A couple of weeks ago I said I was putting my head on the chopping block by suggesting the Mariners could make the finals after getting one point from two games. After last night, my neck feels decidedly safer.
For Mariners fans, that was the best night since winning the Grand Final in 2013.
The fact that it came on the back of an epic performance made it sweet. The fact that it came against the former Mariners mentor made it even sweeter.
The Mariners team that played under Graham Arnold (during the Ange Postecoglou / Brisbane Roar era) set incredible standards on the pitch – and those standards were quickly transplanted down the old F3 to Sydney FC. Some of the players and coaching staff also.
Arnie’s teams can tinker with the shape but they always play the same way – compact lines in defence, which move beautifully around the field without the ball, then explode with the ball, mesmerising retreating defences with incredible movement – especially from the wingbacks.
None of that happened on Friday night. Sydney turned up a little complacent, but were hampered by two features of the Mariners game. From the kick off (which had to be taken twice because of the Mariners’ over-eagerness to get at them) Central Coast swarmed all over the Sydney defence and midfield – never letting them settle and find their deadly rhythm.
For example, it must have been 20 minutes in before I noticed Brandon O’Neill on the ball – a key part of the Sydney metronome. And the normally reliable Wilko was under so much pressure he was shanking balls out or hitting them straight back to the Mariners on halfway.
The other feature was more subtle, but devastatingly effective. One of my constant complaints when watching A-League matches is the over-reliance on ball security at the back. Teams will invariably knock four or five passes about to get themselves settled before venturing forward.
Thing is, those four or five passes let the other team get settled, so when they do look for a forward pass it will have pressure on it.
Last night, the Mariners started looking for the sneaky reverse passes before Sydney had settled into their defensive shape and suddenly they’d have a man in space running at a disorganised defence, with fast options wide (Hoole or Pain) or creative options inside (Hiariej, Asdrubal, Brama or De Silva). The constant one touch passing also kept Sydney off-balance.
This is the way to beat Sydney – especially when their forward press is a tad lazy as it was last night. Both Golec and Baro were masterful at the sneaky reverse pass and it constantly threw Sydney into panic stations. This of course plays havoc with their heads and makes them even more cautious with the ball.
It was a masterclass by Okon who has clearly been building towards something special. Last year he made solid progress with the team he inherited, this year he’s started to build his own team, and put a totally new stamp on the A-League.
Brama and Hiariej are two very classy players and the fast, young Aussies around them are thriving on their work and intelligence.
On top of that, you can sense the strong team spirit that Okon has developed – bringing back the strong link with the surrounding community that was built in the Lawrie McKinna era. The crowds are very likely to start growing again at Central Coast Stadium this year.
Despite being thrashed by Newcastle in the first game, they could have won that match, and they could have won all the others.
Beating the current Champions will do wonders for their confidence, while emphasising to the team that what they're doing is working. If the other teams don’t work out how to cope quickly, the Mariners might not just make the finals but give them a genuine shake.
In any case, Central Coast fans once again have a team that they can be proud of.
Adrian’s latest book The Fighting Man is just about to hit the shops. Adrian also wrote Political Football: Lawrie McKinna’s Dangerous Truth and Mr Cleansheets. All books are available in good bookstores or through Booktopia.