Welly Nix x Tactical Analysis, Part 2: Defending In Numbers

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Mark Rudan is a defiant kinda person. He wants his players to feel like they’re up against it in this league and he’s apparently driven by those same chips upon his own shoulders himself, as you can tell from a bit of drummed up controversy this week. A couple weeks ago, after the Nix vs Jets game, Ernie Merrick made some comments about the style of the Phoenix under Rudan. Those comments were reiterated this week after the Phoenix lost 3-0 at home to Western Sydney. Mark Rudan called those comments “somewhat disrespectful” and, ooh look, we’ve got some drama!

There is no drama, really. Just managers being managers. Mark Rudan is embracing the ‘Phoenix vs The Entire Rest of the A-League’ narrative as he has done from the start, taking issue with the idea that another manager might acknowledge his own tactical approach in any way – there might be a hint of rookie gaffer insecurity in that too, just quietly. Don’t overreact, there’s no beef here. But what Ernie Merrick actually said was pretty pertinent. Here’s the quote in question, as transcribed by one of those rival mainstream media outlets…

Ernie Merrick: “I think when you play that defensive structure, if it's a draw or you're up 1-0, it really works. The problem is, when you play like that when you're down a goal, it makes life very difficult. You've got to change your whole mindset and play much more attacking football and commit forward.”

The idea being, simply, that the Wanderers game was the first time when the Nix found themselves playing from behind and the end product got a bit ugly. Alexander Baumjohann gave WSW the lead in the eleventh minute. The Nix then toiled away in the wind and the rain and came up with blanks. It was 1-0 for a long time and then it was 2-0 after a spottie kick and then it ended up as three after the Wanderers took advantage of the necessary mindset change to ice it in injury time.

This isn’t about what the Nix did to try get back into that game - their attacking deficiencies (and how they plan to play around them with overloads, aggressive transitional play and set pieces) already got the focus in Part 1. What this part is all about is the defensive structure that works so well when a team is 1-0 up and horribly when they’re 1-0 down. The starting point. The launching pad. The meat and potatoes.

The Welly Nix play five at the back. You can be a cheeky bugger with the semantics of that and call it a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 if you want but Louis Fenton and Libby Cacace are expected to do a large chunk of defending from those wide positions so 5-2-1-2 feels most accurate. However that’s not important because it all begins with the back three. Tom Doyle on the left, Steven Taylor on the right and Andrew Durante in the middle. Three centre-backs playing very narrow, leaving bugger all space between themselves if they can help it.

Then you’ve got the full backs and the two central midfielders. Both midfielders play as sixes, aka holding midfielders, and you can see that in how tightly they set up next to each other, close enough they could probably hold hands sometimes. The idea there is to absolutely overload the space directly in front of goal which is where your cleanest shots are going to come from. That then forces the attacking team out wide which is all good for the Nix who have three central defender who are all quality in the air. Rudan wants to maximise that on attacking set pieces and also in defence.

The back three play flat as well as tight and the mids sit in front of them. The fullbacks then drop back into that defensive line as soon as they can, particularly on the openside (to borrow a rugger term), and the weave is complete. Here’s an example from the first game against Newcastle, the defence set up in its base shape…

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But that’s only the base shape. This Nix team is a feisty one, they get stuck in. Rudan’s got them playing zonally within that shape right up until somebody gets in range and then there’s a frantic rush to close them down. Having five at the back means there’s always someone free to slide over in cover and getting as frisky as they do about it means minimal time for other teams to run their attacks in the final third. There’s not much to stop them knocking the ball around deeper, which explains the possession stats we’re going to keep on seeing, though perhaps it’s worth mentioning that the least possession the Nix had was the game they won. Second was the game they drew. Most was the game they lost. See, there’s dangerous possession and there’s aimless possession. Mark Rudan does not go for aimless possession but he’s happy to let you have as much of it as you want.

For the most part it’s worked great. There’s a lot of communication that needs to go on to make sure two guys aren’t wasted on one striker, that somebody is aware of the need to slip into cover – usually the opposite side fullback which is why they end up as deep as they do – and all that kinda thing, but they have the leaders to do that. Steven Taylor in particular is excellent at judging the right time to rush up out of the line and shut something down. He’s also, by the way, quite useful at stepping up in possession too, something Tom Doyle also has the freedom to do as the defence adjusts into an inverted arrowhead shape with the ball – Durante deep, Taylor & Doyle a bit further forward and a bit wider, Fenton and Cacace even further forward and wider. Expand in possession, contract without it. The game is becoming more and more about how you manipulate space on the field and this is a simple mantra for staying on top of that objective.

ATTACKING STATS VS WELLY NIX THIS SEASON:

  • Newcastle (H): 60.4% possession | 16 shots (6 on target) | 76.5% pass accuracy

  • Brisbane (A): 59.8% possession | 11 shots (2 on target) | 80.4% pass accuracy

  • Western Sydney (H): 56.2% possession | 22 shots (6 on target) | 79.4% pass accuracy

Taylor, Durante and Doyle have had brilliant starts to the campaign. You’d be well within your rights to have had doubts about each one of them, Taylor as an import with injury history, Durante as an older player who’s lost his pace, Doyle as a wide defender adjusting to the middle of the park. Not a worry, mate. You can tell that they’re extremely well drilled, Doyle in particular has been a pleasant sensation. There are questions about the fullbacks for sure but this formation does give them a lot of help since the compressed defence means they’re hardly ever exposed.

Thing is, however, they lost 3-0 on the weekend. And they lost 3-0 because there’s still a very obvious flaw in how the Wellington Phoenix defend which is that they have almost zero pace to count upon. The fullbacks are expected to get forward and provide width to the attack which means they cannot be expected to be in defensive position straight away when the team loses the ball and the CBs just can’t keep up with speedy attacks when they’re that exposed.

Think about the first goal they conceded this season… Mitch Nichols gives the ball away in midfield and the Jets gas through them to score. Think about the three they conceded against WSW… a ball in behind the defence unleashes Bruce Kamau who outruns Durante and cuts it back to Baumjohann to score… a penalty kick given for a somewhat harsh but probably fair handball against Durante trying to block a shot from the edge of the box, a consequence of a crowded twelve-yard box… a blitzing counter-attack against a team committed forward in injury time. Three counter attacks and a penalty kick. All consequences of the defensive set-up, since an extra midfielder would give them much more chance of stopping any counter attack before it gets scary. Hey, every formation is a balancing act of risks and rewards.

This is what Mark Rudan is talking about when he talks about being better in transition (shout out Raymond Carver… and shout out you if you get that one). Transition being the period where possession changes over. I wrote a big thing about how the Nix attack, now here’s a big thing about how they defend… the transitional states are the ones that go in between. It takes a second to adjust mentally in those moments and it takes several more to adjust physically. That’s when the Nix want to be open to the early ball on attack. Quick trigger passes to Roy Krishna and all that. It’s also when they need to be able to regather their defensive shape as quickly as possible to stop teams doing the same thing to them. Three of the four goals they’ve conceded have come because they gave the ball away in bad areas and weren’t able to get set to repel the attack. Several more chances came and went without punishment.

But when you think about it, those are fixable errors. And a penalty for handball is a bit of a fluke. If those are the only ways they’ve been breached so far then they’re going alright. Whether they can maintain this over the whole course of the season is a question mark. Whether other teams adjust and thrive against them based on the model the Wanderers laid down is another pondering thought. Same goes for what happens if there’s even a single injury/suspension at the back. And quite obviously the defensive approach is affecting the Nix’s fluency on attack considering how deep they’re having to begin those moves.

Just… umm, maybe try not to think about that stuff for now and stay focussed on the positives, because there’ve been a few, to be fair.

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