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Mariner in the middle

by Michael Huguenin on Feb 25, 2012

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On the face of it, Graham Arnold and his Central Coast Mariners should be pretty happy at the moment.

The Gosford-based side lead the A-League with five rounds to go, six points ahead of Brisbane Roar and 10 points ahead of third-placed Perth Glory

Arnold has introduced the A-League to a future star in Tom Rogic, has the most stingy defence in the competition and his team are equal favourites for the A-League championship, alongside Brisbane.

But the past month has been a tough one for Arnold and his men, and their faltering form needs to be corrected quick smart if the Mariners are to win the championship.

Central Coast’s boss admitted this week that the Mariners’ upcoming Asian Champions League campaign will test his squad’s depth and, from what the fringe players have produced over the past month, that’s a scary thought for supporters.

Central Coast has won one, lost two and drawn one of its last four A-League matches. In that time Arnold has had to do without Mat Ryan, Oliver Bozanic and Mustafa Amini who were with the Olyroos. Plus Matt Simon is no longer at the club after signing for Chunnam Dragons in Korea’s K-League.

With those players unavailable, it’s been a chance for Arnold to test some of his other players but unfortunately for the former Socceroos manager, few have impressed.

The main cause of the Mariners’ poor month seems to be their midfield.

Rogic, who has scored two cracking goals and displayed silky skills, has really been the only player to stand out.

Adrian Pellegrino, Troy Hearfield, John Hutchinson have all been used without much success, alongside regulars Michael McGlinchey and Rostyn Griffiths.

The lack of cohesion in the middle of park has poured more pressure on Central Coast’s normally strong back four. This has meant the league-leaders have conceded seven goals in four games, in comparison to only 13 in the other 18 matches.

As I alluded to in my last blog, Arnold suddenly looks like a manager who doesn’t know who his best XI players are. Having Ryan, Bozanic and Amini back could make a difference but with Amini having just started nine games this season and Bozanic 12, it’s not certain they’re the solutions to the Mariners’ midfield problems.

Most Mariners supporters would agree that, when in form, both Amini and Bozanic deserve to start. But both young players have struggled to get going this season. Bernie Ibini-Isei is another Mariners’ youngster who has fallen in a hole. After a brilliant start to the season, the lanky striker went nine games without a goal until he scored against Gold Coast United on Wednesday night. If Central Coast is to succeed, Arnold will have to spark these three into life.

One of the major reasons is that without Amini, Bozanic and Ibini-Isei, the Mariners struggle to create. Hutchinson is a defensive midfielder and doesn’t really suit playing one of the wider positions in Arnold’s preferred diamond midfield. Pellegrino drifts out of games too much, as does Hearfield, which leaves too much responsibility on Rogic and McGlinchey’s shoulders.

Another issue is linking the strikers with the midfield. Adam Kwasnik has been handy for Central Coast since Simon went to Korea, with three goals, but the 28 year old is a classic ‘Fox in the Box’, meaning he can go missing for 89 minutes before scoring the winner.

Against GCU, both Kwasnik and new-signing John Sutton didn’t see enough of the ball and, it wasn’t until Ibini-Isei came on, that a link between midfield and attack was truly formed. It may be that Kwasnik and Sutton are too similar to play together and that another more creative striker (e.g. Ibini-Isei) may be needed up front to operate with Rogic et al.

Apart from Rogic, the Mariners’ midfielders don’t provide enough of a goal-scoring threat. Patrick Zwaanswijk is Central Coast’s second top-scorer this season, behind Simon, with six goals. Daniel McBreen, who has switched between up front and midfield, only has two, as does Amini. Bozanic, McGlinchey and Hearfield only have one. While sharing the goal-scoring load is fine, a couple of these players really need to step up and provide regular goals to ensure an inaugural championship for the Gosford-based side.

Arnold must go to sleep at night wishing Simon was still in his squad. The bullocking striker scored seven goals before leaving for Korea, plus he created four more (behind only McGlinchey, who has six assists). What’s more Simon provided some real grit to Central Coast, which was sadly lacking against GCU.

The way Ben Halloran drove through the midfield to score his goal on Wednesday night was impressive but there was a sense that no player on Arnold’s side was willing to take responsibility and stop the run. Simon inspired that kind of toughness and it’s hard to imagine that Central Coast would have been so lacklustre as they have been for the past month if the 26 year old was playing for them.

One big boost on the way for Central Coast is the return of goalkeeper Ryan. The 19 year old is probably the best gloveman in the A-League and while it’s unfair to pin the Mariners’ recent vulnerability at the back on reserve ‘keeper Justin Pasfield, the fact is the rest of the defensive unit has hardly changed over the past month.

Ryan is incredibly confident in and around his penalty area, which causes a sense of belief to flow through his teammates and makes Central Coast so hard to break down.

Ryan will make a big difference to Arnold’s side but the Mariners’ manager still needs to get his side back on track. Arnold was keen to focus on the positives of the 3-3 draw with GCU but the fact is his side was given the run-around by what is chiefly a youth team. That kind of performance won’t cut it in the ACL or the A-League finals.

The main problems are in midfield and up front. Hutchinson and Griffiths can’t both play if Arnold is to stick with a diamond-shape in the middle of the park. The likes of Amini, Bozanic and Ibini-Isei need to find their best form again to spread the playmaking load. Finally, a few more midfielders and bench players need to chip in with goals.

Arnold needs to fix these problems. He has put Central Coast in a great position to win the toilet seat. If the Mariners fail to win the A-League Championship from here their reputation as chokers will only increase.