Wellington turned a two goal deficit into three points.
So pleased was he with last week’s 1-1 draw with the Mariners, Ricki Herbert made no changes to his starting XI or his bench.
John Aloisi was without his first choice centre-back pairing, so David Vrankovic and Steven Gray came into the side, as did Sam Mitchinson and Jason Hoffman.
There were two 3-2 thrillers in this round, but like the Jets, Wellington’s comeback didn’t stem from a particularly clever formation change or tactical tweak, but simply because they played much better than the Heart for the majority of the game.
The Heart were unlucky to lose via a last-minute goal in last week’s derby, so Aloisi didn’t make sweeping changes to his side’s structure despite having to change three of his back four. Instead, the fundamental difference was that they played with greater ambition: the wide players stayed higher up the pitch, while Hoffman energetically broke forward from midfield.
That slight adjustment in midfield was important, as the Wellington duo of Vince Lia and Manny Muscat struggled to track the runners into their penalty area. Muscat was focused on marking Fred, but the Brazilian playmaker played deeper than usual, dragging his marker away and opening up space for Hoffman to burst forward.
This simple reverse movement led directly to the two opening goals: first, Andrew Durante was forced to rush up and foul Hoffman, who had found space on the edge of the area, and Golgol Mebrahtu scored from the resulting free-kick. Then, Hoffman intelligently moved in advance of Fred to win the ball in a similar area, playing in David Williams whose shot deflected off Durante.
The Wellington response was natural – they upped the intensity of their pressing, most notably when Hoffman was surrounded by Phoenix players and was easily dispossessed by Lia, who found Louie Fenton inside the area.
They also seemed particularly keen to work the ball out quickly to the wingers, so Fenton and Tyler Boyd to run directly at the Heart full-backs. The two youngsters had been impressive last week against the Mariners and ran directly at their opponents, as well as making clever forward runs into central positions.
Often, Jeremy Brockie would drift from his forward position to the left and link up with Fenton, so the Heart defence was sucked narrow, meaning Boyd was often free in a wide position on the other flank. This trend was also noticeable in reverse, where long periods of build-up play down the right would leave Fenton free and unmarked on the left, but the home side rarely switched play quickly, meaning this was an insignificant feature.
Instead, the game became increasingly about attack v defence, as the Heart dropped deeper and deeper to protect their lead, and played purely on the counter-attack using the speed of Mebrahtu and Williams, and Tadic was increasingly isolated: he completed just five passes for the entire match.
But the most important – and obvious – trend of the game was Leo Bertos’s storming runs from right full-back, where the Kiwi continually broke past Williams, who offered little support to Mitchinson. Dani Sanchez tended to drift that way too, helping to create overloads past the right full-back, who, for the second week in a row, was the focus for opposition attacks. The overall quality of Bertos’s delivery was poor, but he had a key role in the equalising goal by providing the cross that lead to the penalty.
The eventual winner stemmed from a fortunate deflection, but it was a fair reflection on the balance of play – the Heart had invited enormous pressure, and the Phoenix created several good chances throughout the half by playing out from the back, with Ben Sigmund particularly keen to play short passes through midfield.
Aloisi would have been concerned about the freedom afforded to Bertos and might have been encouraged by the relative security of his right flank – due in part to sloppy work from Tony Lochhead – so he introduced Ersin Kaya, meaning Mebrahtu shifted left. However, four minutes later, he had to chase the game and turn defending into proactiveness, so Dylan MacAllister replaced Hoffman, and Fred dropped back into central midfield.
This was largely ineffective, and the Heart created little in the final twenty minutes – in fact, it was the Phoenix who continued to attack, and they frequently won the ball off Fred in midfield, who eventually received a yellow card for a high foot in reaction to giving the ball away cheaply.
An interesting game, even if it wasn’t a particularly engaging tactical battle. Very few managers in the league change formation mid-game, so the standard response to falling behind is to increase the intensity of pressing – something Wellington did well here, but they were certainly aided by the Heart’s extraordinary conservativeness.
The key was Bertos’s energy from right-back, combined with intelligent play from Sanchez, who drifted from side to side to link up with the wingers, who were then able to provide Brockie with service through the middle.