Tuesday, 8 October 2013

A-League Season Preview 2013-2014 - Central Coast Mariners

Don't be afraid of change

Writing off the Central Coast Mariners every year has been an A-League past-time since the inception of the league. With a small fan base and remote location, the Gosford based club has come in for a shellacking every time they lose an influential player, coach or just generally look like they haven't been recruiting well, yet every season they exceed expectation. Under Lawrie McKinna, the Mariners were a consistent force with a modest squad. Now under Graham Arnold, the Mariners have been a squad that is consistently contesting the title, now with a sprinkling of star quality.The off-season however has been less than kind to the club however as they have had to cope with the loss of some very key personnel. No less than 6 first-team quality players were lost in the most recent window. 

Perhaps the most telling of these losses with be the departure of the evergreen Patrick Zwaanswijk. The ever youthful defender decided at the ripe age of 38 to finish his footballing career. Although the Dutchman still contributed greatly to his side it was to be decided that he would take a back-room role for the 2013-14 season. Now coaching the Mariners youth side, Zwaanswijk will still be in the room, but the former NAC Breda regular's influence on the pitch will unfortunately not be quite as strong. 

To add to the loss of Zwaanswijk, the Mariners have also lost former Australia U-23 captain, Oliver Bozanic, speedster Bernie Ibini, keeper Mat Ryan and right-back Pedj Bojic. Top scorer, Daniel McBreen, now on loan with Shanghai SIPG, will also miss the beginning of the A-League season, but will likely be available from round 4 or so.

Pre-season has not been the greatest in terms of results for the Mariners, but a tour of Indonesia has certainly helped raise their profile. The Gosford club managed to reach the final of the Menpoura Cup, a pre-season trophy, only to fall down to Arema Indonesia after being punished by two controversial penalties. Against A-League opposition, Arnold's men have only pulled off one win, against Adelaide, with losses to Newcastle Jets and Brisbane Roar. 

The Revolution Continues

Graham Arnold remains with the club for a 4th season running; also signing an extension until the 2015-16 season. The former Socceroos care-taker coach has been one of the most consistent since the A-League's inception. Whilst not necessarily playing the most attractive football in the league, it is by far one of the most disciplined and well drilled. Players know their roles and play to their strengths. It is because of a coach like Arnold, that teaches this ethos, that personnel changes have largely not affected the way they play. After the loss of Mustafa Amini in the 2011-12 season, questions were raised as to whether he could be replaced, fortunately Tom Rogic, now of Celtic, was able to fill that role. When Rogic then moved on in the Summer of 2013, Michael McGlinchey took on the playmaking role to great success. Whilst the Mariners have been blessed with talent, this trio all had different attributes, however, they all succeeded in the system.

New stars in the form of Nick Fitzgerald and Mitchell Duke look to be the answers going forward with experienced heads like Nick Montgomery and captain, John Hutchinson leading the way through the centre of the park. There is a good mixture of experience and youth that certainly is a positive.

The Mariners did extremely well last season. Although overshadowed by the inaugural success of the West Sydney Wanderers, it was the boys in yellow that ended up taking home the A-League's most prized trophy in the grand final. A 2-0 win against a similarly well drilled side is a testament to how good the Mariners can be. 

The loss of players this year may well have made a massive dent in any title challenge this year, but one should only write-off the Mariners at their peril. Some strong recruiting has certainly put them is a good position with old experienced heads leading the lines.

Ins and Outs

This remains the key. There are many good quality players that have been shipped out this season and it is doubtful that those replacing them are of equal quality. Perhaps the biggest miss will be that of the retiring Zwaanswijk, but the signing of countryman Marcel Seip seems to have filled that gap. With Seip likely to partner Trent Sainsbury in defence, that is hardly something to laugh at. 

Other key signings include former Melbourne Victory and Adelaide attacker, Marco Flores as well as the return of the prodigal son, Matt Simon from his ill-fated stint with Chunnam Dragons in the Korea Republic. This plugs two holes. Simon can come in to replace McBreen who will not only be out for the first 4 or so rounds, but who will also be likely to play less of a role as he gets older. Flores too comes in as cover for the departed Tom Rogic. The Argentine is likely to the first-choice for the playmaking role with Michael McGlinchey likely to take a slightly more withdrawn role on the right-side of a midfield diamond.

The biggest concern however is likely to be with right-back. The departure of Pedj Bojic to Sydney FC has left a big gap in an otherwise stoic defence. Former Perth Glory youth product, Storm Roux appears to be the current solution, but with only one appearance for his former employer it is hard to see whether or not his will have the quality to maintain his spot. The only other solution would be that of Hayden Morton, a Central Coast youth product, whom also has little first-team experience.

The loss of Mat Ryan too, now knocking on the door as the successor to Mark Schwarzer at international level will certainly have repercussions. Justin Pasfield is a competent keeper, but he may not be able to pull of quite the same heroics as the current Club Brugge custodian.

On paper the transfers have not been as impressive as other clubs. Other clubs looked to have improved on last season whereas the Mariners appear to have gone backwards, at least in terms of personnel lost and gained. However, they will still probably end up in the top 6 come season's end.

Transfers In

Hayden Morton (DF) (Central Coast Youth)
Michael Neill (DF) (Central Coast Youth)
Tom Slater (FW) (Sydney FC Youth)
Marcel Seip (DF) (VVV-Venlo)
Marcos Flores (MF) (Melbourne Victory)
Storm Roux (DF) (Perth Glory)
Matt Simon (FW) (Chunnam Dragons)
Liam Reddy (GK) (Sydney United)

Transfers Out

Mat Ryan (GK) (Club Brugge)
Bernie Ibini-Isei (FW) (Shanghai SIPG)
Daniel McBreen (FW) (Shanghai SIPG - Loan until October)
Pedj Bojic (DF) (Sydney FC)
Oliver Bozanic (MF) (FC Luzern)
Patrick Zwaanswijk (DF) (Retired)
Adriano Pellegrino (MF) (Central Coast Mariners Academy)
Brad McDonald (DF) (Central Coast Mariners Academy)

Key Players and Best Youth Prospect

Marcos Flores: 
The Argentine has a lot to prove this season. To say that Flores' stint at Melbourne Victory was a disappointment would be to be completely understating the situation. The playmaker's performances for Adelaide United at times were at time breath-taking, taking home the the 2010-2011 Johnny Warren medal over the title-winning exploits of Brisbane' Roar's Thomas Broich, no mean feat. Since his ill-fated journey to China with Henan Jiaye, he has yet to find his feet again. 
The number 10 position at the Mariners is certainly an important one. The likes of Mustafa Amini, Tom Rogic, Michael McGlinchey and even Daniel McBreen have filled this role over the years and all of them have blossomed in that role. The stage is set for Flores to have a big season. He is a known quantity that is low on confidence, but his performances will likely separate the Mariners from a top 4 finish or a top 6 finish. 

Nicholas Fitzgerald:
Released from Brisbane Roar mid-season last year, Fitzgerald returned to his old stomping ground on the Central Coast in search of first-team football. The pacey attacker was widely appreciated at the Roar but after falling out with Mike Mulvey, it was decided he would relink with his old club. The prospects are bright for the 21 year old. If given the same amount of game time as previous youth players before him, he could blossom into one of the most potent attacking weapons in the A-League. A good dribbler of the ball, blessed with impeccable control, the Waroonga native has all the ingredients to set the A-League on fire next season, and given the loss of Bernie Ibini and the possible unpredictability of Marco Flores' form, he could see a lot of football this season.

Final Verdict

The ingredients are there for a finals side. The Mariners have been far too consistent since the beginning of the A-League to write them off completely. The personnel losses will make it extremely hard to replicate the success of last season, but there is no reason to doubt they can make the 6. In saying that however, if certain key-players fail to fire, then they could just miss out. The quality of the league has definitely lifted since last year but only time will tell if the Mariners have kept up.

Tentative prediction: 5th

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