Saturday, August 12, 2006

Pre-season pleasantries? It's more than that

Pre-season cup semi final wrap, Central Coast Mariners vs Newcastle Jets

THIS was supposed to be about trialing formations, building fitness levels and giving new players an opportunity to blend into the team. But try telling that to the players, particularly the Newcastle Jets squad, who slumped to the Bluetongue turf after 120 odd minutes of thrilling and feisty football.

It was as if they’d just bowed out of the semi finals proper. Such was the effort Nick Theodorakopoulos’ men had given, almost 75 minutes of it with a man down, it was impossible not to feel sorry for them.

Seemingly, they are a team on the way up, and had it not been for the 48th minute dismissal of Shane Webb, less than three minutes into his Newcastle debut, this might have been a different result.

Certainly, the first seven minutes of the second half had everything – two penalties and the red card - and shifted the momentum of the match.

Newcastle had shaded the opening period and deserved their lead which came thanks to a delightfully flicked through ball by the effervescent Mark Bridge, which caught the Mariners central defensive duo of Alex Wilkinson and Paul O’Grady square, allowing veteran Kiwi Vaughan Coveny to race through and blast past Danny Vukovic.

The match had started off in a strange way, both managers tinkering from what we’ve seen from them in the past. Indeed, Lawrie McKinna was nowhere to be seen, but a hint as to his whereabouts was provided by his assistant Ian Ferguson, who reverted to his walkie-talkie more and more as the game crept to its cessation.

McKinna mightn’t have been on the sideline, but the team tinkering that was a feature of his work last season was there to see. Andrew Clark, an ever-present in the centre of defence alongside Michael Beauchamp last season, was playing on the right side of the back four. Wilkinson, used mainly on the right last campaign, was in the middle with O’Grady, with new recruit Vuko Tomasevic on the left.

In midfield, Wayne O’Sullivan, back from injury, started in the middle alongside Noel Spencer, with Andre Gumprecht on the right.

The surprises weren’t exclusive to the home side. Theodorakopoulos, noted for his 3-5-2’s in the NSL, instead deployed a 4-4-2, with new recruit Adam D’Apuzzo, stepping up from the NSW premier league, deployed as a left back after featuring as a midfielder for Marconi.

Whether these changes are an indication of what we can expect throughout the campaign proper remains to be seen. For McKinna it could well have been a case of giving O’Grady and Wilkinson an opportunity to build an understanding, crucial in this central defensive area. Or it might be that he is looking to inject some pace in the fullback areas, especially given Dean Heffernan’s departure over the off-season. Clark can certainly scamper, although we didn’t see too much of it on this night.

If the old adage is that you build from the back, than the Jets defensive structure was also intriguing and provided an insight into the way Theodorakopoulos likes to play.

All four, (from right to left) Jade North, Paul Okon, Andrew Durante and D’Apuzzo, are comfortable ball players, a move away from the rugged style of Allan Picken and Mateo Corbo of last season.

Clearly, there was an emphasis on playing the ball from the back, and D’Apuzzo looked comfortable and composed in his role, which might be makeshift given the signing of Kiwi Steven Old.

Whether it was an injury or the manager’s desire to give Webb a hit-out that brought about his half-time replacement of D’Apuzzo, it had an effect. When Adam Kwasnik was played through between Durante and Webb a couple of minutes in, the latter was caught cold, reacting solely and bringing him down.

Kwasnik’s spot kick was well saved by Ben Kennedy. A couple of minutes later the Mariners exposed Newcastle’s left back area again, Kwasnik going down in heavy traffic from a right-sided cross. This time Stewart Petrie stepped up, Kennedy going to his right again and getting a palm to it, but the scores were level.

Shortly after that there was more interesting work from Theodorakopoulos, Labinot Haliti, hitherto an attacking midfielder, coming on for Okon and going to left back, striker Joel Griffiths coming on for holding midfielder Stuart Musalik, forcing Nick Carle into the deep central midfield role, which he played with aplomb. Bridge and Coveny dropped into deeper roles, it was all hands on deck.

While it was a very attacking team, it was essentially set out in 4-4-1, with Griffiths and Coveny taking turns as the lone striker, Newcastle sitting back and trying to catch the Mariners out with early long balls.

What stood out for the remainder of the game was how fit the Newcastle squad is. Central Coast we know are fit, but Newcastle’s resolve was evident. Clearly they have worked hard in the pre-season, none more so it seems than Bridge, who looks a different player to the one we saw this time last year.

Even as the match ticked towards the 120 minute mark and the Jets tried to chase the game after O’Grady’s near post flick header from a Tomasevic free-kick in the first extra time period had given the Mariners the lead, everyone was springing forward, defenders Durante, North and Haliti included.

Carle, intent to prove he is more than just a creator, was up and down, pulling the strings and even providing one late long range bullet which smashed against Vukovic’s crossbar.

Little wonder the Jets slumped to the ground afterwards. Yet to taste victory in the pre-season cup, on this evidence one isn’t far away.

The Mariners meanwhile have continued their magnificent record of contesting every A-League final (next week’s date with Adelaide will be their fourth) and even had the luxury of introducing two debutants at the opposite ends of their careers. Tony Vidmar we know all about, but the reception he received was matched by that given to local kid Matt Simon, who didn’t look out of place in the 20 or so minutes he received.

A couple of months ago he was playing in front of a couple of hundred fans for the Central Coast Lightning in the NSW winter super league, but here he was in front of over 7,500 locals, including a significant personal supporters club in the eastern stand.

If this was a teaser of what we can expect when the season proper kicks off in a fortnight, we can hardly wait.


Anonymous Pinuts Pethia said...

Having coached D'Appuzzo as a youngster, its good to see him progress to the A-League. Although I never imaged he would be playing as a defender.

Maybe Nick T has the same philosophy as Hiddink and believes good players should be able to adapt and play just about anywhere on the pitch.

I am happy for him.

Mon. Aug. 14, 11:04:00 am AEST  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...


Thanks for your comment.

Yes, I was very surprised to see D'Apuzzo on the left side of a back four, but I thought he did pretty well, especially with his defensive duties.

Not entirely sure if it's just some experimentation or if the manager intends to play him their all season.

While he did well defensively, he would need to work hard on his game going forward, especially as Newcastle shaped up with a narrow midfield, with Weelhouse and Thompson tucked in,relying on some penetration from the fullbacks. Maybe the manager wanted to give Shane Webb a hit-out or see if he could provide some forward thrust.

Funnily, when he was sent off and Haliti came on to replace Okon, he did provide that penetration from left back. If you remember back to last year, Haliti was an attacking midfielder, so seeing him at left back was even stranger than seeing D'Apuzzo there.

You're right, a good player can adapt to a change in position, but it takes a good manager to make it a successful move.

Makes for interesting viewing

Mon. Aug. 14, 05:22:00 pm AEST  

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