It’s edging close to the beginning of the A-League season, so you know what that means – time for endless optimism surrounding the Wellington Phoenix and their chances of success.
To be fair, some of those optimistic viewpoints are grounded in definite logic. The signings of Roly Bonevacia, Michael McGlinchey (hopefully), Alejandro Gorrin (Do we really have to start calling him A-Rod?? Please stop already – from now on he’s Alejandro Gorrin in my posts) and Nathan Burns has the Phoenix’s midfield and attacking options looking in superb shape, and will more than likely make up for the loss of Carlos Hernandez and Stein Huysegems.
However, scoring goals has never been the biggest issue for the Phoenix, with the side ranking mid-table in goals scored the past few seasons. Where the problems have arisen for the Wellington franchise is at the back, where they leaked 51 goals last season (the worst in the comp by eight goals), and 49 in 2012/2013 (second worst).
Last season, the Phoenix’s defence fell apart late in the campaign, failing to keep a clean sheet in their last 12 encounters, conceding 33 goals over that span – compared to just 18 goals conceded in the first 15 games.
Coincidentally, midfield maestro Albert Riera missed the last 10 encounters due to injury, games in which the Phoenix conceded 30 goals. It seems the Phoenix coaching and front-office staff have placed their defensive woes solely on the loss of Riera – with the only defender added to the squad being the promising but relatively untested Tom Doyle, while Luke Adams and part-time right back Leo Bertos depart, leaving the amount of defenders in the squad stagnant .
(Oh, Roly – I know you want to tell people about how versatile you are and how you’re capable of playing centre back and fullback, but word to the wise – people who say that usually end up playing right back – Isn’t that right, Louis Fenton, Leo Bertos and Manny Muscat?)
To back up the Phoenix’s likely position, Riera played 48% of all minutes last season, conceding 16 goals when he was on the pitch, and 35 goals when he was sidelined. (Stat courtesy of Yellow Fever podcast maestro and general no-gooder Dale Warburton).
Can the Phoenix’s impressive defensive performances with Riera on the field continue, or is it merely a partial coincidence? And is it smart to have so much riding on a player who missed so much time this year – shouldn’t there be greater depth to deal with a similar issue?
To answer some of these questions, I took a look at every goal the Phoenix conceded last year, did my best to categorise them all into specific areas of fault, and came up with some key areas in which the Phoenix defence can improve this upcoming season.
Clean Up Some Individual Errors
Obviously nobody can ever be perfect, but there were some very avoidable errors at the back for the Nix last season – 17 which I counted, plus three defensive mix-ups.
Here are some of the more egregious examples.
Everyone has this counter-attack played fairly well, there’s someone challenging the cross, and four defenders back to deal with the threat of the cross and the man at the back post. Unfortunately, Manny Muscat lets the back post attacker jink past him for the easiest of tap-ins.
This attacker looks fairly covered right?
In other individual gaffes, we have Stein Huysegems filling the classic role of the number nine not knowing the meaning of the offside trap:
And my personal favourite, Glen Moss getting caught in the middle of nowhere (To be fair, goalkeeper errors only accounted for four of last year’s goals conceded)
Although there will be always be individual errors regardless of the team being covered, I suspect the Phoenix coaching staff and defenders would like a smidgen fewer this season.
Set Piece Clearances
I don’t have any screenshots for this one so you’ll have to take my word for it, but set pieces were (for lack of a technical term) strange for the Phoenix last season. All in all, they defended the initial set pieces rather well, allowing very few goals from corners and only a couple from free-kicks (eight all up), but where they found trouble was clearing said set-pieces.
For instance, check out the first goal scored by the Heart, and Sydney’s fourth goal. Both great strikes, granted, but strikes which wouldn’t have occurred with proper clearances or closeouts from set piece play.
Better luck in defending you ask? How so?
Well, as an avid stats man and follower of analytical sports such as baseball, basketball and American football, the concept of luck is ever-present, and I believe the Phoenix were on the wrong end of random variation last season.
Simply, the amount of absolutely brilliant goals scored against the Phoenix last season were plentiful – 13 on one count, and you have to look no further than the game against the Melbourne Heart as an example of that, check out the array of goals on display in this drubbing.
Now, some of the 13 strikes or moments of individual brilliance came about partially due to a lack of pressure, and weaker sides are more likely to concede rippers due to the amount of time opponents spend in possession, but the pure avalanche of top-drawer stunners produced against the Phoenix looks to be a figure which pure random variance will drive down this upcoming season.
So while it may be at least rewarding to watch Orlando Engelaar attempt to rip the net to shreds, or wonder how on earth Craig Goodwin managed to score from positions like below, take heart (excuse the pun) in the fact that the Phoenix should regress to the mean this campaign.
More Bite (And Depth) In Midfield
Finally, what could be the key factor for the Phoenix this season is an improved midfield, helping to shield Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund from the onslaughts they often faced last season.
Although it is tough to track goals for which the midfield are at fault, there were seven undeniable instances when the midfield was solely to blame for allowing an eventual goal.
The 5-1 defeat at the hands of Adelaide (without Riera), is a perfect example of how the defence were at times hung out to dry by those in front of them on the pitch.
In fact, the goals conceded are almost a perfect encapsulation of the Phoenix’s defensive woes last season. A concoction of poor tracking, a flimsy midfield, individual errors and some pure bad luck, the drubbing contained the worst parts of a season which promised so much and provided ultimately little.
So, can the Phoenix improve their defensive fortitude from last season?
In all likelihood, yes. They should be on the end of less outrageously stunning strikes than they were last season, while the signing of sterner midfielders such as Bonevacia will improve the midfield’s depth and spine, helping to cover any potential injury to Riera.
However, should one of Durante or Sigmund go down hurt (or suffer from old age and decline noticeably in skill), then trouble could be brewing again. The Phoenix’s reluctance to go and sign more defensive depth could be costly, or it could work out a treat, providing more attacking options while crossing their fingers for a full slate of health.
The Verdict: An improvement, as the Phoenix finish sixth in the goals conceded chart, with 42 goals conceded.
Hamilton raised, Niall Anderson now halves his time between university studies in Auckland and catching up on all things Waikato football in the Tron. Having covered Waikato FC and WaiBOP United in the ASB Premiership, Niall is also the lead writer at nzhoops.co.nz. Find him on Twitter @NiallGunner.