Ange vs Arnie: top two tactical break-down

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In his third attempt, Graham Arnold and his Central Coast Mariners have finally succeeded in doing what they have been seeking to do all season, shake up the Brisbane Roar.

In the highest quality tactical battle the Hyundai A-League has ever seen, former Socceroos coach Arnold has gotten himself on the board against Ange Postecoglou with Wednesday night’s three all draw.

Arnie has obviously been studying hard and undoubtedly been losing copious amounts of sleep in the battle to shut down this Brisbane machine, studying their previous encounters and also Roar’s matches against other sides to come up with a game plan that works.

Basically there have been two sides which have troubled Brisbane this season; Newcastle Jets (the only side Brisbane have not yet beaten) and on occasion, North Queensland Fury. I am discounting Melbourne Victory as although they did dominate their latest encounter Brisbane were experimenting with their tactics and trying out a counter-attacking style, hence making that match irrelevant to this article.

Both Jets and Fury had similar plans; be very aggressive in defence, rushing to the ball and getting in Brisbane’s faces to stop them from making easy passes by limiting space and time. Then, once winning possession, countering to try and snatch a goal. This is all well and good in theory and works for a while, frustrating the Brisbane attack but there is an obvious problem. Players cannot sustain sprinting back and forth from first defender and cover positions over and over again for 90 minutes. The pressure takes its toll, tiring defences and allowing Brisbane to dominate the final third of the match.

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This is evident in the three 1-1 draws against the two aforementioned sides, with Brisbane falling behind under pressure only to dominate the final fifteen minutes against a worn out defence and equalise late (77th, 80th and 85th minutes respectively). Another disadvantage in this tactic is that pressure defence inevitably means a high line of defence, which can easily be taken advantage of when the midfield gets tired.

So although effective while it lasts, and occasionally teams have scraped some draws from it, the dangers of having nothing in the tank against a full-firing Brisbane Roar in the last fifteen minutes makes this tactic too risky. I also stress that regardless of how fit a team is, playing this way they will not last the distance.

Another strategy which has been used was to fight fire with fire, with both Melbourne Heart and Adelaide United at least once attempting to use good passing football to ‘out-Brisbane’ Brisbane. The two resulting score lines in Brisbane’s favor of 4-0 shows just how ineffective this was (especially in the latter game where Brisbane scored three of their goals with a man down).

This can be put down to Brisbane being technically superior and more practiced in this type of football. To return to the metaphor, a bigger fire will eventually engulf the smaller one. On a higher scale, Arsenal’s capitulation to Barcelona in the 2010 UEFA Champions League quarter final is a perfect example of two ‘footballing-teams’ facing each other with the superior coming out on top.

Coming back to the Mariners, Arnold has shown a willingness to try new tactics and experiment to try and work out what is best against the Orenje’, although most of their variations have the same basic concept with refinements. The beginnings of which could be seen in the first match between the two;

The tactics used by the Mariners in their 2-0 loss were quite simple and effective to an extent; sit deep, block the path to goal and very rarely go forward. Defensively the Mariners did fine, with only two moments of magic giving Brisbane full points. Unfortunately the Mariners could have played for seven days and still wouldn’t have scored, with their two measly shots on target telling the story when compared to Brisbane’s 21 on goal.

The second match was reasonably similar to the first, but two early goals to Brisbane put the Mariners on the back-foot straight away. Arnold attempted to get his side to get all bodies behind the ball, creating two and a half lines of zonal defending for Brisbane to get through. This tactic should have proved very effective, unfortunately for all involved, the players had no idea what they were doing.

Arnold’s tactics were based on and very similar to Inter’s picking-apart of Barcelona in the Champions League semi finals, an attempted absolute display of defence with the hope of a break and goal. The key difference between Inter and Central Coast (minus the obvious) is the fact that the Mariners were not learned in this art. Inter were playing in this way every match, while the Mariners had tried to revert to this style just for this match, when in reality for this to work every player needs to know both the system and his team-mates inside out and back-to-front. Otherwise a single error during the match turns into a goal, and, as it turned out five errors turned into five goals. Game over.

This sitting deep, counter-attacking style could very well work, but they would have to have started it from day one of the season to get it oiled and ready enough for the finals. As it stands, it is too late for that and it has been shown that a couple of weeks preparation is not enough.

It was the third match where Arnold showed that he is getting close.

Getting rid of his counter-attack theory Arnold took the best of other tactics to get on top of the Roar. Establishing a high tempo, very ‘in your face’ defence he shook Brisbane, not allowing any rhythm to be established by the ladder leaders. Very similar to the Jets and Fury, but with one major difference. When the Mariners won the ball they didn’t suddenly go on the attack, which would risk losing the ball and mean defending again. Instead they held onto the ball, playing it back and taking a leaf from Heart’s book to keep possession against Brisbane yet still use their own counter attacking philosophy – only going forward via Patricio Perez (the link-man) on his call.

In doing this they conserved their energy, not having to constantly transition nor chase shadows in defence, in fact making Brisbane do all the tiring running. This was never more evident than 15 minutes into the second half where the Mariners held 81% possession for the half. This opened gaps in the Brisbane defence for the first time all season, and had a doubling effect when Brisbane momentarily had the ball; with the Roar fatigued their passing and decision making went out the window.

The aim was that keeping possession would keep Roar fatigued and would nullify Brisbane’s late game supremacy although it didn’t completely succeed. This was due in-part to some impatience shown by certain Mariners players kicking hopeless balls to nobody, and also to Postecoglou showing initiative by changing his own team and players around. Arnold himself was clearly frustrated by the lack of composure shown by his players late in the second half, being very vocal and animated on the sideline whenever his team lost possession.

If anyone is going to stop Brisbane this year it will be Central Coast, and although some tweaking is still needed the game plan is there and a Brisbane weakness has been found. The main problem now for Arnold is that he may have revealed his hand too soon, showing what he has in mind too early giving Postecoglou ample time to come up with a tactical rebuttal of his own .

What it does leave though, is a continuation of the battle between the A-League’s most modern coach vs the A-League’s most intense, and it is a battle the whole league cannot wait to see unfold. Both Roar and Mariner fans can be quietly confident in their team’s chances while the neutrals will be rubbing their hands together to see the next move in this football version of chess.

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Christian Layland
The Media Manager at Western Sydney Wanderers for four seasons and the Melbourne Victory W-League team for two, Christian is co-founder and Chief of Staff of The Football Sack and currently coaches at Wanderers Academy.