Saturday, March 04, 2006

Grand Final Tactical Preview, Sydney FC v Central Coast Mariners

While much has been made in the build up to tomorrow’s grand final about fairytales and bling, ultimately we have two accomplished football sides, and how they each handle the pressure of the big occasion and the tactical battle on the bench will go a long way to deciding the outcome.

Whereas Central Coast have had the steady as she goes approach, playing at a consistent level throughout the year despite a number of long term injuries, Sydney have been the enigma, having a couple of down periods, only to turn it on when it has counted most .

Indeed, the coaching duo of Pierre Littbarski and Ian Crook, with pressure mounting after a poor run post-Japan have pulled the right moves at the right time.

Finals football, in any code, is often about building momentum at the right time, and Sydney has done it perfectly. All the talk about whether Littbarski would have his contract renewed has been replaced by speculation about whether he will stay or go elsewhere.

A month is a long time in football and the tables have clearly turned for the German legend. Five weeks ago the knives were out, now they are being sharpened to cut the celebratory premiership cake.

And if Sydney does win, one of the key reasons will be a tactical switch after the round 19 loss away to Queensland. Up until then Sydney had been accused of lacking shape, particularly on the left hand side of midfield, with Steve Corica not providing enough width with his natural inclination to come central.

While David Carney was providing the width and penetration down the right, there was little coming the other side, unless Alvin Ceccoli over-lapped. Indeed, with Dwight Yorke and either Matthew Bingley or Terry McFlynn in midfield, there were not enough midfielders driving to get beyond the strikers and test opposition defences. Only Carney.

The 4-4-2 wasn’t working, and the subsequent shift to a 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1, whichever you prefer, has been a masterstroke. In came the nimble and skilful kid Ruben Zadkovich on the left, with his step-overs and willingness to drive forward, Corica shifted across in behind sole striker Sasho Petrovski.

The reasoning seemed clear – more width on the left and an extra number driving centrally from midfield – and it instantly created a more cohesive unit, with Petrovski dropping off to bring his midfielders into the game.

With Carney and Zadkovich now wide, this has stretched out opposition defences, also allowing more room for Petrovski, Yorke and Corica to weave their stuff. This could again be crucial tomorrow as the Mariners like to play with a narrow back four, keeping things compact.

Also, with Corica now closer to Yorke in midfield, the attention the Trinadad and Tobago star was receiving in midfield is being shared around, another positive for Sydney. No coincidence that Yorke has been more influential in the past month.

Three wins and a draw later and there is little doubt that this is the formation Sydney will be taking into the decider. Why change a winning formula?

While there has been speculation about Bingley possibly dropping to right fullback for the suspended Mark Milligan, it would be a bigger surprise if Littbarski changed a crucial area of the pitch, central midfield, that has been working well over the past month. As such, expect to see Bingley in the vital holding role, with the experienced Packer in at right back.

This leaves one spot to be sorted in central defence, with Jacob Timpano likely to return after a missing the return Adelaide bout with an injury.

The Mariners have had less headaches to ponder this year in terms of team shape, with Lawrie McKinna and his brains trust of Ian Ferguson and Alex Tobin settling on a 4-4-2 formation early in the season after experimenting with a back three in a couple of pre-season games.

But even in this formation the Mariners often rely on one of their front-men, lately Tommy Pondeljak and Stewart Petrie, to drop off and create and extra number in midfield.

When they do this, the formation is very similar to Sydney, so there is little separating the two sides in terms of team balance. What will be interesting to see tomorrow is who does the dropping off and who plays right at the top of the formation.

Up until last week it was Petrie providing the physical presence as the last man in attack, with Pondeljak dropping into midfield to pick up the ball, but last week McKinna turned this around, with Pondeljak pushed up so that his extra speed could test the big Adelaide defence. It worked, with his mobility at times pulling the Adelaide defence around.

It will be fascinating to see if McKinna sticks with his formula against the big Sydney defence or if Petrie is restored at the sharp end of the attack. The reason Pondeljak may drop back a touch is about numbers, notably Sydney’s three man central midfield of Bingley, Yorke and Corica.

McKinna will be worried that Noel Spencer and Andre Gumprecht will have too much to deal with, thus instructing Pondeljak to play in a similar role to Corica, driving from deep.

While every part of the pitch is fascinating, the central midfield will be particularly so, and whoever gets control of it will dictate the flow of the match. What will the Mariners do with Corica when he drops back into midfield? Will Noel Spencer pick him up or will he already have his hands full with Yorke?

Will Michael Beauchamp be pulled into midfield by Corica, leaving Andrew Clark on his own to deal with Petrovski, a scenario similar to what unfolded a fortnight ago in Gosford, when Vaughan Coveny was left one on one with Clark a number of times by Ante Milicic dropping off and dragging Beauchamp with him. The Mariners central defensive duo will need to keep their shape better than they did in the first half that night.

Can Pondeljak do the same at the other end, creating a tandem attacking force alongside Gumprecht, trying to find space between Sydney’s defence and midfield, and driving to get beyond the Sydney defenders?

While the Mariners do play the direct counter-attack well, they are also more than capable of building play up with a sustained and technical passing game, as we saw in their build-up that led to Dean Heffernan’s equaliser against Newcastle a fortnight ago. It was a series of over ten passes down their left which created the space for Damien Brown on the right to get his cross in.

McKinna does like to target one side of an opposition’s defence, pulling a number of men across and dragging the opposition with them, hoping they can exploit the space in the middle by having midfielders and Heffernan come from deep when the ball is eventually switched in that direction.

It worked a treat in the minor semi final first leg against Newcastle, with both Allan Picken and Ned Zelic being pulled out of the middle by Petrie, Pondeljak, Gumprecht and O’Sullivan, allowing Spencer and Matt Osman to ghost into the box for the winner.

The Mariners also like to shift around the left and right midfielders, so don’t be surprised to see O’Sullivan on the left at some stage, an area of the park which could well decide the title.

Sydney will be looking for Carney to pin Heffernan back, while the Mariners will be looking to keep Carney busy defensively by targeting traffic his and Packer’s way. Gumprecht is crucial to creating this defensive pressure, often creating the extra number out wide by making one of his famous diagonal runs, both left and right.

Sydney will try and deal with this by having Bingley track Gumprecht, but this may create space in the middle for the likes of Pondeljak.

Whatever transpires, it will be as fascinating a battle in the dugout as it is on the pitch, all aimed at shifting the balance slightly in their teams favour.

Likely line-ups. Sydney FC (4-4-1-1); Clint Bolton; Andrew Packer, Mark Rudan, Jacob Timpano, Alvin Ceccoli; David Carney, Matthew Bingley, Dwight Yorke, Rubne Zadkovich; Steve Corica; Sasho Petrovski.
Central Coast Mariners (4-4-1-1); Danny Vukovic; Alex Wilkinson, Michael Beauchamp, Andrew Clark, Dean Heffernan; Wayne O'Sullivan, Andre Gumprecht, Noel Spencer, Damien Brown; Tom Pondeljak; Stewart Petrie.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great read, It sounds like a game of chess, which I guess it is.

If if comes down to tactics, Lawrie Mckinna has been the more proven coach this season, but we shouldnt underestimate a three time world cup finalist.

Only a few hours now, cant wait. Heart says Mariners but head says Sydney.


Sun. Mar. 05, 01:49:00 pm AEDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Nick Politis to become a shareholder of Sydney FC on condition that expensive overheads ie Litbarski and Yorke are eliminated.

Yours in sport,


Mon. Mar. 06, 03:55:00 pm AEDT  

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