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  • Writer's pictureHarry Bailey

Philosophy, style of play, tactics: Analysing new Central Coast Mariners boss Mark Jackson

With many A-League Men sides seemingly experiencing a rebuilding stage, there are many unanswered questions league enthusiasts will be curious to see play out in 2023/24. Mark Jackson's arrival at the Central Coast Mariners has largely left many supporters needing clarification about what to expect from their new manager this year.

Mark Jackson at Leeds United. (Leeds United)


Following a triumphant, dreamlike season, Central Coast Mariners fans eagerly await their teams’ performances at Industree Group Stadium as the reigning champions return home this weekend against Macarthur.


After the departure of key players, retaining silverware might seem an idealistic goal for the club. Nevertheless, there is a resounding belief a championship defence is a realistic target for the Mariners. The appointment of Mark Jackson as manager presents a calculated risk for the club, with the Englishman already being labelled by league fans and critics as too inexperienced for the job. Though admittedly somewhat of a novice as a head coach, with only three years in senior management to date, Jackson joined a club where new recruits in recent years have seemingly always turned to gold.


Nonetheless, the Mariners' first game of the season against Adelaide United undeniably raised concerns. Should it serve as any indication, their gold mine may be thinning. The team's performance at Coopers Stadium undoubtedly cast a shadow of uncertainty over their prospects. Fans, eagerly hopeful yet cautiously sceptical, are watching closely to see how the rest of the season unfolds under Jackson's leadership.

Last Friday night's encounter marked the first momentous occasion of the Jackson era. Despite the Mariners having 24 attempts on goal, their display could have been better, falling far short of fans' initial expectations. The team faced early setbacks with unfortunate injuries to Brian Kaltak and Alou Kuol, causing them to lose control of the game after only 30 minutes. To compound their tough start, a late red card for Jacob Farrell added to the woes, culminating in a disheartening 3-0 loss to Carl Veart's Reds.

The result was undoubtedly one Mariners fans will want to forget. But it's important to remember that a long season lies ahead. Adjusting to a new manager can often take time. It was only two years ago when similar doubts were raised around the club over the appointment of Nick Montgomery. Yet, his tenure resulted in one of the league's greatest success stories, prompting the question: could the club strike gold again with the appointment of Jackson?


Last week's performance might not be promising, but only time will reveal the proper trajectory of the team under his leadership. Regardless of the initial setbacks, delving deeper into Jackson's background and approach can provide valuable insight.


Front Page Football deep dives into the Englishman's coaching history, philosophy and style of play and considers how he might set up the champions tactically throughout the campaign.


Coaching history


In his playing days, Jackson was a key defender for Scunthorpe United, where he amassed a commendable 136 appearances for the club. Despite spending most of his career in the English fourth tier, Jackson was recognised as a talented youngster with much promise.


He began his career at Leeds United and represented the England U20s side on four occasions, demonstrating his talent and potential on an international stage. His domestic and international experience contributed to his perspective and approach as a coach.

Jackson during a game against Coventry City in his playing days. (Scunthorpe United)


Born and raised in Leeds, Jackson's journey came full circle toward the end of his playing career, leading him back to his boyhood club. In 2015, Jackson was appointed the U16s coach in the Leeds United youth academy, where he began his coaching journey. His style quickly earned him recognition, leading to a promotion to become the club's U18s coach the following season.


Coaching the U18s couldn’t have gone better for Jackson, who clinched the Professional Development League North title in his first season in charge. Following this success, he swiftly ascended the Leeds ranks, taking over as the U23s coach only two years later.


In his role with the U23s, Jackson was pivotal in nurturing talents such as Joe Gelhardt, Crysencio Summerville, Sam Greenwood, and Pascal Struijk, contributing significantly to their development. Jackson's success in terms of results continued, though. In his first season, he earned promotion with the U23s into the Premier League 2 Division 1.

Jackson celebrates a win for Leeds United. (Leeds United)


Quite clearly a success with the youth academy, it was only a matter of time before Jackson was called up for a senior role within the club. In a crucial period for Leeds during the 2021/22 Premier League season, Jackson was promoted to a first-team position in the coaching staff under Jesse Marsch, aiding the club in their memorable battle to avoid the drop. In part to his efforts, Leeds secured their place in the league for the 2022/23 season, solidifying Jackson as a reputable figure.


After his rapid progress from the academy into senior football, Jackson was given his first opportunity as a head coach when English third-tier side Milton Keynes Dons approached him in December 2022. He took over with the team languishing in the relegation zone, only months after narrowly missing out on a promotion spot to the second tier the season before.


Jackson's time at Milton Keynes began positively; he led the team to three victories across his first five games in charge, showing early promise. However, inconsistency plagued his tenure. Despite an impressive three-game winning streak in March that earned him a Manager of the Month nomination, the team's performances wavered.

Jackson’s venture with MK Dons was ultimately labelled a failure, as they went winless in their last eight games of the season, resulting in relegation to the fourth tier. Jackson was dismissed days after relegation and less than five months into his first major coaching role. He managed six wins, nine draws, and ten losses at MK Dons.


While this outcome won’t be encouraging for Mariners fans, it's important to note that, like Montgomery, Jackson has valuable experience developing and investing in young players, which could prove beneficial.


Philosophy


Demonstrating an unmistakable success story with the Leeds youth academy, Jackson has had proven experience showing trust in young talent. He is expected to follow a similar philosophy to his predecessor, Montgomery, and his belief is dedicated to developing homegrown talent, which aligns with the Mariners' commitment towards nurturing young players.


During his tenure as MK Dons manager, the average age of Jackson's squad was 25.3, which was marginally lower than the league average of 25.6. While this statistic might not indicate a significant shift towards a youthful side, Jackson did make notable efforts to integrate young talents into his team. Notably, he brought in 23-year-old Jonathan Leko and favoured his selection, along with other promising prospects such as 19-year-old Louie Barry and 20-year-old Henry Lawson.

Jonathan Leko celebrates a winner against Morecambe last season. (Milton Keyes Citizen)


However, in the context of Jackson's senior coaching career, it remains to be seen whether he will invest in youth to the same extent as Montgomery. While Mariners fans may hope for a continuation of Montgomery's emphasis on homegrown talent, a youthful side's strengths and weaknesses must be considered. Whilst a young squad aided the Mariners last season, more experience could also benefit the upcoming season.


Whichever way you look at it, Jackson's success with developing young players is evident in his work with Leko and others.


Mariners Chairman Richard Peil highlighted how Jackson's track record of developing young players was a standout quality compared to other applicants, especially given his background with the Leeds youth academy. Upon his appointment, Peil highlighted him as a perfect fit for the club, indicating a strong belief in his ability to continue the Mariners' commitment to producing emerging talent.


“While we had a substantial number of applications from people around the world, Mark immediately showed that he is the perfect fit for our club,” Peil said in the club's statement.


“Having spent several seasons in youth development at Leeds United, many of which were under a world class coach in Marcelo Bielsa, and with our focus on youth development, it was a no brainer when Mark put his hand up for the role. Mark will fit seamlessly into the community and is a great cultural fit for us as a club.”

Jackson upon being appointed the Mariners' new manager. (Central Coast Mariners)


Style of play


Comparing Jackson to Montgomery, the Englishman may have similar ideas regarding youth development, but will a similar philosophy transpire concerning the team's style of play?


An early criticism of Jackson when he was first appointed at MK Dons was his commitment to possession-based football. Despite having the lion's share of possession in 13 of his 25 games in charge in the EFL League One, Jackson's side only secured victory in one of them.

But it is worth noting that Jackson was not stubborn, swiftly adapting towards a more balanced style of play towards the back end of his tenure. Ultimately, this approach was deemed better suited to MK Dons' situation, as they were embroiled in a relegation battle. The change did yield short-term improvements in results, but unfortunately, the performances eventually dipped in consistency, ultimately leading to his dismissal.


Taking over the helm of the A-League Men champions, Jackson will feel confident in his possession-based style of football, as it will be more suited towards a top-end team. His comments further reinforced his commitment to an attractive and aggressive brand of football upon being appointed.


“I want to play front foot football and dominate every part of the game. That is my philosophy, that is how I want my teams to play, and that is what I will bring to the Central Coast," he said in the club statement.

Tactical approach


In the limited sample size available from Jackson's tenure with the Mariners, he has predominantly utilised a 4-4-2 system during pre-season and in the AFC Cup. However, in the opening round of the A-League Men against Adelaide, the Mariners opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation instead, featuring five of the 11 players who started in the team's triumphant 6-1 Grand Final win last season.


While a 4-4-2 was initially deployed during pre-season, the 4-2-3-1 may be more favoured. Notably, the 4-2-3-1 holds significance for Jackson, being his most frequently used formation since the commencement of his coaching career in 2015.

Jackson on the sideline during pre-season. (Central Coast Mariners)


Compared to last season's team under Montgomery, the first game has hinted at several positional changes in the starting XI. Marco Túlio appears to be playing slightly deeper in an attacking midfielder role, allowing the return of Alou Kuol to take place in his natural role as a striker. While Túlio has experience in this position, there was speculation the Brazilian would play as the regular nine this season, especially after the departure of star forward Jason Cummings. This move may still transpire, particularly this weekend against Macarthur, depending on Alou Kuol's fitness.


Fortunately for the Mariners this season, the squad boasts versatility, especially in the forward positions. Based on his coaching history, game-to-game, Jackson is confident in changing his system. For instance, during his time with MK Dons, he experimented with the 3-4-3 and 3-4-2-1 formations on multiple occasions.


While Jackson will likely stick to the 4-2-3-1, the squad's flexibility allows him to make regular adjustments. It wouldn’t be surprising if Jackson explores and settles into a different system as the season progresses.


Under Jackson's leadership, Mariners fans can anticipate their team striving to retain possession, emphasising utilising wide players to create space and shift the ball quickly. Although the team struggled to achieve this goal effectively against Adelaide, Jackson's intentions are clear: he aims to set up his team to play an aggressive and attacking brand of football.

While this philosophy was challenging to implement during his time at MK Dons, his integration of a possession-based and aggressive style of football might be more aligned with the Mariners' vision if executed correctly. Jackson's focus on ball retention and attacking flair should suit the squad, offering Mariners supporters an exciting and dynamic style of play to look forward to.


Summary


Assuming the reigns of the current champions is undoubtedly a challenging task. In February, we saw similar uncertainties surrounding Rado Vidosic when he succeeded Patrick Kisnorbo as Melbourne City manager. Similarly to Vidosic, Jackson is facing high expectations, sustaining the club's growth to become a consistent top-six presence while defending their title.

 

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The Central Coast Mariners squad celebrate their 2022/23 Grand Final win. (Central Coast Mariners)


From the Mariners' perspective, Jackson emerged as the suitable candidate to carry on Montgomery's legacy. Hired to maintain the club's impressive youth development program and offer entertaining football, the Englishman faces the significant task of replicating Monty's success and elevating the club's performance to new heights.


However, a notable distinction lies in Montgomery's intimate understanding of the Mariners from the inside out—a familiarity that gave him a unique advantage when coaching. Unlike Jackson, Montgomery’s playing career allowed him to deeply acquaint himself with the area, facilities, culture, and the club's ethos. Moving from England to Gosford presents Jackson with significant cultural differences, both inside and outside football. These disparities will pose a considerable challenge in his new coaching chapter.

It is premature to jump to conclusions after one round. While the initial struggles are evident, it's important to reserve early judgment. Following in the footsteps of Montgomery is an exceptionally challenging endeavour that many would be unable to follow.


Should Jackson effectively implement his attacking philosophy and maintain the club's youth development efforts, Mariners fans could be on the verge of another memorable season. But only time will tell.


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