Is the Central Coast Mariners commitment to attack daring or dense?

Tony Walmlsey has been undying in his commitment to attack, but has it worked for the Central Coast Mariners?

The main message out of the Central Coast this season has been Tony Walmsley’s undying commitment to attack.

This is something that’s been consistent since Walmlsey’s initial interim appointment. “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.”

It’s an approach supported by chairman Mike Charlesworth. “I think I am probably the only one out there who is willing to say it publicly, but the reality is that we are in the entertainment industry and for me that overrides results at this stage,” he declared. “We are going to take risks … and we know that in some games we’ll possibly get taken apart. It’s a risk we are prepared to take.”

“It’s about attacking, entertaining, creating chances and we’ve been doing that.”

Anthony Caceres, a midfielder enjoying lots of time in the side, agrees with the new club philosophy. “Fans, at the end of the day, want to see the team win,” he says, “but they also want to see the team play an entertaining brand of football with plenty of goals and opportunities.”

There’s little doubt about the direction the Central Coast Mariners have taken, though Liam Reddy didn’t seem to agree with it.

Aggressive defending

The new attacking approach doesn’t just mean taking lots of shots – though they’ve been doing plenty of that anyway – but it also means defending aggressively.

A key component of this has been their pressing, lead by striker Roy O’Donovan. He closes down the opposition centre-back in possession aggressively, which is then a cue for the wide players (typically a pairing of Mitch Austin, Fabio Ferriera, Nick Fitzgerald or Jake Adelson) to step forward and apply pressure to their direct opponents, the opposition full-backs.

If the ball is transferred across to the other side, the nearest central midfielder will sprint forward to pressurise the other centre-back, with the holding midfielder stepping forward to mark the opposition central midfielder left unmarked.

How the Mariners attackers apply pressure
The Mariners pressing structure, with the central midfielders in a 4-3-3 stepping forward to apply pressure on opposition centre-backs

Even if the Mariners play a 4-4-2 formation (which they did against Newcastle), the principles are the same – the only change is that O’Donovan is supported by another striker when applying pressure high up the pitch, leaving the Mariners with two in midfield.

The Mariners front four are, generally speaking, quite good at pressing. They work well as a unit to communicate with each other on when to step forward, recognising that when one player moves forward to press, the others must also move forward to ensure the pressure is consistent.

In this regard, one moment was particularly telling against Melbourne Victory. In the eighth minute, O’Donovan applied pressure on goalkeeper Danny Vukovic and pointed to Matthieu Delpierre, communicating to his teammates to step forward and apply pressure. Vukovic was still able to pass to the wide open Delpierre, however, because Caceres hadn’t recognised the cue to step forward and close down. O’Donovan’s frustration was obvious.

That proved particularly important, because when Broxham received possession with the next pass, he was able to play forward into Finkler. However, with the Mariners matching up 3v3 in midfield, Ascroft was able to step forward quickly and prevent the Brazilian from facing forward.

However, the Mariners’ problems defending in the midfield zone were made evident barely seconds later. Finkler, a wonderfully intelligent player with an excellent appreciation of how his movement creates space for others, dropped very deep, bringing Ascroft all the way up the field.

Importantly, Rashid Mahazi recognised what Finkler was doing, and moved a couple of yards forward into the space that had just vacated. Nick Fitzgerald was caught in two minds, and Broxham immediately passed into the open Mahazi, who was able to transition the ball into attack with an immediate forward pass.

This sequence is demonstrated in the video below…

…with another example of Finkler finding space here in this video.

Leaving opposition midfielders free has been a recurring problem for the Mariners this season. Against Newcastle, for example, Caceres and Nick Montgomery (the midfield pairing) pushed up onto Mateo Poljak and Ben Kantarovski, leaving Leonardo, the Jets #10, unmarked in acres of space between the lines of midfield and defence.

Mariners pressing v Jets
The pressing of Montgomery and Caceres on Newcastle’s deep midfielders left Leonardo free in the #10 position

The video below shows one moment when Newcastle were able to get him free and running at the opposition defence.

If an opposition attacker gets free between the lines then typically a centre-back will move out of the backline to apply pressure. This is what Ascroft did ineffectively against Melbourne City – he had too much distance to cover to be able to effectively close down the player on the ball, and by virtue of moving out of his position, he created disorganisation in the defence that the player in possession could take advantage of.

The problem stemmed from the midfield zone having to step higher up the pitch. It was impossible for the defenders to maintain compactness between the lines because, quite simply, they would’ve ended up beyond halfway – which, of course, nullifies the offside rule and gives the opposition an entire half of the field to knock balls in behind. Therefore, the compromise is for one defender to move forward with the others, in theory, remaining compact and organised, though this has been easier said than done.

Becoming compact if a CB steps forward
An illustration of how, if a centre-back steps forward to apply pressure, the other defenders in a back four should become horizontally compact to maintain defensive organisation

Yet against Newcastle, even after Jake McGing was sent off and the Mariners went to a 4-4-1, the midfielders continued to push high up, showing their commitment to attack. Indeed, it almost feels like Walmsley wants his side to leave this gap between the midfield and defensive line, perhaps because he feels the benefits of applying pressure high up outweigh the risks demonstrated by the clips above.

It certainly ties into his overall mantra. “[This] system relies on players being decisive, proactive and taking risks,” he said following the Victory game. “The biggest challenge for me is to keep encouraging them to do that. Each time we play the confidence grows, though we are as yet untested in the A-League playing in this way.”

“The intent is always to play forward and get people moving forward. We think we’ve got a lot of power in the team and if we can make forward passes to quick players going forward, defences will find it hard to contain us for 90 minutes.”

An admirable sentiment, but it remains to be seen if this model of entertainment really can be sustainable in the long-term.

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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