EXCLUSIVE: Sunday's game at Bluetongue Stadium saw the competition’s two most consistent sides from the last three years meet. Brisbane have enjoyed a lot of success at the venue in the past, not recording a loss until Central Coast twice won the points last season.
The opening twenty five minutes of the clash mirrored in many ways Brisbane’s match against Melbourne Heart at Suncorp Stadium the previous Sunday. Brisbane still enjoyed more than half of possession, yet Central Coast ensured that they were unable to move the ball into their attacking half with ease. When possession was turned over, the Central Coast front four were often quick to hassle the Brisbane defenders to ensure that they were unable to pass forward into midfield. Behind them, the back six quickly formed an impenetrable block that quickly shut down space around the Roar midfielders. The Mariners’ hassling and pressure meant that Brisbane were unable to hold onto the ball for long periods without turning it over.
Brisbane are at their best when either countering at lightning speed or when they can patiently build attacks for long periods of time. The longer they are able to hold the ball the greater chance that the full-backs can move forward to stretch the play, but also allow the wide forwards, particularly Thomas Broich, to move centrally and find the ball in between the lines. On the other hand, the Mariners’ are probably best known for their defensive structures and shape, and it was this clash that made the match so enthralling. The opening twenty-five minutes were difficult for Brisbane as they were unable to make the forward pass into the midfield - Matt McKay and Ivan Franjic were forced into deep areas to collect the ball where they could do little other than recycle it.
With Daniel McBreen replacing Michael McGlinchey in the Mariners line-up, Mitchell Duke moved to the right and Nick Fitzgerald shifted to the left of the front three. The Mariners’ attacks in the next 25 minutes reflected this change as they sought to use Duke’s pace and power as well as Josh Rose’s ability to overlap on the left. Marcos Flores found Josh Rose in space on the left in the 8th minute, however the cross failed to find Fitzgerald, and Flores was unable to capitalise on the resulting loose ball. On the right, it was an excellent interchange of passes between Duke and Marcel Seip that isolated Corey Brown before Seip’s cross hit James Donachie’s arm only for Ben Williams to wave away the penalty shouts.
Like Melbourne Heart the week before, the Mariners' early attacks were directed behind the high Brisbane defensive line, the difference being that Heart had looked to find Iain Ramsay and Michael Mifsud in more central positions.
Key battles emerge
With Central Coast became unable to continue their high-energy pressure game, and possession increasingly ceded to Brisbane, a number of key battles emerged.
I noted after the Mariners' clash against Adelaide how the home side looked to use Duke to exploit the space behind Adelaide’s left fullback and, although in different circumstances, the same occurred here. Against Adelaide, Duke looked to make runs from the central striker position into the channel between Zullo and the central defender. Against Brisbane he often held a position high up the field looking to receive balls behind Brisbane’s left fullback, Brown.
Brown found himself in the Mariners’ penalty box in the 73rd minute only for Dimitri Petratos to send his shot from Brown’s cross straight at Liam Reddy while Duke was a constant threat down the right, with Brisbane captain Matt Smith forced to hack him down in the 59th minute after he found himself more than 10m free of Brown. Their importance in their respective side’s attacks is evident in that they were the among the top three most fouled players in the match and were responsible for attempting the most take-on attempts.
Brisbane rewarded for patience
Although Mike Mulvey has brought a sense of pragmatism to Brisbane’s game (for instance, they are more likely to send goal kicks long to the wings than they were under Ange Postecoglou), they still possess an unwavering commitment to possession-based football as a means to breaking down the opposition. Brisbane knew that Central Coast would be unable to maintain their pressure for ninety minutes and as the second half wore-on their midfielders were increasingly able to find space between the lines. There was definitely a sense that too often they opted for a square pass when a forward pass into central areas could have been played, however it must viewed in the context that the Mariners excel in denying this space.
In the end though, Brisbane’s ability to get their fullbacks up the pitch, McKay and Franjic further forward, and Broich into central areas became too much.
Henrique had a fantastic chance in the 77th minute after Broich and McKay combined in tight spaces. Then substitute Kwame Yeboah found room between the lines before his first touch took him into the space left between the Mariners' central defenders to fire an incredible shot past Man of the Match Reddy.
The goal summed up Brisbane’s strengths perfectly. The move began in defence before they completed thirteen passes, including moving the ball from the left to the right of the field and it involved a fullback being high up the pitch to stretch the play and create space for Yeboah to receive the ball and take his shot.