Central Coast Mariners 1-0 Adelaide United: Gombau tries to counter Mariners’ 5-4-1 with Cirio as false nine

The Mariners emerged victorious in a tight match low on chances.

The starting line-ups
The starting line-ups


Phil Moss rotated his squad from a midweek Champions League match and returned to the same starting eleven from last week’s 1-0 win over Brisbane Roar, thus continuing with the 5-4-1.

Josep Gombau surprisingly dropped Bruce Djite to the bench, bringing Jeronimo Neumann into the side at left-wing and using Cirio central in his 4-3-3. With Jonathon McKain returning from injury, Osama Malik moved across to right-back.

Both sides stuck to their usual approach, but provided tactical interest with unorthodox formations.

Mariners use 5-4-1

The key question in the preview was whether Phil Moss would stick to the 4-2-3-1 the Mariners have used consistently over the past two years, or continue with the 5-4-1 he switched to for last week’s match against Brisbane, which worked well to nullify the Roar’s attacking threat because of how the central defenders always had cover when moving forward to press Brisbane attackers from behind. Nick Montgomery’s role as a holding midfielder/centre back is key, and reminiscent of Mark Milligan’s role in the first few games under Ange Postecoglou.

However, against the Roar the Mariners had a few counter-attacking opportunities – the main story was how efficient in the final third. Therefore, while the defensive performance was hugely encouraging in light of another match against a possession-based side, it remained to be seen whether Moss would be confident enough in his attackers to be clinical enough to convert the few chances they would get on the counter.

Right from the start, though, it was clear the Mariners were playing 5-4-1, with Montgomery dropping straight into the centre of the back line as Adelaide opened the game with a minute of pure, uninterrupted possession. That immediately set the pattern for the game: Adelaide dominating the ball, the Mariners soaking up pressure.

Adelaide dominate possession

Upfront, Mitchell Duke had the same instructions as he did against Brisbane, asked to drop back onto the holding midfielder – Brattan last week, Isaias here – but Adelaide seemed prepared for this, with Cameron Watson (the ‘second function’ midfielder) rotating with Isaias to become the deepest midfield player.

While Watson had a few chances to pass forwards unchallenged, however, the fact Duke was nullifying Isaias off the ball had a big impact on Adelaide’s ability to work the ball forward. Although they comfortably dominated the possession statistics (66%), the majority of it was slow, methodical passing in deep positions.

In fact, Nigel Boogard and McKain recorded simply ridiculous pass completion rates, with the latter clocking over 100 passes for the game.

McKain and Boogard passes v Mariners 2

As the most frequent passing combinations show, though, they lacked penetration.

McKain and Boogard passing combination

Cirio as false nine

Adelaide’s domination of possession was also facilitated by Gombau’s surprising use of Cirio upfront. Although this was experimented with in pre-season, the Spaniard’s predominantly been used as a left-winger, where he skips past challenges by cutting inside to provide a goal threat, supporting the physical Djite.

Here, though, centrally, he changed the dynamic of Adelaide’s attacking by dropping deep into midfield when his side had the ball. It was clear that Jeronimo was supposed to provide the running in behind on the diagonal from the left, and the Argentine was always high up the pitch to receive both cross-field balls.

Gombau surely watched the Brisbane v Mariners match, so this was presumably a ploy designed to break down the inevitably compact defence, but put simply, it didn’t work. Adelaide lacked incisiveness throughout the first half, struggling to work past the Mariners low block. Marcelo Carrusca, for example, was forced into deep, right-of-centre positions to collect possession, where Gombau would’ve wanted him to getting passes higher up, between the lines.

The problem was exaggerated by the fact Cirio didn’t start high up – he was practically just an extra midfielder. If he’d positioned himself close to the centre-backs, then dropped short as the ball was worked forward, he might have dragged away defenders, but because he was moving so deep into the midfield zone, Montgomery was happy to let him play in front of him.

Cirio passes received and completed v Mariners

Adelaide lacked verticality off the ball. Fabio Ferriera stayed very wide and wanted to try and beat Josh Rose 1v1 (which didn’t happen, because Eddy Bosnar was always there behind Rose to cover), while Watson, Carrusca and Isaias all wanted passes to feet, not into space. The only running was coming from Jeronimo, but he was easily nullified by the combination of both Storm Roux and Zac Anderson (again, the centre-back being able to shuffle across to flank because of the cover of a back five).

In fairness, the Mariners one area of weakness against Brisbane was the space between Glen Trifiro and Anthony Caceres, exploited when Brisbane worked the ball quickly through that zone – asking Cirio to occupy a similar space could’ve had a similar effect, but Adelaide’s passing wasn’t quick enough to drag the Mariners midfield out of shape.

Adelaide had a few half-chances when attacking quickly on the break – which makes sense, given there was more space for them to attack into in the Mariners moment of transition from attack to defence.

Mariners attack

Going forward, however, the Mariners struggled to create genuine counter-attacking opportunities. That was partly because Gombau instructed his full-backs to be reasonably cautious – at least, more cautious than Shane Stefanutto and Ivan Franjic were last week – which limited the space for Ibini and Nick Fitzgerald to break into, and partly because, as suggested in the preview:

It’s simply unrealistic to expect forwards to be so clinical in front of goal, and the nature of their second goal (Anthony Caceres’ long range strike) demonstrated how they were more reliant on taking early chances, rather than consistent attacking.

That proved true here – the transitions weren’t as smooth, the wingers couldn’t get the ball on the run, and there were very few no shots on target in the first half, demonstrating the lack of attacking penetration from either side.

Mariners and Adelaide shots 1st half

Interestingly, because the Mariners weren’t counter-attacking as much, when they attacked they actually held the ball for longer periods than they did against Brisbane, which made it obvious that Montgomery was playing a dual role – dropping in to create a back five, pushing forward to be the deepest midfielder in a 4-3-3. Because Adelaide built up play slowly, he wasn’t exposed in that transition between the two positions when the ball was turned over.

Second half

At half-time, Gombau changed things up, putting Cirio back in his usual position and Jeronimo now upfront, where he played high up, pushing off the last man. That, in turn, opened up more space for the midfield, because the Mariners back line dropped slightly deeper to adjust for the new threat in behind. Now, Carrusca had a target for balls over the top – barely a minute in, he attempted to play Jeronimo in behind, something that barely happened in the first half.

It was interesting that Montgomery started to play a little more advanced than he had in the first half, now more a defensive midfielder than centre-back. He took his cue from the positioning of the main striker – when Djite dropped directly between the lines, he moved forward to press him from behind, which is different to how he treated Cirio, presumably because the Spaniard was permanently deep in midfield, so Montgomery’s priority was to defend against the runs in behind.

It helped, too, now that the game became more open, with Ibini played in by Duke early on in the second half for a shot from a right-of-centre position just outside the penalty area. Because Adelaide were now getting more space going forward, the Mariners counter-attacks were becoming more purposeful, because they had more room to break into. Ibini was the one getting the best chances, all from effectively that same right-of-centre position, and he opened the scoring with a powerful drive from a clever Duke layoff.

Mariners and Adelaide shots 2nd half

On a minor point, when John Hutchinson came on a few minutes prior to the goal, the Mariners assistant coach made a hand signal of two fingers close together, then pulling them wide – as if to suggest the two midfielders ahead of Montgomery (now Caceres and Hutchinson) should play narrow in the defensive phase, then push high and wide when the Mariners attacked, which is the exact run Caceres made in the build-up to the goal. It would be fascinating to ask Moss if this was what had been instructed to the players.

Adelaide chase game

Having just sent on Djite at the hour mark – the exact timing of which suggesting it had been planned at the break to give Jeronimo fifteen minutes in the central role – Gombau waited until the 74th minute to make his move, bringing on Awer Mabil for Cameron Watson, as well as, of course, the note.

It signalled a formation change, to something of a 3-1-5 (similar to the formation used in the final round of the regular season against Newcastle when Adelaide were chasing the game at half-time). Mabil took up a position very wide on the left, trying to take players on 1v1, with Zullo now ‘inside’ of him, basically playing a very aggressive midfield role by making runs in behind from the left channel. Isaias was still the deepest midfielder, with Carrusca now deeper and to his right. Cirio played in behind Djite – which made sense, considering Montgomery was being drawn towards Djite whenever the striker moved between the lines, thus opening up a little chasm of space between Anderson and Bosnar that someone running behind Djite could exploit.

Mabil was the clearest source of creativity, whipping in a number of balls from the touchline after getting a yard of space on his marker with little bursts of pace. However, like against Brisbane, with the benefit of a lead the Mariners could defend deeper, the two centre-backs comfortable in the air against Djite with Montgomery between them to cover. They managed to hold out Adelaide’s last-ditch attacks.

End notes

A genuinely fascinating tactical battle, because while the general pattern (possession v counter attacking) was predictable, the formation battle was particularly unusual. Montgomery’s role as dual midfielder/centre-back has been the key to Moss’s 5-4-1, which gives the defence extra protection. Unsurprisingly, they haven’t conceded in the new system. They are reliant on effective counter-attacks, however, and with Adelaide restricting the space to break into – which in turn limited their own attacking threat – they struggled to create genuine attacking opportunities in a poor first half.

The game opening up in the second benefitted both sides, but the main story was Gombau’s constant reshuffling of his front three, trying to find a way around the Mariners’ packed defence. Although the Cirio as false nine experiment backfired, it’s somewhat difficult to suggest what Gombau could have done differently. Even if Djite had started, he would’ve been battling in the air 3v1 against the Mariners centre-backs, and besides, taking a more direct approach runs contrary to everything Gombau’s tried to achieve this year in shifting Adelaide’s approach to the Barcelona style.

The main problem was Cirio dropping too deep: as Djite showed, it was possible to pull Montgomery out of the back line if you moved directly between the lines, rather than into midfield, as Cirio was doing.

The thinking behind Moss’s new formation is to pack the defence, and that makes it extremely difficult for opposition to break down, particularly for possession based sides, who work the ball forward slowly from the back. It’s classic pragmatism: keep the game tight with a defensive approach, and take your chances on the break. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to approach it: it’s simply very difficult to beat.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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