Nathan Burns got the winner after Wellington were able to successfully implement their new technical style on the contest.
Despite Monday night’s 2-0 defeat to Melbourne Victory, Ernie Merrick kept with the same starting line-up. That meant he was continuing with the 4-4-2 diamond rather than the 4-3-3 he had preferred in their first three games of the season, so instead of Michael McGlinchey and Burns flanking Jeremy Brockie, they played as wide forwards, with Roly Bonevacia tucked in behind as a #10.
After their Asian Champions League exploits, Tony Popovic handed A-League starts to a number of players who have had little game time this season. Matthew Spiranovic returned to resume the usual partnership with Nikolai Topor-Stanley at the back, with Seyi Adeleke debuting at left-back. Ahead of him was another debutant, Nikita Rukavytsya, with Alusine Fofanah and Romeo Castelen completing the attacking trio behind Tomi Juric. Jason Trifiro started alongside Iacopo La Rocca in midfield.
Wellington defensive shape
Rewinding slightly, the major tactical talking point of Wellington’s last match, on Monday night against the Victory, was Merrick’s surprising decision to drop the 4-3-3 he’d used in their first three games, and switch to a 4-4-2 diamond. It was a very unusual, asymmetric shape, however, particularly in the defensive phase. McGlinchey stayed very wide on the left, occupying right-back Scott Galloway, with his ‘strike partner’, Burns, on the right, but playing slightly narrower so he was picking up the Victory’s left-sided centre-back, Leigh Broxham. Bonevacia was instructed to man-mark Carl Valeri, with Alex Rodriguez and Albert Riera sticking tight to Rashid Mahazi and Guilherme Finkler respectively, while Vince Lia shuttled out from the right-hand side of the midfield diamond to press against Victory left-back, Dylan Murnane.
The one player not accounted for was Mark Milligan, and this proved to be decisive. Milligan is an excellent passer and confident on the ball, and so constantly brought it forward from the back to instigate attacks. His range of distribution was pivotal to the Victory being able to play out around the Phoenix’s pressure, and lead directly to a number of dangerous opportunities.
It was particularly surprising that Merrick did not account for this with the new shape, as this was hardly a new set of attributes from Milligan. Eventually, at half-time, Merrick did make a change to a 4-3-1-2, with McGlinchey in behind substitute Brockie, which meant they could press up against the Victory centre-backs more effectively – Milligan’s influence waned, as demonstrated by the contrast in the number of passes completed in the 1st and 2nd halves.
Spiranovic goes free
With this in mind, it was surprising that Merrick kept with the 4-4-2 diamond, especially as the 4-3-3 had seen great success away to Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners. Here, there were very similar roles for the front six – McGlinchey very wide on the left, Burns tucked in narrower down the right channel, Bonevacia picking up Trifiro, Rodriguez on La Rocca, and Riera on Fofanah. Yet again, it meant one player was left unoccupied, and again, it was the better passer – Matthew Spiranovic, who is capable of accurate long diagonals and not afraid to dribble into the midfield.
He did both on a number of occasions throughout the first half here, allowing the Wanderers to play out around Wellington’s pressure and get into the final third.
Merrick’s unusual set-up did not backfire as significantly as it did against the Victory, primarily because Bonevacia wasn’t as strict with his marking of Trifiro, and sometimes moved forward to press Spiranovic. However, there were still examples of Spiranovic working the ball into the final third:
Although this pattern of play didn’t lead directly to a goal, it was enough of a feature in this game to warrant discussion. Assuming Merrick persists with it, should be interesting to see why he is seemingly happy to leave good opposition passers free on the ball.
Fenton pushes forward
The major tactical feature of the match was the advanced positioning of Louie Fenton at right-back. Fenton is a winger converted into a defender, still obviously likes to get forward, and is encouraged to do so by the narrowness of Wellington’s attack. It was clear that he was specifically instructed to push high up here, because every time Wellington won the ball he immediately sprinted forward – on one occasion, the Phoenix lost the ball straightaway, and he was ten yards ahead of the play.
That hinted at the wider pattern, where the game gradually became about the cat-and-mouse battle between Fenton and Rukavytsya. Tony Popovic’s system demands that his wingers track back to help protect the defence, and Rukavytsya generally did a good job picking up Fenton when he moved forward, and often ended up in very deep positions attempting to defend against the full-back.
There was no clear ‘winner’, because although Fenton created a few chances – including a Bonevacia shot at the fifteen minute mark and the Spiranovic handball just on the edge of the area – his advanced positioning also lead to Wanderers chances. The best example of this was the counter-attack led by Rukavytsya after ten minutes, where he broke forward down the sides, gets 1v1 with Ben Sigmund, and beats him with a clever change of acceleration.
The video below demonstrates both examples of Fenton’s contributions going forward, and the Wanderers counter-attacks down his side.
As the game progressed, the tempo became slower, and the Phoenix were able to work the ball forward through midfield into attack. This forced the Wanderers quite deep, and much of the second half became about attack v defence, especially as Western Sydney were struggling to counter-attack effectively.
That, in turn, allowed the Phoenix to press higher up. Bonevacia began closing down Spiranovic very energetically, meaning Lia now became responsible for closing down Trifiro. Riera was still on Fofanah, though, and the youngster actually did quite a good job moving into wider areas to try and drag the Spaniard out of position, which worked because Riera was happy to follow him across the pitch.
However, the momentum was with Wellington, with Fenton again responsible for pushing forward down the right. He had a good chance on the 65 minute mark, but had to be substituted after a shoulder injury.
Merrick responded positively to his side’s control of the game, taking the opportunity to bring on an extra attacker, Roy Krishna, out on the left, switching McGlinchey into the #10 position, shifting Bonevacia deeper and removing Rodriguez. It was an attacking change, and Krishna provided more drive with his runs in behind. Bonevacia also benefitted – he is much better arriving late in attacking moves and driving forward into space, rather than starting permanently higher up. He and Krishna combined to set up Burns at the far post for the game’s only goal.
At times, this was a frustratingly scrappy game, with both teams guilty of sloppy passing. However, when the pace slowed after the break, Wellington were able to implement their style of football on the contest, forcing the Wanderers deep and creating enough pressure to get the lone goal that proved decisive.
Still, there remains serious question marks over the sustainability of this very unusual 4-4-2 diamond shape, given the way Merrick doesn’t seem to mind letting the opposition’s best passer go free. It’s not as if opposition scouting doesn’t exist, and it’s fairly clear that Milligan and Spiranovic are good on the ball – yet the system seems almost designed to encourage them to move forward and have possession, as if maybe Merrick deliberately wants to provoke them into being drawn out of position.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough of a problem here (as opposed to the Victory game), and the Phoenix’s impressive start to the season continues.