Michael McGlinchey was inevitably central in the build-up to the clash between his old and new club, but also proved literally central to the game's tactical battle.
Wellington Phoenix have undergone something of an understated revolution under Ernie Merrick, who has transitioned them from a combative, physical team into a more proactive, technical side, with a new emphasis on short, neat passing football epitomised by a midfield containing Albert Riera, Roly Bonevacia and Alex Rodriguez, as opposed to players like Manny Muscat and Vince Lia.
Merrick isn't particularly fussed about pure ball retention, however.
“You have to keep the ball, certainly, but you have to get forward with the ball and into goal scoring positions,” Merrick says. “Controlling possession around the opposition penalty area is the important statistic.”
Therefore, McGlinchey is the side's key player - starting from a wide left position, but drifting inside to become a #10, with the freedom to move where he pleases. His movement from outside in is difficult to track for an opposition full-back because he takes up clever positions between the lines.
With the Phoenix using a 4-3-3 this season, it means they often have four players through the midfield zone which, combined with their technical ability, means they have been able to comfortably knit play through to the final third.
That was certainly obvious in Saturday's fixture, where McGlinchey constantly got in behind the Mariners’ holding midfielders to find time and space. Right-back Storm Roux didn't want to follow him all the way inside, and Nick Montgomery was drawn towards Rodriguez ahead of him, meaning McGlinchey was often unmarked in a little pocket of space between the lines.
Crucially, striker Jeremy Brockie made the reverse run whenever McGlinchey moved infield, so starting central, but pulling wide left when attacks entered the final third. With Nathan Burns also moving inside from his wide-right position, Brockie’s running across the line complemented the narrowness of the wingers, and it was a clever pass from Burns to Brockie down the left channel that led to the penalty.
It was very fitting to the narrative that McGlinchey was the one to head home after Brockie cracked the resulting penalty against the bar.
Interestingly, the Mariners had a very similar rotation of positions down their own left-hand side. Matt Sim was rewarded for his extraordinary four-goal haul in the FFA Cup with a start here, and started ostensibly as the wide left player in their usual 4-2-3-1. However, he often moved inside into very narrow positions, with the left flank instead occupied by centre-forward Malick Mane who likes to work the width of the pitch.
While Tom Doyle 'scored' the opening goal, it was this interchange of positions from Mane and Sim that led to the goal, with Sim driving forward from a central position to put the Phoenix left-back under pressure, and Mane having created the space by making a run towards the left, occupying Wellington defenders.
However, in a battle between two sides adopting an attacking tactic somewhat out of left-field, it was McGlinchey who proved the more decisive when his clever back heel allowed Doyle to cross for Nathan Burns' winner.
Result: Mariners 1 - 2 Phoenix
Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com