Last night saw the Wellington Phoenix kick off their 3rd season in the Hyundai A-League away at Newcastle, and within twenty-two minutes of the kick off all the pre-season hype about their struggle to replace last season’s Golden Boot winner was looking frankly ridiculous. It was the defence that we wanted to be worrying about as two goals were quite simply gifted to the Jets on a silver platter, Jason Hoffman making no mistake with two simple opportunities.
Indeed, it was reminiscent of the ‘Nix’s performances in their first A-League campaign when their defence regularly capitulated to an almost comical degree, eventually condemning them to a last place finish. But those demons seemed to have been exercised last season when Andrew Durante, Ben Sigmund and Jon McKain joined the club and together established a fairly solid defensive combination. If last night’s performance is anything to go by though, the loss of Karl Dodd and Glen Moss are far bigger problems than the much discussed departure of Smeltz.
However, although the performance from the Phoenix was well below par in the defensive quarter, there was actually plenty of promise further up the pitch. New signing Chris Greenacre looked lively and clearly possesses a great touch and awareness to link up play, while Leo Bertos caused havoc in the Newcastle defence on occasion with his direct and lively running. Paul Ifill, the other new striking recruit had a quieter game but having arrived only last week and playing in his first game for the club, deserves some slack.
Some concern may be raised about the tendency to resort to the long ball, which is worrying for Phoenix fans who want to see their team play some more stylish football (although Newcastle’s lump-it strategy was just as obvious and brought them rewards thanks to the ‘accomodating’ defending). Indeed, Ricki Herbert may well have to reconsider the balance of his side, because though Tim Brown and Jon McKain occupied the central midfield roles for much of last season, and though both are capable enforcers in there, both also lack any real flair and creativity.
To be fair, it was widely expected that Herbert would employ a 4-4-2 with these two holding midfielders in the centre for the game, with Herbert’s natural cautious nature (he himself was a defender) bound to become more pronounced when playing away from home. However, now that the squad boasts the more attacking midfield options of Diego, Daniel, Ferrante, Rojas, Bertos and Hearfield; Herbert has no excuse for not employing a more positive attitude in next weeks home fixture against Perth Glory.
While the combination of Brown and McKain provided an excellent shield for the defence last season, they simply do not inspire any real creative link up play and so the team must resort either to the much bemoaned ‘long ball’ or hope that Bertos or Hearfield on the flanks can find some penetration. However, the opposition can soon become wise to these limited attacking strategies and easily defend against them, and that is why Wellington struggled so much in terms of goalscoring last season.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. While Newcastle aren’t the strongest of sides in the A-League and a defeat to them is disappointing, I think it’s important to remember that the Phoenix actually brought defeat upon themselves. None of the Jets’ three goals were a result of the ‘Nix being outplayed by a superior team, they were simply a result of the Phoenix defending like five year old children.
While this is naturally a concern, we know that usually the likes of Sigmund and Durante are more than capable A-League defenders, and that it is exceedingly unlikely that they will perform so poorly again this season. So while the defeat is certainly a disappointing way to begin, at least the manner of it was self-inflicted, which means that Ricki has every chance of improving the side before their next outing, when they can hopefully get some points on the board.
So should we be depressingly lamenting the loss of Glen Moss and Karl Dodd? No. They were both very good players for the Phoenix, but ultimately we have players in place capable of doing what they did, and I’m sure that they will start to justify my faith in them sooner rather than later. But likewise, we should not lament the loss of Shane Smeltz either. Because although he was a fantastic player for the club, the signs so far are that despite the defeat, the Phoenix have found players who can score goals.
So all in all it was an inauspicious start to a season for which we all had such high hopes for the Phoenix. However, a season is a marathon and not a sprint, and so to fall behind the leading pack at this stage is no bother at all. Of course we would have liked to begin with a win, but there were enough promising signs from the Phoenix in Newcastle to fend off the disappointing manner of the defeat and to keep me content in my optimism. More than anything, it’s just nice to have the season underway at last, and the prospect of live football at the Ring Of Fire next week.
Man of the Match: The ‘Nix’s Leo Bertos probably looked like the most dangerous player on the park and provided assists for both Phoenix goals so he gets the nod.