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Tactical Triangles - analysis exploring on-field strategy in the A-League. Each piece includes three points, just like the passing triangles that are key to beautiful football

The 2013-14 season has been a tough one for Central Coast Mariners. The Gosford-based club have lost their championship-winning coach and seven of the players who started last season's grand final. But in the past week, Central Coast have shown they remain a formidable force.

The Mariners headed into last week's grand final rematch with Western Sydney Wanderers without a win against the three other members of the then-top four (Brisbane Roar, Melbourne Victory and the Wanderers). Central Coast broke that duck with a 2-1 victory over Western Sydney and followed it up with a 1-0 triumph against Beijing Guoan in the AFC Champions League (ACL) on Tuesday. The win over the Wanderers secured a berth in the A-League finals. At the right time of the season, Australia's reigning champions are finding their feet.

In the lead-up to the finals, Tactical Triangles will take a look at each club that secures a top-six spot to analyse their title chances. The tactical trends, key players and weak links will be put under the microscope ahead of the most important weeks of the domestic calendar. Central Coast will be the second team to be reviewed.

What is going right?

Throughout Graham Arnold's stint in charge in Gosford, Central Coast relied heavily on attacking full-backs and that has continued under Moss (see the Mariners' line-up versus Western Sydney below). The past two victories have seen both Josh Rose and Storm Roux in some of their best form, providing significant thrust down the flanks. Rose scored the opening goal against football formationsWestern Sydney, while Roux teed up Ibini's late winner. In the ACL, Rose was again flying down the left, taking advantage of lax marking from Beijing's right-winger Shao Jiayi.

After a tough run of five defeats from as many games in all competitions in February, Central Coast have won six of their past eight games, including their last three. Crucially, the Mariners appear to have found a goal-scorer in Bernie Ibini. The 21-year-old forward has hit the back of the net five times since rejoining Central Coast on loan from Shanghai East Asia in January. Ibini has quickly become the Mariners' leading scorer this season, and his pace and directness give Phil Moss' side some much-needed cutting edge.

The question for Moss is whether Ibini should be playing more. While the Mariners coach has had a lot of joy using his Nigerian-born striker as a substitute in the A-League - Ibini's past two goals have both been winners after starting on the bench - Moss may need to start the lanky forward if Central Coast are to succeed in the finals.

More goals needed to cover defensive deficiencies

Last season, Central Coast won the championship in part by conceding less than a goal per game (0.76). With Patrick Zwaanswijk having retired and moved into a coaching role and Trent Sainsbury and Mat Ryan now in Europe, the Mariners' defensive structure is not as strong this term and that statistic has almost doubled to 1.32 goals conceded per match. Meanwhile, Central Coast's goal-scoring rate has dropped from 1.76 per game to 1.2.

The issue becomes even more complex when you look at who has scored the Mariners' goals this season. Of their 30 goals in the A-League, eight have been scored by players no longer at the club or by Marcos Flores (three), who will not play again this season due to a long-term knee injury and will not be granted a contract extension.

The solution may be as simple as getting Central Coast to shoot more. Moss' side have taken 218 shots this season (ninth in A-League) but their conversion is 13.8 per cent (fifth in A-League) and their accuracy is 48.6 percent (second in A-League). The Mariners are not wasting chances so much; they are simply not taking them.

Ibini and Duke should start

Moss has been forced to rotate his squad throughout the past two months as the ACL has begun. It makes it slightly difficult to work out his preferred forward quartet ina 4-2-3-1 formation. But looking at the statistics, two players, seen regularly on the bench, should be starting come finals time, if Central Coast are to give themselves the best chance of lifting the toilet seat again.
 

 

Minutes

Goals

Shots (on target)

Mins/Goal

Shots/Goal

Bernie Ibini

556

5

13 (7)

111.2

2.6

Mile Sterjovski

1188

3

15 (6)

396

5

Nick Fitzgerald

1453

3

48 (13)

484.3

16

Kim Seung-Yong

449

2

6 (3)

224.5

3

Mitchell Duke

919

2

28 (9)

459.5

14

Matt Simon

1094

2

20 (12)

547

10


Ibini, as the club's leading scorer, is a no-brainer. Not only has he scored more than his team-mates but he is also one of the more efficient in the forward third with one goal every 2.6 shots. If anything, Ibini could be even more lethal. He is sometimes on the back foot when opportunities arise in the penalty area, as shown in the first half against Beijing, when he failed to get on the end of Rose's cut-back and the ball bounced off a defender and onto the post. football formations

The selection of Ibini, who generally plays out wide, would probably see either Mile Sterjovski or Nick Fitzgerald drop to the bench. It could be that Sterjovski would miss out, as Fitzgerald's energy and tactical discipline is vital.

Up front, Mitchell Duke probably deserves to start ahead of Matt Simon (see the suggested line-up for the Mariners to the right). In the past couple of months, Simon has seemingly been Moss' preferred lead striker, with the 28-year-old starting three of Central Coast's four ACL matches, plus critical A-League games against Western Sydney, Adelaide United, Victory and Roar. While Duke is actually more inefficient in terms of shots per goal, Central Coast arguably need the 23-year-old's attacking mentality and willingness to test the goalkeeper (as stated earlier). It seems that Simon focuses more on holding the ball up for his team-mates rather than scoring. Despite that Duke and Simon have created the same number of chances (15 each) this campaign.

The one concern for Moss will be that the introduction of Ibini and Duke could see his team weakened further in defence. Since Ibini returned to Central Coast, the Mariners have let in a goal every 43.4 minutes with both players on the pitch. When at least one of them has not been playing, the Mariners have conceded a goal every 66.3 minutes. But Central Coast also score more regularly (one goal every 49.5 minutes, compared to one every 66.3) when the young attacking duo are involved.

With an average of 2.23 goals scored per game in the A-League this season, however, the Mariners would give themselves a huge shot at consecutive league championships if they could score twice every match.

Looking ahead

In the history of the A-League, no club has won the championship when they finished lower than second in the regular season. That makes the race for second spot over the final two rounds incredibly important. Central Coast are in the box seat after last week and with a trip to bottom-club Perth Glory to come on Saturday night, the Mariners will be tough to catch.

The Mariners have 39 points, one ahead of third-placed Western Sydney, while Adelaide and Victory (both 37 points) are also still in the hunt. The likelihood is that second spot will not be decided in the final round when Central Coast must travel to Brisbane and take on the recently-crowned premiers. A win at Suncorp Stadium would not only be expected to secure the Mariners a week off to begin the finals but also make a big statement about their title credentials. Up against arguably the best attack in the league, Moss' men will need goals in the final round.

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