The Breakdown: Moss makes his move

When Graham Arnold left for Japan three weeks into the A-League season, there was little surprise about his successor. Phil Moss had been groomed for the role ever since arriving to assist Arnold at the Central Coast Mariners when the latter took over in 2010.

Their partnership goes back. After initially setting out on a coaching career, Moss became a player in the NSL at Northern Spirit, with Arnold a teammate and later, when Arnold took on a dual role in 1998, his coach.

Remarkably, Moss missed out on playing with his current captain John Hutchinson by just under a year, having decided instead to return to his original path of coaching.

He returned to Manly United, the club where he started as a player, learning his trade in the NSW Premier League before reuniting with Arnold to assist him as the latter took charge of the Olyroos’ qualification campaign for Beijing in 2008.

Now, as Arnold headed for pastures new, Moss was able to put 14 years of coaching to the highest test yet. It’s a refreshing change of pace to see someone rewarded with a chance at a top A-League club after years of hard work in the lower leagues. Even more so to see him succeed in spite of adversity.

After all, this has been a real year of transition for the Mariners. On top of losing five key players from the 2013 Grand Final for the following season, they lost influential playmaker Michael McGlinchey when Arnold moved abroad and, like the Wanderers and Victory, had the dual commitments of both the A-League and Champions League to contend with.

Moss was helped greatly by the fact Arnold left behind a fine legacy, both in terms of player development and playing style. The Mariners’ tight defensive structure has been a cornerstone of their success, as well as the variety in their attacking play: able to counter-attack quickly or build attacks out from the back.

Moss knew his focus was to “keep the ship sailing in the same direction”. The structure was there, and it was a matter of adapting the new personnel to the existing system. The key to their organisation is how every player knows their role, which makes the side incredibly balanced - there was no emphasis on any particular element of the game.

That, then, makes Moss’s recent decision to shift to a very cautious, counter-attacking approach rather surprising. It wasn’t like the Mariners form had suddenly dropped - in fact, they’d had a worse run of form back in February, losing five consecutive games. However, before the 2-0 win against Brisbane they’d only kept one clean sheet in 14 straight games, so Moss might have been reacting to the curve, and been tipped over by the surprise concession of three goals against Perth Glory.

Whatever the reasoning, the solution has been superb. Moss has effectively given the defence a supporting player, changing to a 5-4-1 formation that sees Nick Montgomery (or John Hutchinson) play a hybrid defender-midfielder role, dropping into the back four to become an extra centre-back when the side are defending, moving forward into a holding role when they have the ball.

It’s the opposite of what we usually see, which is a midfielder dropping into the defence when his team has the ball, to allow the full-backs higher up: Montgomery is effectively the reverse-Busquets, or, for a closer-to-home example, the reverse Paartalu.

Against Brisbane, the benefits of providing the centre-backs an extra covering defender were obvious. Eddy Bosnar and Zac Anderson were free to stick tight to Brisbane’s attackers, safe in the knowledge Montgomery was covering in behind - and so for the majority of the game, Brisbane played in front of the Mariners’ defence, dominating possession but lacking penetration.

The pattern continued against another possession-based side in the preliminary final. Adelaide used Cirio as a false nine but like Brisbane lacked the incisiveness and quickness to break down a resolute defence. In three games using the 5-4-1, the Mariners have conceded just once, from an unfortunate bounce of the ball from a Sanfrecce Hiroshima free-kick.

Why, then, is the 5-4-1 so effective? The defensive phase, now dominated by zonal marking rather than man marking in open play, is now less about individual battles. The onus has shifted to breaking the patterns of defence: overloading teams within their zones. Because the Mariners sit deep, they protect the goal: with five players in defence, it’s difficult to overload.

Space is always the key when it comes to attack, and so the task against the Mariners becomes about creating space by pulling the defence out of position with the sort of quick, incisive one-touch passing that was so lacking from Brisbane and Adelaide.

The problem for the opposition is that a low block is like a carrot for players to move forward to try and create something, invariably opening up space in behind for the Mariners to attack. With pace and energy down the sides - Bernie Ibini and Nick Fitzgerald are ideal - they attack quickly and directly, but the overriding quality required is to be clinical.

With such a focus on defensive solidity, and starting from such deep positions - thus making it harder to transition into the opposition half - it’s unsurprising genuine chances in front of goal have been few and far between. It was fortunate their attacking, particularly against Brisbane, has been so devastatingly effective. They will not concede many in this system, but won’t score many either.

Moss will privately acknowledge that. But given how successful the 5-4-1 has been in the league, he won’t change. Saturday’s semi-final will be decided by how the Wanderers will approach being the domineering side, and whether the Mariners can be clinical on the counter-attack.

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Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com