Stubborn Stalemates: Wellington Phoenix must unleash Greenacre

Greenacre has been somewhat strangled by A-League defences thus far.

Greenacre has been somewhat strangled by A-League defences thus far.

When Robbie Fowler headed home a late equaliser for North Queensland Fury against Wellington Phoenix on Saturday night, he condemned the Phoenix to become the new holders of one of the A-League’s more dubious records; their six consecutive draws is now the longest stretch of stalemates that one club has embarked upon in the competition’s five year history.

The most confusing thing though, is that Wellington have actually been playing quite an attacking brand of football for much of this season, have had more shots on goal than any other side in the league and have been creating lots of chances. If they are to break this frustrating sequence though, they need to find out how to get the most from Chris Greenacre, their English striker who was a prolific poacher for Tranmere Rovers in the English Championship. So how can it be done?

Many fans have criticised Greenacre himself for failing to get on the end of the balls being played into the box and have suggested that he lacks the positional sense and the hallowed “striker’s instinct” when it comes to getting himself in the right place at the right time. Watching him play though, I disagree. His pedigree speaks for itself and anyone who checks out his goal compilations on YouTube will see that here’s a player who knows how to sniff out a chance and put it in the net.

In fact, the problem lies with the service that Greenacre has received. It’s true that many balls are put into the box and Greenacre doesn’t get on the end of them, but that is because they are not the right balls being played. Leo Bertos and Paul Ifill, the club’s standout players so far this season, are both high quality wingers and provide good service into the area for a targetman, but unfortunately for Wellington, a targetman is precisely what Greenacre is not.

The club’s management spent much of the Summer looking for a targetman partner for Greenacre who by his own admission is a player who scores the “ugly goals” and feeds off the scraps in and around the penalty area. He needs someone next to him to create those scraps though and while Ifill was signed with that role in mind, this hasn’t eventuated as despite his imposing physical presence, the Barbadian is far more comfortable with the ball at his feet and a defender to run at.

The club’s other strikers (Costa Barbarouses and Jiang Chen) aren’t suitable for that role either and so with a targetman in short supply, they need to look at other options. The place to start is by looking at how Greenacre prefers to receive the ball, and that is without doubt into his feet. He’s neither exceptionally strong nor quick, but he does have a good footballing brain and can outmaneuver defenders, as he showed with aplomb when firing his debut goal past Newcastle Jets.

For Wellington though, this represents something of a problem given that the club’s only creative work ever occurs on the flanks. As I said earlier, it is Bertos and Ifill who provide Wellington’s spark and they are both at their most effective when out wide. However, this leaves Wellington with a very one dimensional attacking strategy because when the ball is wide the only real option for creating danger is to whip a ball into the box to be attacked.

Now Greenacre is actually pretty good in the air, but lacks the physicality to compete with the league’s big central defenders and so unless they allow him to wriggle free or he finds some support from midfield – as happened on Saturday with Tim Brown notching Wellington’s goal – he provides only a very slight target for these wingers to hit. It also doesn’t help that many of the crosses put into the box aren’t what you’d call measured – many Phoenix players seem content with launching their crosses at the penalty area itself, rather than at one particular player within it.

No, what the Phoenix need is another avenue of attack. They need to be able to create opportunities through the middle of the park as well as down the flanks, but this is where the problem begins to emerge fully. Tim Brown, Vince Lia and Jon McKain, the club’s resident central midfield players, are all hugely combative and do an excellent job of shielding their defence and breaking up opposition attacks, but none of them have any real creative flair.

While each is usually competent when picking out an unmarked team mate, they do not have the vision to identify Greenacre’s movement and anticipate where and when he will appear looking for the ball. Because Greenacre’s movement on the pitch is prolific, whether or not the ‘Nix have the ball he never stops running and when the midfield is in possession he’s constantly trying to fashion himself a little space in which he can receive the ball to feet, turn his defender and get a shot on goal.

But the central players don’t have the skill or ambition to attempt these sorts of passes. They are far happier to play the ball sideways to the feet of Bertos, Ifill or Brazilian winger Daniel and then allow these flair players to get the service into Greenacre – service that ultimately doesn’t suit his style of play. For me then, there are two possible solutions to this problem, two ways in which the Phoenix can get the best out of Greenacre and thereby put and end to their goalscoring frustrations.

The first is to sign a targetman. While leaving them one-dimensional in attack, this would greatly increase the potency of their attacks because the service into the box would suddenly have a focal point. A big striker who could compete aerially with the opposition centre backs will score plenty of goals himself but even when he can’t put a cross in the net, he will create the sort of scraps and knockdowns that Greenacre loves to feed on.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as going out and buying a targetman because players effective enough to shine in the A-League aren’t freely available, and while the ‘Nix have room under their salary cap and a marquee contract available, they have little financial power to pay transfer fees and there will be few free agents buzzing around the market until the European seasons start to come to an end next June – and as this summer proved, finding the right man is a difficult job.

The second solution is for Ricki Herbert to bring some creativity into his central midfield partnership. While I truly admire the job that Lia, Brown and McKain do in the centre of the park, their lack of ball-playing talent is limiting the Phoenix’s success, and Herbert needs to make a sacrifice if he is to bring in the necessary creative spark that is required.

The simple fact is that the Phoenix’s creative midfield players are as limited as the defensive ones. The likes of Diego, Daniel or Adrien Caceres who could feasibly be brought into a central midfield role to add a bit of flair and endeavour will contribute very little to the side in a defensive sense. There simply aren’t many ‘complete players’ in the A-League when compared to Europe’s bigger leagues. It’s not that the players here are generally worse than those in Europe, but that they are comparable in some aspects but almost completely lacking in some other parts of their game.

Bringing in a creative midfielder then, would be a big risk for Ricki Herbert who is famously quite a conservative coach. His system of shielding his back four with two hard-tackling midfielders has successfully stemmed the heavy flow of goals that the Phoenix conceded in their debut season but as I’ve said, it is also limiting their attacking capabilities. I think that it is a risk worth taking though.

In recent weeks the form of captain Andrew Durante has been steadily increasing and indeed, he was a rock against North Queensland on Saturday. Allied with the ever committed and consistently solid Ben Sigmund, he has developed a partnership that has gone from strength to strength in recent times – and looks a good deal more secure than it did for much of last season and at the start of this one, and with Jon McKain also proving his quality at centre back against Melbourne a few weeks ago, there is plenty of reassurance should it be needed.

With full backs Muscat and Lochead also in good touch, I think Herbert may rightly feel at liberty to free up one of his central midfielders to a more attacking purpose. Deciding who out of Brown, Lia and McKain should be sacrificed would be the toughest part of such a decision given that all have been playing well, while selecting the man to come in will also be troublesome. Diego performed apathetically at the start of the season while Daniel is perhaps too lightweight for the centre of the park.

If it were me though, I’d look to give Troy Hearfield a free rein in there behind the strikers. The young Australian has never secured a decent run in the side and has been used as something of a utility man at times, filling in at right back for Muscat on Saturday. However, in the glimpses I’ve seen of him he’s shown a lot of skill and flair, as well as plenty of attacking ambition – he’s not been afraid to try and pick out killer passes and he also has a very dangerous shot on him as an added bonus.

Playing at right-back is not his natural position of course, but it will have given him some experience of the defensive side of the game and he’s shown himself to be a tenacious player at times, willing to get stuck in for the team and that will surely only help him to contribute defensively if deployed in central midfield too, something that could not be said of the other options. With Jon McKain currently sidelined with injury then, I’d like to see the Phoenix line up as follows for their match against Gold Coast United on Sunday:

Paston
Muscat | Sigmund | Durante | Lochead
Lia/Brown
<—Bertos | Hearfield | Daniel—>
Ifill | Greenacre

Of course, such a move would be ambitious indeed given that Sunday’s opposition, Gold Coast United, are the league leaders and possess the deadly attacking trinity of Shane Smeltz, Joel Porter and Jason Culina, but with the Phoenix possessing home advantage – as they do for three of their next four fixtures – I feel that Herbert has little choice but to try and step up a gear and really take the game to their opposition on home soil.

Playing more defensively away from home may remain a good option but with the season progressing quickly and the Phoenix still floundering near the bottom of the table and slipping away from the all important play-off positions, they need to find their winning form quickly. Herbert has shown with his swashbuckling tactics for the All Whites against Bahrain that he isn’t afraid to go for the jugular and we need to see him translate that into club management too.

Greenacre is a quality player who certainly knows where the goal is, and with the club’s results stagnating into a repetitive sequence of draws it’s vital that they start to utilise this player properly. When a team relies too heavily on one method of attack it can be easily stemmed, and the introduction of a more attacking minded player – Hearfield or otherwise – to the middle of the park could be the spark that will ignite the Phoenix’s season, their push for the playoffs and Chris Greenacre.

And at the very least, it would give us something different after all these tiresome bloody draws.

Have your say:

Do you think that a creative central midfielder is the answer? Who should it be? Or should we go with two out and out strikers? Or do you have another suggestion? Please leave a comment with your thoughts below…

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