I will concede that I’m not a very big supporter of new Zealand’s All Whites. My loyalties lie very much with England when it comes to international football and usually I’m not really bothered by NZ’s results. However, I am an avid supporter of New Zealand football in general. As an exiled Englishman who is fanatical about football I’m very keen to see the profile and popularity if the game raised in this largely egg-chasing country. And I know that the best way for that to happen would be for the All Whites to qualify for next year’s World Cup, and so in that quest they have my support.
After watching this morning’s game though, I’m very worried. The 5-0 defeat to Spain can be struck off, that means nothing. But if NZ are serious about overcoming Asia’s 5th placed qualifier and making the World Cup they will need to improve vastly from their showing against South Africa. They were beaten 2-0, but had the Bafana’s finishing been up to scratch it could have been many more, and NZ’s complete toothlessness in attack and haplessness at the back is of a major concern for New Zealand football fans, myself included.
So with that in mind, I’ve put together a few points in which I identify where it went wrong for them today. I think that tactically the All Whites were a bit of a shambles, and seemed to have no real sense of a cohesive game plan. Whether that is the fault of coach Ricki Herbert for failing to provide one or of the players to adhere to it I’m not sure. Only one thing is for certain and that is that they need to improve, and sharpish.
First Problem: Defence.
Against Spain it was clear that the defencive partnership of Boyens and Vicelich were not up to scratch. They’ve clearly not got any understanding at all and combined with the limited amount of talent possessed by each and you have one leaky back line. Spain strolled through it at will, and South Africa weren’t unduly troubled either, Steven Pienaar in particular was able to slide passes through all day and only some errant offside flags and some wayward finishing kept the score from becoming embarrassing.
Yes, New Zealand are currently without their two best centre backs, star player and captain Ryan Nelsen of Blackburn Rovers fame is injured and Wellington Phoenix fan-favourite Ben Sigmund is still on the road to recovery after an operation of his own. I certainly accept that is those two players were available for NZ then they would look a little more solid, but I don’t accept that as an excuse for a second. Because what will happen if one or both of them get injured for the World Cup Qualifiers? It’s a squad game for a reason, and you need to have capable back up.
What Ricki needs to do is get Vicelich and Boyens on the training ground along with the full backs and get back to basics. Work on positional awareness and movement. They need to know which of them in any situation is closing down and which one is holding the line. They need to be able to maintain a good distance between them and to command the rest of the team from the back. The whole team’s defencive work should be controlled by them.
A number of times this morning there were players drifting and drawing the full backs inside, leaving enormous space on the wings that was often exploited to good effect by the energetic South Africans. At one point I saw Lochead shouting desperately at his centre backs who had both bee drawn across and out of position, leaving him with two men to mark. This sort of thing is basic positional awareness and concentration. It’s not hard, it just takes application.
These players will never be great players, and they’re never even going to be good international standard players. However, if they have discipline and concentration then they will be able to step in and ably fill the void against lesser international teams – such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the two teams that NZ could face in their World Cup Qualifier. The foundation of any side is a solid defence, and first and foremost, Ricki Herbert needs to plug the gaps in NZ’s back line.
Second Problem: Creativity.
This is a dilemma that is less easily solved for Herbert. The Wellington Phoenix are in essence a mini All Whites and they have struggled enormously over the past two seasons to find any real spark of creativity in their midfield, and thus goals in the A-League have been hard to come by. And if you haven’t got players to give you goals in the A-League, you stand no chance at international level.
However, Herbert doesn’t help himself with his team selections. No doubt aware of the defensive frailties outlined above Herbert opted for experience and played Tim Brown and Simon Elliot in central midfield, players who are content to sit deep and shield the defence. Elliot has a reasonable range of passing but little real creative flair and on the ball Brown is about as much of a threat to opposition defences as ‘keeper Glen Moss.
Alongside these two players in midfield was Jeremy Christie who came into the side for Jeremy Brockie who was hopelessly exposed against the Spanish and paid for it. However, the whole side was hopelessly exposed against the Spanish yet he didn’t drop them all (though at times it seemed like he had) and Brockie is a player with the youth and energy that might have made a difference in today’s game. Certainly Christie, who operates either in defence or midfield, never looked like getting forward and I don’t remember seeing him in an attacking situation in the whole game.
The final piece of the midfield puzzle was Leo Bertos, New Zealand’s trickiest player, which unfortunately isn’t saying much. He has got a bit of pace about him and will run at players but his end product is entirely missing, and the good work he does with the ball at his feet is usually undone as soon as he tries to move it on. However, you’d be amazed what a bit of pace and just the willingness to attack a team will do, and Bertos has that which makes him a threat. Unfortunately, he was the only one of NZ’s midfield to offer any threat.
It’s understandable that Herbrt wanted to protect his defence, but ultimately they need to win games. If they are to make the World Cup they will have to score a goal in one of their qualifiers, and to do that they need some more creativity. I’ll concede that they’re not blessed with creative talent, but playing three defensively minded midfielders is certainly not going to help. At the very least you need to have at least two players in there who are willing to run at a team or who have the vision to split a defence occasionally.
Third Problem: Attack.
The real strength of NZ football at present is arguably in attack. Shane Smeltz is a proven goal-getter at A-League level and has reproduced that form in internationals regularly too. Chris Killen is another striker with a good scoring record and he currently plies his trade for Celtic in the relative glamour of the SPL. In addition to these two players they also have two youngsters in Chris Bright and Chris James who are highly rated by the coaching staff, with Bright even getting a substitute appearance in the Premier League last season, playing for West Brom.
Undoubtedly though, it is Smeltz and Killen who are the main men for Herbert at present, and that’s understandable – apart from Nelsen they are (alongside ‘keeper Glen Moss) NZ’s most talented players. Unfortunately though, they’re both also very similar players. Tall and strong and good in the air, neither of them has any real pace about them and both are quite limited with the ball at their feet – they’re not gonna be skinning defenders anytime soon.
And any manager worth their salt (or who has played Football Manager) will tell you that a decent strike partnership needs a bit of variation. A target man is a great asset to have (as Ricki well knows – he’s currently scouring the globe to find one for the Phoenix) but they work best when combined with a nippy striker with pace who will play off them. Because although Killen and Smeltz are both capable of flicking the ball on and laying off their partner, neither of them is any good at being that partner. There isn’t enough pace in the equation.
Which unfortunately means that Herbert needs to leave out one of his better players. Of course usually a manager will do all he can to get his best players into the team but to be frank, playing the two of them together has a negative effect on the team as a whole. He needs to partner one of them with some pace, and that is where one of the young Chris’ could be given the chance to step up, as both are young and willing runners who will chase those knock-downs all day long.
At present the only time when NZ’s front-men really threaten as a partnership is from set pieces, from which both can be deadly and keeping tabs on both can prove to be a bit too much for many lesser international teams. But that simply isn’t enough, a team cannot rely on set pieces to get them the goals they need to be successful. So if Ricki wants to select his best All Whites side, I really believe he will have to take the rather counter-intuitive move of dropping one of his better players. It does sound strange I grant you, but after all football is a funny ol’ game.
Fourth Problem: Tactics.
This problem is in many ways the love child of the second and third problems. New Zealand’s lack of creativity in midfield forced them to resort to the ‘long ball game’ far too often for my eyes’ liking against South Africa, and it didn’t work for them because although their target men could win the ball, they had no one to feed off the knock downs. Ultimately then, it was a tactical cul-de-sac.
Ricki really needs to establish a plan of attack before the All Whites’ next game. The lack of creativity in the team is clearly something that the players themselves are aware of, which means that they are more than happy to lump it forward, bypassing a midfield that doesn’t really provide and attacking prowess at all. However, such a long ball game will certainly not work if they’ve got no pace running off the striker, which they should know.
If they did know that, and still resorted to playing the long ball game, then you have to wonder about the tactical awareness of the players. It was quite clear for all to see that lumping the ball forward to Smeltz and Killen was having no effect. There might as well have been a brick wall built across the half way line, because the ball just kept coming back. But they did not try and change things at all. No one took te game by the scruff of the neck and attempted to control the tempo, to direct the flow of New Zealand’s attacks.
What they really need is a bit of direction. Ricki needs to sit them down and spell it out to them. Tell them that if the long ball isn’t working they have to try something else. But he also needs to give them that option. A central midfield of Brown and Elliot clearly doesn’t work, and so I’d consider moving Bertos into the middle, to play just behind the front two in a playmaker role. Make him the focal point of attacks, encourage players to play through him, get it into his feet and then move off him so he can direct the play. This would also have the added bonus of preventing him from trying to cross the ball very often.
Whatever he does though, Ricki needs to get them playing as a cohesive unit. He needs to get everyone contributing, after all it’s a team game, and though the talent may be weighted heavily in the final third of the pitch, they need all eleven players to contribute. Bypassing the midfield is not a legitimate strategy for success in football, if they’re not having an effect on the game then things have to change.
Overall I have to say that I feel a bit of sympathy for Herbert. He has a tough job, because the New Zealand team doesn’t have an abundance of talent. He doesn’t have a Steven Pienaar to act as a creative dynamo, and that makes things difficult. But it will prove to be a good test of his tactical ability. A team with little natural ability can w=still win games if they are properly diciplined and organised. Herbert then, needs to come up with a strategy that will maximise the potential of his players, to play to their strengths.
If he can do that, and solve the other problems that I’ve outlined, then New Zealand could very well return to South Africa next year, to play in only their second World Cup Finals. But make no mistake, if things do not improve from this morning’s showing then either Bahrain or Saudi Arabia will find them just as easy opposition as South Africa did, and that would be bad news for football in this country, because it really needs a lift.