Ooomph. That one hit below the belt. You gotta be fair and say Mexico deserved it, and were always huge favourites to run away with this first leg especially. But we didn’t give ourselves a chance the way we lined up and the way we competed (or rather: didn’t compete). I’ve given it enough time to sink in. Time to vent some thoughts:
So parking the bus didn’t work. Though the problem was more that we didn’t know how to execute the strategy. Playing so deep and crowding the area doesn’t work if you just stand there and watch those little Speedy Gonzalezes run into pockets of space around you. You still need to be aggressive in challenging for the ball and not standing off players like we did so often. With that many guys around the ball, you’ve always got cover. But we didn’t defend as a team, we lapsed with marking and positioning and we got torched down their left wing especially. We were so negative and they just forced us back and picked us off.
And how bad was it seeing us getting beaten in the air? Set pieces were meant to be our best scenarios, yet our defenders weren’t nearly assertive enough, and going forward, we didn’t have anyone who could lift a cross anyway.
I suppose the writing was on the wall when Tony Lochhead and Jeremy Christie were picked to start despite not even technically being professional footballers anymore. Pretty much the first thing that Ernie Merrick did at the Phoenix was dump Tony Lochhead (for good reason), and despite not having played a competitive game since the end of the last A-League season, Ricki Herbert still threw him in. And he should have conceded a penalty with a ridiculously awkward handball in the second half. Just as he gave away that penalty in the Bahrain game.
Remember when Herbert suggested Lochhead to Gareth Southgate and got him a trial at Middlesbrough? How stupid does that look now?
Jeremy Christie, meanwhile, wasn’t just out of his depth but out of his position too. He’s a defender, and not even of A-League quality, and he was playing centre-mid. Our midfield (Christie & McGlinchey) was completely anonymous as they couldn’t string three touches together. Nobody had the composure to hold the ball, or look for a pass. The first 45 mins we just pumped the ball straight from defence to Chris Wood to hold up all alone.
Chris Wood was one of the few real positives in this game. His first touch often looks rusty, but his strength is an asset, and he was the only guy to show any attacking impetus while he was on. His yellow was clumsy and unfortunate. His substitution the most infuriating moment of the game. Why take off your best striker when your only hope is to snatch an away goal? To replace him with Rory Fallon, a worse player in the same model as Wood. Is it to rest him for the second leg which he was already gonna miss through suspension?
I had no idea that Jeremy Brockie was playing until the second half.
The other positive performances came from substitute Chris James and keeper Glen Moss. James brought that assuredness and composure to the midfield that we were lacking, and it showed enormous differences as we were able to link the forward line and the defence. He deserved his goal and should be starting next leg in Wellington. Especially given our absolute dearth of central midfielders. It was a weakness last world cup, and since then we’ve lost Simon Elliott and Tim Brown (who’s gone up a lot in my estimations seeing the Phoenix struggle without his midfield muscle). Moss was as good as you’d expect from a keeper as good as he is. He made a string of great saves which will have made highlight reels around the world (he’s all over ESPN, thanks to Mexico’s involvement). The first goal he’s a little accountable for (though Tommy Smith more so for ball watching as his man ran around him for the tap-in), the rest he could do nothing about. Definitely our man of the match, despite conceding 5 goals.
I didn’t even notice Kosta Barbarouses was playing until he won that foul right before half time.
Missing Winston Reid was devastating. He’s not only a brilliant defender, but a general who’d never stand for the passivity of his teammates yesterday. Plus playing for West Ham makes him an expert at parking the bus. Rojas’ injury was bad too, since he would have given us pace upfront to counter attack. The half hour or so that he got was decent, but it was too late by then.
Dan Keat was another big injury omission. He’s not a guy that many have seen or even heard of back here in the motherland, but he played with Becks at LA Galaxy for a little while, and is currently giving it a good go in the Sweden, having just helped Falkenbergs FF to promotion to the top league. Plus he’s a midfielder!
There’s no reason why Leo Bertos, Tony Lochhead and Jeremy Christie should ever play international football again. Ivan Vicelich could maybe be added due to his age (and he was shockingly slow yesterday – did you see him trying to turn for the third goal?), but at least Vicelich has top level experience. I think a lot of people forget that he spent a number of years playing for Roda JC in the top Dutch League. Though eventually, father time will get ya.
The saddest thing is, we’ve gone backwards since the 2010 World Cup, instead of using the experience to grow the game and out national team .We’ve been complacent too. Where last time we uncovered guys like Smith and Reid, this time we’ve settled for the same 15 or so guys that are left from that squad. Marco Rojas is the only great player we’ve developed since then that has seen much time for the All Whites. Hopefully young guns like Bill Tuiloma (an 18 year old who’s playing reserves for French Champs Lg side Olympic Marseille) and Storm Roux get games in Wellington. Though Ricki Herbert was never one to go out of his way to blood youngsters at the Phoenix.
We really need more guys playing in top leagues around the world. You just can’t replace the experience of Ryan Nelsen (198 Premier League games) and Simon Elliott (122 games for LA Galaxy).
Ricki Herbert really needs to step down now. His contract will be up after this next game, and his managerial reign peaked long ago. He’s not really a tactician at all – this game proved that to all those non-Phoenix fans who didn’t already know. His significant contribution to the national team was bringing a focus and hope to the All Whites at a time when circumstances were very much in our favour (we’ll never have such an easy route to the WC as Bahrain in 2009). His grand scheme of 3-4-3 is wildly overrated, it’s basically 5-4-1 when not in possession, and players (as evidenced yesterday) still don’t seem to know where to be. Leo Bertos, I’m talking about you. Plus Herbert’s leadership is far from respected according to reports that say that the 2010 WC side was marshalled by Ryan Nelson and Simon Elliott above all. We can’t ignore what Ricki’s done for football in this country, but really, now is the time to step down. Missing the Confederations Cup was unforgivable. This loss was expected, but the way we went about it was a disaster. From the submissive mindset to the negative tactics (understandable vs Mexico, but poorly put in place) to the head-scratching team selections. It’s time to move on.