Dani Sanchez equalised late to give the home side an unexpected point.
Ricki Herbert promised changes after last week’s capitulation to Adelaide, but he only made two, one enforced: Tyler Boyd started in place of the injured Paul Ifil, while Steim Huysegems dropped to the bench with Jeremy Brockie preferred up-front in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
Graham Arnold likes a settled starting XI, so his side were unchanged from their 2-0 win over Melbourne Heart.
This was the least interesting game of the triple header, and that was reflected in a boring tactical battle.
Both sides were lined up evenly across the pitch: a back four, two central midfielders with the wingers tracking back, and a playmaker deployed behind a striker. Therefore, much of the game was about one-on-one matchups; given neither side had a numerical superiority in a particular zone.
In that sense, the Phoenix’s best players were Boyd and Louie Fenton, the two wingers. The home side focused their passing down the flanks with direct balls into the channels, and although the final ball was inconsistent, the pressure pushed the Mariners full-backs deep and prevented them from overlapping down the sides.
As was obvious against the Melbourne Heart, the width from the wide defenders is crucial to Arnold’s gameplan, especially with the wide players coming narrow to create overloads in midfield. There were a few good moments where Ibini-Isei came very central and released Rose down the touchline, but on the whole the Mariners struggled to play their usual attacking game.
How Wellington dealt with Tom Rogic, as always, was important – the biggest problem that Herbert’s side has is minimising the space between the lines of midfield and defence, which is, of course, the exact area in which Rogic likes to play.
But rather than trying to keep it compact in that zone, the New Zealander encouraged his side to play high up the pitch, which forced Rogic closer to the halfway line. The by-effect of this was that there was lots of space in behind, but the Wellington pressing was generally quite good and prevented the Mariners from playing balls over the top. This would have been encouraging for Herbert considering that the last time his side tried to play a high line, it was torn to shreds by the Victory attack.
Sometimes the Phoenix midfield duo of Vince Lia and Manny Muscat would be drawn up the pitch towards the sitting duo of Josh Hutchinson and Nick Montgomery, which meant there was space for Rogic in between the lines. In these situations, one of the centre-backs – generally Andrew Durante – would rush up quickly and prevent the playmaker from turning on the ball.
Rogic could use his body to shield the ball, and cleverly did so to create an ambitious shooting opportunity when Mark Paston was caught outside the box, but with the Phoenix operating an effective ‘sweeper’ system, with Ben Sigmund coming deep to cover for Durante’s aggressiveness; this was one of Rogic’s quieter games.
At the other end of the pitch, the Phoenix’s designated playmaker played well – not just because of his goal – but because he contributed to some crisp passages of passing that helped the Phoenix play around the solid Mariners defence. Sanchez targeted the pockets of space around Montgomery and one play involving three consecutive one-twos was particularly thrilling.
But as exciting as this quick interchange was, it didn’t directly lead to a chance. The Mariners have the best defence in the competition (along with the Western Sydney Wanderers) largely due to their outstanding organisation. They play very compact in two banks of four with the front two working hard to block off passing lanes, and Wellington found it difficult to break through.
It was an interesting contrast of defensive styles: the Mariners are very calm when they defend and rarely shift from their structure, whereas Herbert’s side was more haphazard, more prone to being dragged out of position by clever runs and intelligent off-the-ball movement – McBreen’s work, in this respective, is particularly impressive.
But there was little to suggest either side would take the lead before half-time, so the Mariners goal was fairly harsh on the home side.
The Phoenix played more proactively after the break, as was one would expect seeing they were behind, but they struggled to create chances against a side happy to soak up pressure. Leo Bertos and Tony Lochhead took turns to get forward manfully but both squandered possession far too easily, although the former created a good chance with a cutback into the penalty area.
Arnold replaced Ibini-Isei, who had been struggling with injury, with Miles Sterjovski, who switched flanks with Michael McGlinchey to play on the right.
But the key change was Benjamin Totori. Herbert didn’t change his side’s shape, but the Solomon Islands winger dribbled directly at Bojic down the left flank, using his pace in one-on-one situations to isolated the Central Coast defender. Was Sterjovski’s positioning on the right a factor? Not hugely, but it could have contributed to Bojic’s clear discomfort in defending during the last ten minutes.
Totori’s most significant contribution was a fine cross for the goal, and nearly scored a winner with a rasping volley. Although it wasn’t a clever tactical change, it was still a good move from Herbert that secured a point. Often, the Wellington players would receive the ball and then return it immediately to the passer, and while this kind of secure play isn’t inherently wrong, Phoenix do miss the sort of player who takes a more positive first touch into space or towards their marker. Totori’s directness was refreshing.
A simple formation battle and no in-game changes to discuss. This was a predictable Mariners performance, but they lacked cohesion and it would have been a fortuitous win.
But of Wellington’s fifteen goals this season, seven have come in the final fifteen minutes – at 46% of their overall tally, it’s their ‘highest scoring time period’ (when you divide a match into fifteen miute segments). In some ways, this was a predictable draw.