I have covered Brisbane v Central Coast more than any other fixture with the precious few updates I’ve managed on this site this year, so most of what can be said about the Grand Final tactics is already on here somewhere. Even the two coaches say they ‘already know everything about each other’ by now. But that’s not totally true.
The Major Semi-Final, particularly the second leg, showed that Roar and the Mariners are still tweaking their existing shapes to best suit this opposition. Specifically, the way Brisbane play out of the back has been a particular focus. Given the fact Brisbane will almost certainly dominate possession and field position again, the way the match is played out from the ‘reset’ position (Roar have the ball at the back while the Mariners drop into their half to defend) will go a long way to determining who is crowned champions.
We know that Graham Arnold likes his strikers to split wide in the defensive phase, trying to cover Roar’s fullbacks as well as their centre backs. As the attacking midfielder (usually Perez, but in the Grand Final it will likely be Amini) pushes onto Erik Paartalu at the base of Brisbane’s midfield, the Mariners shift into a flattish 4-3-3 defensively. So, what’s new?
The semi at Suncorp a fortnight ago saw Paartalu dropping deeper than in any match this season. This was partly to escape Perez’s attentions but also to affect the positioning of his back four. With Paartalu sitting central between Susak and Smith, the two centre backs pulled wider and the two fullbacks, Stefanutto and Franjic, pushed on and became pure wingbacks. Roar’s shape approached 3-4-3 more consistently than in other matches. Have a read of zonalmarking.net’s piece on how and why Sergio Busquets dropped into a back three, like Paartalu, for Barcelona earlier this season – here. Consider that the Mariners, like Atletico Madrid in that case, use a two-striker system.
It appears as though Ange Postecoglou is trying to expose the main weakness of that 4-3-3 set up the Mariners have adopted, which should be the fact that the Mariners’ two strikers try to defend against four players. Central Coast are one of the only sides with strikers who work hard enough to do this. It leaves Roar outnumbered further up the pitch and makes playing out of the back particularly hard for Brisbane. If Matt McKay drops out of midfield to pick up the ball and start the play, the Mariners do not track him and that simply leaves one less target up the pitch for Brisbane to hit.
So Postecoglou seems to have tried to solve two problems at once by dropping Paartalu deeper away from his marker and using the extra security of a ‘third’ centre back to push his wingbacks forward beyond the reach of Central Coast’s strikers (see diagram).
Fewer times could Kwasnik or McBreen actually engage Franjic or Stefanutto – the Mariners midfielders had to come out and deal with them.
So why didn’t that work? Firstly, let’s agree that it didn’t quite work – Brisbane did not have the better of the chances in that 2-2 draw at Suncorp.
They dominated possession as the Mariners waited patiently in their half for Roar to force their attacks, but the ball was turned over more easily than usual and the Mariners are a strong threat on the counter.
Next, let’s have a look at the second phase of Brisbane’s attack. Once Paartalu had dropped back into something of a back three with Smith and Susak, the most obvious ‘out’ ball became a simple pass to the wingbacks. In central midfield, Central Coast had a nominal 3v2 advantage. Franjic and Stefanutto, however, were usually free out wide. Roll diagram!
Brisbane’s attack became too predictable. The Mariners’ wide midfielders (Bozanic or McGlinchey) would push onto the fullback who received possession and the rest of the team would adjust as illustrated. The man on the ball suddenly had few options – Brisbane’s free man was the wingback on the other side of the pitch but he was hard to find with a direct pass.
This strategy might still work but Brisbane need to vary their attacks. They would certainly need to direct more attacks through the middle. Members of their front three will need to drop into the midfield to help rectify the numerical shortfall. Paartalu could occasionally push forward again, passing-and-moving through the centre once the defence has been stretched wide. From the first time Brisbane get the ball at the back, my eyes will be drawn to the positioning of Paartalu and the fullbacks/wingbacks to see whether Roar are persisting with this adjustment or reverting to their more traditional 4-3-3 with Paartalu in more of a triangle with the centre backs.
This may seem elaborate – all of 800 words and two diagrams to describe what is really quite a subtle tweaking of shape. Realistically, each team’s best chance to score remains on the counter – quickly hitting areas exposed when the other team pushes forward out of the above shapes. But this fixture more than any other this season has been defined by these ‘set plays’ (not the free kicks/corners kind) and if Brisbane score by breaking down the Mariners from a standing start, Postecoglou can claim even more of an individual influence on his team’s fortunes.
diagrams from this11.com