Hyundai A-League season preview: Central Coast Mariners

If there is a silver lining to the Mariners’ coach sacking in August, it is that the new man - in this case former Socceroo Paul Okon - has enough time to stamp his authority ahead of the new Hyundai A-League season.

Whether that’s enough time to help them back up the ladder remains to be seen – though as we’ve seen with Leicester City in the EPL, nothing’s impossible.

If the players buy-in to the Ange-inspired Okon philosophy, the fans get behind them and the new boss can fix their goal-scoring problems from last season and work on defensive solidity, the 2013 Championship winners will go a long way to improving on their win-loss record of last season, which saw them finish tenth.

Expectations for the Mariners aren’t too grand – which isn’t a bad thing for the league’s perennial underdogs. In fact, it's just the way they like it.  

The burning questions

  • How will Okon deal with what is largely a Tony Walmsley squad? 
  • Okon has said he wants his side to play an attractive, passing game – in the manner of his mentor Ange Postecoglou. It wasn’t a philosophy that worked well for the Mariners last season, can Okon’s version do it better in 2016/17?
  • How much and how fast have their youngsters learnt about the demands of playing in the A-League? 

Lessons learnt from last season

  • Entertaining, open football is one thing, playing that way and winning with a largely young squad is another thing all together
  • Experience in defence really does help

Road ahead

It promises to be a daunting initiation for new coach Okon. Not only do they face the likes of Perth Glory, Sydney FC, Wanderers, Roar and Adelaide in the first month, only one of the club's first seven matches is being played in Gosford. The December-January period looms as crucial to their campaign, with five of seven matches at Central Coast Stadium providing a real opportunity to build some momentum. Local derby clashes against Newcastle Jets occur in Rounds 7, 21 and 26, with the Mariners ending the regular season with a trip to Melbourne Victory.

Expected strengths

  • More experience in key areas with signings like Ivan Necevski in goal, Jacques Faty in defence, Mickael Tavares in midfield plus added firepower in the front third
  • Low expectations after collecting the wooden spoon last season. 
  • Okon's vitality and new ideas

Potential weakness

  • If Faty, Tavares and keeper Ivan Necevski are out for extended times, it's a young defence that must banish memories of last season's 70 goals conceded in 27 games and step up. 
  • Overall squad depth

Paul Okon

Tactical approach

This is Okon’s first job in the Hyundai A-League so it’s difficult to say with any certainty exactly what system he’ll play. With so little time between his appointment and the start of the season, it may still be a work in progress come Round 1. While the Mariners played a 4-2-3-1 for much of last season, Okon could tinker with that considering there’s no real genuine no.10 at his disposal. With the likes of Connor Pain and Fabio Ferreira in the side, you can be sure he will look to utilise their speed in wide areas. 

Breakout star

Adam Berry. The teenage defensive midfielder is highly regarded on the Coast, signing a contract extension in August only months after inking his first professional contract. Berry, who spent time in Leeds United’s academy in England, is a boyhood Mariners fan and will push the likes of Mickael Tavares and Liam Rose for a starting spot in midfield under Okon, who loves giving youth a shot.

Adam Berry

Best-case scenario

If Okon shows as much ability as a coach as he did in his playing days, then better days are certainly ahead for the Mariners.

This season will be about restoring some pride  – something they can do with improved football and results. Probably haven’t improved the squad as well as other clubs meaning it's potentially difficult to see the Mariners pushing for the Finals Series, but a few more wins, a stronger defensive unit and a more effective brand of football is the minimum expectation on the Coast in 2016/17.