The main story in Wellington last season was all about Gareth Morgan’s bizarre mid-season decision that “the style of football will be determined by the club, not by the coach,” which was a fair enough call.
However, in practical terms, it’s not something you announce halfway through a season, and especially not when you have a coach whose entire coaching style is effectively the opposite of what you want to achieve – about tackling, directness and long balls.
Ricki Herbert’s not a bad coach, but he’s pragmatic, and the sort of manager who can promise effective but not necessarily entertaining play.
It wasn’t surprising that a squad that Herbert had basically built himself, having been Phoenix coach since their inception, was completely incapable of living up to the owners lofty ideals, and despite a switch back to more basic football and a correlating upturn in results, Herbert resigned towards the end of the season.
Perhaps if a more forward-thinking manager had been able to craft a squad like Herbert has been able to, Wellington might be more attractive to watch – but you can’t blame him for emphasising pragmatism rather than tiki-taka.
Ernie Merrick represents evolution rather than revolution – look at the contrast between how his and Ange Postecoglou’s dual-Championship winning teams are remembered, and the Scotsman was never a coach who insisted upon ‘good football’. Things might have changed in the two years he’s spent away from the A-League, but like Herbert, his appeal is results rather than philosophy – he’s the most successful coach in the league’s history.
The most significant change – with the back four basically unchanged aside from the departure of long-serving left-back Tony Lochhead – appears to be in attacking positions, with Jeremy Brockie now supported by the Costa Rican combination of Carlos Hernandez and Kenny Cunningham. Hernandez will almost certainly be central of a 4-2-3-1, but Cunningham could play on either flank and will drive directly towards goal. Wellington often played with natural width high up the pitch under Herbert, but with the new manager likely to encourage the wingers into goalscoring positions, the width will now likely come from full-back – which is why winger Louie Fenton has been redeployed as an attacking right-back.
Both the full-backs may have changed, but the central defenders remain, and while Ben Sigmund and Andrew Durante are decent enough, their ability to pass out from the back was at times questionable last season. This might be a long-term project for Merrick, which suits the man who holds the record for the longest stint at any A-League club.