For someone committed enough to stay up until 1.45am to watch a relatively non-descript game between the Wellington Phoenix and the Perth Glory, you would think I’d have an absolute avalanche of opinions and hot takes to throw your way in this week’s Phoenix Prognosis.
Alas, I don’t think the Phoenix are a joke, or that the referee bottled any major decisions, or really anything that is very inflammatory. Instead, what I witnessed in my sleep-deprived haze seemed to largely back up the previous thoughts I had about Ernie Merrick’s side.
On their day, I think the Phoenix can be a test for any squad in the competition, with their attack capable of blistering displays – I could very well see the Phoenix rack up several hefty scorelines on underwhelming opponents this season.
However, there are some similar problems plaguing the Wellington side which at this point in time limits their upside to being a frisky, inconsistent squad more likely to be battling for the 4th-6th spot on the ladder rather than being a consistent top four threat.
Putting aside the never-ending problem of away form, I felt there are two things worthy of debate as Merrick fills out his lineup card going forward.
Who Should Be The Central Striker?
I was very surprised to see Jeremy Brockie installed out wide against Perth, with Nathan Burns going through the middle. Although the old-school philosophy of a “target man” is downgraded in the Phoenix’s pass-to-feet, movement-based attack, I’m not sure playing out wide is the greatest use of Brockie’s talents, especially when compared to Burns’ attributes.
Although the striker is often over-critiqued for a lack of workrate, the core skills that he provides don’t translate to playing in a wider role, where he touched the ball just 31 times, completed 16 passes and went 0/3 on crosses while not getting a single shot away.
For a talented goalscorer who runs efficient routes for his midfielders to find him, the areas he found himself playing in on Friday night aren’t conducive to his skills:
Meanwhile, the pacy Burns (who loves nothing more than to attack his men out wide and create goalscoring opportunities), was left playing as a de-facto low-lying centre forward, as showing by his passing map.
All his successful passes (green) are knocking it backwards or sideways to waiting midfielders, dragging him temporarily away from goalscoring opportunities, while his unsuccessful attempts (red) show Burns trying to link up with his overlapping wingers making runs more accustomed to Burns’ skillset.
Both Brockie and Burns have influential parts to play in the Wellington Phoenix’s season, but their roles may need to be switched to maximise their influence.
The Wellington Phoenix had the worst defence in the A-League last season, conceding 51 goals, eight more than the second leakiest squad (Melbourne Victory).
So, how did the Phoenix coaching staff go about fixing that defence? Well, by replacing their untested Australian wingback (Reece Caira) with an untested Kiwi wingback (Tom Doyle), and leaving everything else as it was.
As I wrote about earlier this year, that was a somewhat defensible (heh) move, with the hopeful health of Albert Riera potentially being enough to cover over the holes in the defensive unit.
To be fair, the Phoenix’s defence has been competent so far this season. 10 goals conceded in seven games is league-average, and Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund have been quality to begin the season.
However, both goals scored by Perth on Friday night came about as a result of mistakes from the Phoenix’s wingbacks, with the lapses from Doyle and Manny Muscat being critical.
For the first goal, Doyle badly overcommits where he could have held his ground, leading to Hersi’s cross finding De Silva, who got a bit lucky with his finish after Muscat came thundering back into the picture late to contest the cross.
Keogh’s goal comes from a delightful ball, but Muscat lets him sneak in behind at the back post, a cardinal sin for a wingback.
For years now, the Phoenix have been consistent with using their import slots on midfielders and strikers, being happy to just stick with the status quo defensively.
That could be a prudent strategy. In a salary capped league, you can’t have stars at every position, and there is always going to have to be positions where a side tries to get by with promising yet raw talents like Doyle.
However, defence has been the Phoenix’s weak point for two seasons now, and a single injury could send them into defensive chaos again. Although the premise of an import wingback may sound like misusing resources, for the Phoenix, it should at least be a viable option.
With the truckload of attacking talent on the wings and in the midfield, should the Phoenix have looked at defensive imports? I don’t have a definitive answer, but it could be an interesting opportunity cost to re-evaluate later in the season.
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.