Last season’s ninth placed finish feels like it didn’t quite reflect how much Ernie Merrick’s side improved both over the course of the campaign.
The fact that it was the first season in which the side was lead by someone other than Ricki Herbert probably contributed to the general feeling of positive encouragement, but the Wellington Phoenix genuinely did play some of the competition’s best football, and impressed with their tactical fluidity and flexibility.
The appointment of Merrick in itself was slightly strange because, as widely publicised, owner Gareth Morgan was pushing for a ‘Total Football’ style of play to be imposed, which was a key factor in Herbert’s final, disappointing season where his attempts to transition from his usual system to a more possession-based approach backfired. It’s been suggested Morgan’s original comments were taken out of context, which probably makes sense considering Merrick was something of a sideways step stylistically – not necessarily emphasising ‘bad’ football, but simply more pragmatic and happy to encourage direct, physical play. Furthermore, Merrick’s successful Victory sides were always ruthless on the counter-attack, which is tactically opposite to the supposed ‘Dutch’ style that Morgan was supposedly pushing for.
Rather, it seems like the real meaning behind Morgan’s mandate was simply to ask for the side to have a more distinctive playing style, an increasingly common requirement of A-League coaches. Clubs are now expected to have their own “identity’, and while the Phoenix did have this to a certain extent, it’s fair to see it wasn’t an aesthetically pleasing one.
To this end, Merrick did a very good job in subtly evolving the Phoenix towards a more modern, proactive style of football. There is now a clear focus on playing through midfield, with Vince Lia impressing in the new regime with his ability to transition defence into attack. Rather than having ‘destructors’, the Phoenix midfield now contains ‘distributors’, and when dominating possession, they play very neatly through the centre to progress attacks into the final third.
Furthermore, in what become probably the side’s most obvious “identity”, they became very flexible in terms of shape, with Merrick happy to tinker with the formation from game to game. He started the season with a 4-2-3-1, used a 4-3-3, then found a winning solution with a 4-4-2 diamond, recording a first win of the season with a 1-0 victory over Sydney FC in late December.
The diamond worked because it had assymetrical balance – Kenny Cunningham provided width on the left of the midfield whereas Lia tucked in on the right, while the full-backs were opposite, with Muscat on the left staying at home, and Louie Fenton providing the width otherwise absent on the right. The Phoenix used this lopsided diamond for the rest of the season, although Merrick was happy to revert to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 variant when things weren’t working.
The overriding point here is how flexible Merrick made the Phoenix. The attackers are comfortable constantly switching shape, and actually became very integrated with their movements – playing very narrow in attack, but covering the pitch nicely to ensure the side wasn’t overcrowded. We can expect more of the same this season.
The ‘default’ formation, though, judging by pre-season, seems to be a 4-3-3, somewhat similar to the one used in the final months of 2013. This seems to suit a slightly tweaked squad more – the major work in the transfer window has been to lessen the number of forwards, and instead boost the midfield zone. They moved fairly quickly to bring in four new players – Tom Doyle, Alejandro (Alex) Rodriguez, Roly Bonevacia, Nathan Burns – and eventually got their fifth when Michael McGlinchey’s long, drawn-out contract saga with the Central Coast Mariners was settled.
Starting at the back, Glen Moss will continue in goals despite pressure from backup Lewis Italiano. Ahead of him will be a back four of Doyle, Andrew Durante, Ben Sigmund and Manny Muscat. The latter has returned permanently to full-back despite Merrick being keen last season to play him in midfield, but the long-serving Muscat is strong in the tackle and positionally dependable. He seems to be ahead of Louie Fenton in the pecking order, who eventually grew into his redeployment last season but suffered a long-term injury – he provides more attacking thrust, but is vulnerable against tricky dribblers.
On the opposite side, Doyle has ‘come in from the cold’ after a period where his development was stunted by a self-admitted “lack of maturity”. However, he’s impressed enough to oust another starting full-back from last seasno, Reece Caira. In the centre is the usual partnership of Sigmund and Durante, who have a decent understanding but never seem entirely comfortable playing together. They’re particularly vulnerable when playing with a high line, and can struggle to push high up enough to ensure the side is compact – which can create gaps between the lines, a recurring issue against Melbourne Victory.
“The biggest change from last year is we played a new style with a really high line,” Durante said. “It worked really good in some games and it hurt us in others. It’s about finding a balance and Ernie’s allowed us to not press as high as we were last year, so those balls can’t be played in behind. It’s worked really well in pre-season.”
He also touches on some of the changes in the midfield zone. “Over the course of the Phoenix’s history it’s always been a combative midfield,” said Durante. “Now we’ve added players that are skilful as well and can really cause problems and keep possession in tight situations. That’s something we haven’t had before.”
The player that epitomises this shift is Albert Riera, who will play just in front of the centre-backs. The Spaniard was supremely impressive in his debut season, was unfortunately sidelined with a long-term injury, but was still voted Player of the Year, underlining his importance to the side. He’s very comfortable on the ball and plays incisive vertical passes to the attackers, but is a bit of a ‘Brattan’ figure – tenacious enough to win challenges when able to dive in proactively, but can struggle when turning and chasing an attacker. He will play a disciplined #6 role, anchoring the midfield to allow those ahead of him freedom to push forward.
To the right of midfield will be new signing Bonevacia. The Dutchman describes himself as an “all-round” player but primarily brings a lot of energy, and gets up and down well. His purposeful forward running will be useful on the counter-attack, and provides a nice complement to the more technical player to the left of the midfield traingle – Rodriguez, a clever playmaker who helps keeps moves flowing, and can create chances. He’s similar to Hernandez in the way he records very high pass completion statistics by combining both intelligent, accurate distribution with more ambitious, penetrative passes, but is more mobile than the former and offers more defensively.
It’s in the final third, however, that the Phoenix have tweaked most significantly. McGlinchey and Burns will play left and right respectively, and both like to drift inside and find space between the lines. Merrick likes narrowness in attack, and will get plenty of it with this particular wing pairing – especially McGlinchey, who often played very central for the Mariners.
“We’ve been using him as a very attacking left midfielder, coming inside when he feels like it, going outside when he wants and getting forward when he wants – he’ll be given a lot of freedom,” Merrick says. “That’s the position he played at the Mariners and had so much success. His stats show he’s one of the best players in the league for setting up goals.”
Burns, meanwhile, has more to prove. He didn’t flourish at Newcastle, suggesting that was because of fitness issues – but if he’s going to succeed in any environment, it’s this one. As a very versatile player, he’ll fit right into Merrick’s constant shape changes, and should get lots of service from the midfield. He plays slightly more direct than McGlinchey, and will provide the runs in behind to complement the left winger’s drifts inside. The narrowness of Phoenix’s front three means they should dominate possession a lot more this season, as they’ll effectively have four or five players in the centre at times.
Meanwhile, upfront, Jeremy Brockie has been given the chance to prove he can return to the goalscoring form of 2012-13 (16) as opposed to the poor return of last season (5). That can partly be attributed to playing slightly wider, but Brockie never really seemed sharp and probably wasn’t helped by missing most of pre-season due to a loan spell in Toronto. His link up play is very mature, though, and when in form, leads the line well.
There’s a slight concern about depth at centre-forward, and where the goals come from. Roy Krishna is quicker and makes runs in behind, but like Tyler Boyd and Cunningham, he seems better suited to playing from a wide position. Burns, instead, could be used upfront, with a quicker wide forward coming into the side on the flank.
A common theme to these attackers, of course, is versatility, and that now appears the Phoenix’s “identity” – lots of potential for formation switching, and fluid interchange of positions in the final third. It’s a theme across the entire squad, with players like Josh Brindell-South, Matthew Ridenton and Jason Hicks able to fill in a number of positions.
That suits the tactically flexible Merrick, who constantly switched between a back four and a back three in his six years at the Victory (and we might see similar with Wellington this season). He’s also one of the competition’s more proactive managers, and isn’t afraid to make early changes if necessary – so expect lots of interventions from the bench this season.
Most significantly, he has has slowly evolved Herbert’s squad towards a more technical style of football, and has boosted both their quality and quantity.