In the third edition of Kick360’s ‘Breakthrough Stars’ series the analysis of each club’s youth prospects continues where these prospects are set to potentially make the grade in the first team and try to cement their place in the squad ahead of the upcoming season.
Each season brings new players who bridge the gap between academy and the A-league squad and more of the same can be expected in the 2021/22 season with new players coming through trying to cement themselves as fan favourites.
This week we look at Central Coast Mariners
It was a successful season for the Central Coast Mariners in the 2020/21 campaign with their third place finish a stark upturn in fortunes within recent times. This performance was a credit to the side built on stability and largely achieved through their defensive solidity, having the leagues third best defence with 31 goals against.
Going forwards, the Mariners rarely blew the opposition out of the water, registering more than two goals in a match just twice. This was demonstrated in their ranking of eighth in the league for goals scored sitting at 35.
Much of this stability in defence came through a strong midfield block ahead of the defensive duo of Tongyik and Rowles. However, while Bozanic offered strength in defensive actions, he didn’t have a high output, leaving the tackles to midfield partner Gianni Stensness who was a league leader in his defensive actions from midfield as well as link-up play further up-field.
With departures to Stensness and depth option Janota, the space in midfield has opened up and paved the way for another deep midfielder to partner Bozanic ahead of the season under new boss Nick Montgomery.
Breakout Star: Maximilien Balard
20 year-old Max Balard is capable of playing in the middle of the park as well as having spent time slotting into the centre of defence in the youth team. Balard was able to make it into the side last season playing in five games amassing a total of 84 minutes for the first team.
In that short space of time Balard was able to show the fans just why he was capable of making the step up, showing a calmness on the ball resulting in 29 successful passes including a 100% long pass completion rate.
It was this composure and control within his appearances that caught the eye with passes relatively equally spread between sideways, forwards and backwards. Beyond this registering an impressive 11 duels won and just over half of his contested headers showed his ability under pressure.
Speaking to Kick360 Central Coast Mariners assistant coach Sergio Raimundo was full of praise for the youngster, speaking highly of his maturity and coach-ability to strive for improvement, setting him apart and leading to his selection for the first grade.
“A very complete midfielder”Central Coast Mariners Assistant Coach- Sergio Raimundo
“A complete midfielder” Raimundo describes Balard, praising him for his “attacking and defending qualities which Nick [Montgomery] and I are sure will take him far in Australia.”
With a French passport, Balard could be set to be one of the next off the development line to Europe.
It is however, some of the lesser seen attributes which make Balard stand out that should stage him well for mens football. Having seen Balard rise through the ranks in the youth side Raimundo and Montgomery are well aware of the attributes the youngster possesses.
“Quality of anticipation, reading of the game…. wonderful body movement and leadership” says Raimundo.
Often these mental attributes are what sets a player apart when they step up from the youth levels, providing the player with the edge and fortitude to hold their own.
Already being described as “the type of player every coach likes to have around,” playing and training alongside the experience of Bozanic, Ureña, Simon and now Müller will only help refine his talent.
So can Balard help the cause?
While it remains to be seen just how a Montgomery led Mariners lineup tactically, the departure of Stensness leaves a significant gap to be filled in the midfield.
New signings Goddard, Müller, and Nkololo all prefer to play higher or wider up the pitch . This leaves a partner for Bozanic generally which one can expect to be given to Josh Nisbet.
With departures to depth options in Jankovic and Janota, that does leave space to come off the bench and a rotational role. It is this depth of favoured position that works in Balard’s favour.
The Mariners conceded seven goals in the last 15 minutes of the first half and eight goals in the last 15 of the second half, totalling 15 of their 31 goals against. With this significant drop off to the edge of each half, the rotation of the bench will prove pivotal, coupled with the defensive acumen of Balard it could be what locks up a tight scoreline and provides the team with solidity.
Described by Raimundo as a “versatile playmaker,” what Balard brings to the game is a like-for-like change with Bozanic. Raimundo favours Balard in the midfield for his ability to dictate the tempo of the team, particularly identifying his ability to help organise the team out of possession.
This season is poised to be a breakout for Balard. Offering a strong defensive presence and ability to control the game, with the coaching team aware of his desire to take on responsibility, coupled with his technical ability, Balard can be an effective player no matter the situation.
With his quality of his passing across the field the coaches must feel confident bringing him into the game either to play across the field similar to Stensness, contributing to link up play and progressive moves, or as a like-for-like deep midfield orchestrator like Bozanic. This ability to pick a long pass getting a number of assist from his own half in the NPL, including a spectacular assist vs. St. George.
The wealth of experience from playing with such players, described as “amazing” to watch Balard’s growth in the short time since his move into the first team setup. With minutes already under his belt, it can almost certainly expect to see much more of Balard in the season ahead.
It will never be easy, but Max Balard’s versatility can only work in his favour. His ability to influence all elements of a game, coupled with what are already outstanding technical qualities set him apart as a breakout star.