Defensive Masterclass: The stats behind our semi-final success

Central Coast Mariners made it past Sydney FC over a two-legged semi-final, to set up a home Grand Final with Melbourne Victory.

Mark Jackson’s side are now just one game away from A-League immortality, a win this Saturday would see them become the first A-League team to ever win the treble, breaking a number of records along the way.

Two thrilling legs against Sydney had pretty much everything, four red cards in total over the two games, penalty appeals, goal line clearances and much more drama. Despite a goalless second leg, this is a tie that will be remembered for years to come.

Jackson hailed his side’s ‘courage’ across the two games and in the second leg, said that despite not quite being able to play as they would have liked on the ball, was full of praise for the defending by his team.

We dug deep, we defended extremely well and it’s got us to a Grand Final.

Mark Jackson after second leg.

Read more: “We dug deep and it’s got us to a Grand Final” Jacko post-Sydney

Jackson admitted Sydney had ‘the better of the play’ in the second leg at Our Paradise, which included 70% possession and 16 shots from the visitors.

Another closely-contested affair is expected against Melbourne Victory in the Grand Final, in three clashes with the Dark Blues this season, just one goal separates the two teams (2-2, 1-1, 0-1 Mariners).

The Grand Final sees two of the best defensive teams in the league face off, the Mariners have kept the most clean sheets and conceded the joint-least goals per game (1, tied with WPX) with Victory not behind on that and many other defensive metrics.

They say defence wins titles, so let’s delve into the defensive stats that saw the Mariners prevail against Sydney.

A MOTM performance in goal

A complete team effort and a defensive masterclass from Jackson’s men saw them through. Danny Vukovic edged many heroic performers on the pitch to the Player of the Match award, but it could have been awarded to any one of those in front of him who put in a momentous shift on the night.

As he has been all year in a stellar season, Vukovic was right where we needed him when he was called upon, but the Mariners restricted Sydney to only four shots on target with an xG of 1.17.

In the first leg, Vuka was unfortunate to be beaten by Joel King’s deflected shot, and didn’t have a save to make after that. In Gosford, despite Sydney’s 16 attempts, Vuka only had to make four saves, his best of the night was to deny Fabio Gomes 12 minutes in, but the other three were routine as he denied Hayden Matthews at his near post early on and gathered long range efforts from Anthony Caceres and Fabio either side of the break.

Battling at the back

In front of Vukovic, centre back pairing Dan Hall and Brian Kaltak were dominant, Kaltak’s head like a magnet to the ball every time it came towards the Mariners’ box as he really lived up to his infamous nickname, The Brick Wall of Gosford.

Hall made three blocks and six clearances whilst Kaltak won nine duels, eight of those in the air and made eight clearances, seven of those headed.

On the right-side, Storm Roux made two interceptions and one tackle – managing his game perfectly after receiving a unique first half yellow card and nullifying Sydney’s left-side.

A Coastie through and through to Kaltak’s left also shone on the night, Jacob Farrell had the game’s most interceptions (7) and recoveries (10) whilst also making four clearances, keeping the dangerous Max Burgess quiet for Sydney.

Faz excels in the interceptions department, streets ahead of any other player in that particular metric for the season, racking up 71 across the regular season plus our two finals matches so far, 23 more than the nearest competitor which is Western’s Angus Thurgate (48).

Winning the midfield battle

As good as the back four were on the night, the effort to keep a clean sheet goes right through the team. Hall and Kaltak were provided with expert protection on the night as Bradley Tapp and Max Balard covered every blade of grass.

Balard won eight duels and made eight recoveries, three clearances and two interceptions, perfectly screening our back four.

Tapp is possibly the unsung hero of the midfield as moments this season have often led to the spotlight being on Balard and Josh Nisbet.

The 23-year-old was superb for the Mariners on Saturday evening and as well as almost scoring what would have been a huge first goal for the club, Tappy was everywhere, making five inceptions, only bettered by Farrell on the night, as well as two tackles.

On either flank, Mikael Doka and Christian Theoharous never shy away from their defensive duties. Doka, as comfortable right back is always willing to back up Roux on the right.

Theoharous on the opposite side, who has the most tackles per 90 minutes (2.9) in the whole of the A-League, won three tackles and eight duels in a superb shift before being replaced by Miguel Di Pizio on the hour mark.

Di Pizio entered the fray and worked just as hard, chasing down everything until the final minutes and helping push the Mariners up the pitch.

Leading from the front

Alou Kuol has led the line brilliantly for the Mariners of late, starting the last four domestic fixtures since returning from Olyroos camp, as well as coming off the bench to score our iconic AFC Cup Final winner.

His efforts might not have been rewarded with a goal over the two legs but he ran the Sydney defence ragged in the first leg and played his part in a resolute, disciplined display in the second leg, winning nine duels and two headed clearances when on defensive duty.

Kuol was replaced on the hour mark by Ryan Edmondson, whose infectious energy helped push the Mariners on until the end.

Josh Nisbet was never far behind Kuol or Edmondson, relentlessly chasing down the Sydney defence and midfield, he made four ball recoveries on the night, completing maybe a less glamorous, but equally important job than his usual free-roaming, creative role.