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  • Writer's pictureMatt Olsen

The big Mariners question as early signs suggest title defence is unravelling

Mark Jackson's debut season in the A-League Men with the Central Coast Mariners is also that of their title defence as champions. The Mariners have outshot their opponents in every match, including in continental competition, where they have fared slightly better than their league form. So what's going wrong, and what may be the answer to heal the current wounds?

Mark Jackson on the sidelines on Saturday as his side fell to a 2-0 defeat in Perth. (Dan McAdam/Laughing Bulldog Images)


Firstly, let's reflect on Mark Jackson's words on Saturday night following another week of several failed attempts at goal. The dismissive and frustrated new manager said that making up for the loss of Jason Cummings' 16 goals last season would always be the squad's biggest challenge.


"The problem here is obviously goal scoring, just to find a way to put the ball in the back of the net. I don't want to get away from this; the team have lost significant players from last season who scored a lot of our goals. Jason Cummings being one of them," he said post-game.


The direct suggestion towards the Cummings loss is obvious but quite bizarre. Jackson was not in the competition last season as a manager, and although personally appointed late, the Mariners, even without their new boss, had known their star forward was departing the club essentially directly after he had put on a clinic against Melbourne City in the Grand Final last season.

A more cynical view would imply the loss of Cummings does not stack up as an adequate excuse for the goalscoring woes, and for a new manager to be prepared to hide behind this fact confidently sets a somewhat concerning precedent moving forward.


Nevertheless, at the suggestion of what may be going wrong, we need to look at two main factors to understand how the issue could be resolved in the coming weeks.


Firstly, looking at the out-and-out striking options right now, many fans across the league would undoubtedly maintain an element of faith at the sight of names such as Dylan Wenzell-Halls, the former Brisbane Roar starlet and now Mariners championship winner, and the services of a returning Alou Kuol, should they be at their respective clubs.

The defence for Wenzell-Halls not being as adequate a replacement for Cummings' goals may be easier to address of the two options. His current role arguably better suits his profile as a more supportive forward asset than a sole, starting number nine.


For Kuol, the argument is more complicated and frustrating for Mariners fans. He is a player who, for the same club throughout the 2020/21 season under Alen Stajcic, played an excellent role in drifting into wide spaces, playing more direct, and undoubtedly using much of his strength in one-on-one contests or from set-piece situations.


Kuol has returned from a stint at German club VfB Stuttgart, and having been left in charge of leading the line at the Mariners, the evidence so far points to the 22-year-old being somewhat out of his depth and devoid of confidence, a worry for a player who tried to tough it out in Europe. But crucially, he also has a history of excelling in this competition, with experience in a youth national team set-up to boot.

 

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Despite his struggles, Kuol remained a key contributor in the Mariners' chance creation on Saturday. (Dan McAdam/Laughing Bulldog Images)


Jackson's response to this uncertain striker situation left a lot to be desired, as he pointed to his current adjustments not working out as planned and that the answer may lie in bringing in a new forward when the opportunity presents itself.


"I need to figure out who can come in and score goals because no one is stepping up at the minute. Sitting before you right now, do I think we have someone to fill the Jason Cummings mantle? My answer is no because we are not looking like a threat from the nine position," he said.


However, he was quick to reiterate that the squad has adequate quality and that he does have faith in his players. But one can be forgiven for thinking he had revealed the club is already looking to bring someone in. Nonetheless, Jackson assures he is doing what is right by the players.


"I always believe in the players within the squad. We give everything to the players, and I'm sure they’re trying, but we need players to step up,” he added.


Given Jackson's lack of experience in the competition, the suggestion of players needing to step up should be seen as a reasonably concerning sign as far as a title defence goes.

However, the situation may evolve should a proper Cummings replacement be found, whether internally or externally. With the English connections the Mariners boss has, he may still have an Adam Le Fondre-type mould of striker waiting in the wings, and future success could yet be guaranteed with time.


But the one big question hanging over this team right now, and in the immediate future, is what the Mariners can do to become more of a threat and ultimately stop their ship from sinking so early into the new campaign.


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