was asked to play the demanding, disciplined wide role Arnold requires, but it’s worth remembering that Ibini too started out as a striker – and is now undoubtedly a better player for his redeployment.