Nathan Burns got a hat-trick as Wellington Phoenix thumped Melbourne City.
Ernie Merrick brought Alex Rodriguez and Michael McGlinchey into his starting side, with Vince Lia and Jeremy Brockie making way. He continued with the lopsided 4-4-2 diamond shape that could have also been termed a 4-3-3, with Michael McGlinchey, Roy Krishna and Nathan Burns in a front three.
John van’t Schip dropped Jason Hoffman for Ross Archibald at right-back, and injury replacement Liam Miller was ironically injured, so Jacob Melling started for the second time this season.
Phoenix attempt to play through lines
In just over sixteen months in charge of Wellington, the major stylistic change Merrick has implemented has been a focus on playing through the lines, with the side controlling possession more readily under him compared to predecessor Ricki Herbert, and looking to progress into the final third by playing forward passes to attackers between the lines. The main facilitator of this is Albert Riera from a deep-lying midfield position (#6).
In this formation, Wellington had numerical superiority over Melbourne City in midfield because McGlinchey dropped from his central position to become a #10, pulling into pockets of space between the lines, and Albert Riera pulling away from the base of midfield to find space. Therefore, City defended slightly deeper than usual here, not pressing high up or man-marking, but instead sitting in a medium block near half-way.
However, they were helped by what was a poor performance on the ball from Wellington in the opening period. There were lots of sloppy balls, misplaced passes and a lack of control – Wellington were trying to play forward to the likes of Roly Bonevacia and McGlinchey, but the distribution from deep positions was underwhelming, even though Riera recorded decent passing statistics.
City attack directly
As a result of this, City’s primary tactic was to attack quickly and directly when they won the ball. A recurring theme of their season is that the front three of Mate Dugandzic, David Williams and Damien Duff (from left to right) are much more comfortable driving forward into space on the break. Right from the first minute, this pattern was obvious, when Williams powered past Andrew Durante but under-hit his square pass to Dugandzic, who smacked his finish in front of goal miles over the bar.
Inside the first twenty minutes, City were caught offside four times running in behind Phoenix’s defensive line at counter-attacks. The urgency of which they attacked was a neat contrast with Wellington’s more methodical build-up play, and the difference was summed up by the fact midfielders Mooy and Melling were primarily involved via long range shots, rather than passes, because the wingers were carrying the ball forward and then cutting it back for runners near the top of the box (of City’s fifteen shots, nine came from outside the box).
City’s directness was also facilitated by the fact Wellington sat quite high up without the ball, defending in ‘two lines of three’ – Krishna, McGlinchey and Burns closed down as the first line of defence in a flat line, with Bonevacia, Riera and Rodriguez behind them. City seemed unable to play around this pressure, with Redmayne, Kisnorbo and Wielaert often going long. McGlinchey’s job pressuring Paartalu also helped, as it prevented City from creating their usual 3-man overload at the back when the holding midfielder drops in between the centre-backs.
By this stage, City had had the better chances and were on top, but in an amazingly short period of time, undid all their good work. It started with a shocking backpass from Paartalu, which lead to one of the few times McGlinchey wasn’t crowded out in a central position. He slipped a pass in behind for Burns, who got fortunate with a deflection underneath Andrew Redmayne to score the first goal.
At this point, City simply collapsed. They lost all momentum and shape after this first goal, and now, the situation was reversed: now, City were the side giving the ball away cheaply, and the Phoenix simply countering through their front three. Bonevacia doubled the lead before the break, then Burns and Krishna added another two after the half-time break. City’s implosion was compounded by some ludicrously poor defensive errors, and although the Phoenix hadn’t played particularly well, they were up 4-0.
A greater range of movement from McGlinchey in that #10 position also helped – twice he made an arced run around the outside of Krishna on the left, giving the Fijian time to cut inside, most notably for his well-taken goal (Wellington’s third).
By this point, the second half basically became a glorified training session. The intensity went out of the contest, with the Phoenix happy to invite City forward, then hit them on the break. They were especially successful when getting beyond City’s defensive line, who attempted to push high up but were vulnerable to simple runs in behind.
The only tactical point of interest, even though Van’t Schip made all three of his changes by the 52nd minute, was that Jason Hoffman (on for Archibald) was able to get forward into some good positions down the right because of Wellington’s ‘flat’ defensive structure. He created two good chances for Melling with cut-backs from the byline, and also freed up another substitute, James Brown to run at the Phoenix defence, winning a penalty that was, in the words of City’s own Twitter account, ‘barely a consolation’.
Burns finished the rout with a cooly (re)-taken penalty to make it 5-1.
The caricature being painted is that this was ‘classic City’ – lots of chances, a failure to convert, and awful defensive errors. It’s not far from the truth, for they were creating chances at 0-0 and getting in behind Wellington’s back four with quick, purposeful counter-attacks, an approach that clearly suits what is obviously Van’t Schip’s first-choice front three.
Wellington thrashed City without playing particularly well, which has to be one of the most telling indictments on a side’s overall quality. The obvious criticism is that City lack outright quality individually, and this is particularly obvious in the full-back positions – Ramsay and Hoffman were disastrous in last week’s defeat to Sydney FC, and Archibald only lasted 50 minutes here before being hooked.
Further to the point, though, City don’t have a cohesive system. They’ve switched between counter-attacking and possession without looking particularly convincing with either approach, and serious questions have to be asked of Van’t Schip’s ability to take this side forward.
Phoenix, meanwhile, will take heart from this resounding victory. Privately, though, Merrick might acknowledge the poor opening twenty minutes, where the team struggled to implement their desired technical style. A particular issue is a reliance on Riera, and to a lesser extent, Rodriguez, to play forward through the lines, and one wonders at what point the ball-playing ability of the limited centre-backs, Durante and Sigmund, comes into question, if Merrick is to achieve his obvious goal of making Wellington a ‘modern’, technical, possession-based side.