That was a bit crap now, wasn’t it? For the first time in two months the Nix lost a game of football, going down 1-0 at home to Sydney FC after a dull performance in which shots were as rare as dodo eggs and the refereeing was about as coherent as a particularly inebriated bgowuresj.
I mean, the two penalties. One where Louis Fenton chested a ball in the area and it sorta rolled up into his outstretched arm and was accidentally batted out for a corner. We had a long VAR intervention after which there was some drama about no sideline telly screens so they put the replay on the big screen and it looked rather blatantly like Fenton had spiked that thing away like he was playing volleyball and yet the ref casually decided to leave it at that and play the corner kick. The biggest surprise was that the Sydney players weren’t rioting after that decision. The second biggest surprise was that the ref didn’t think that was a handball.
The reason for that, one must assume, was that it was an incidental handball rather than a deliberate one and, honestly, if that’s the reason it was declined then tack that to the wall of evidence that the handball rule is poorly worded, left too much up to interpretation, and generally outdated. A wall so large that Donald Tr*mp would probably make a mess in his oversized adult nappies over it. They are actually working on updating the handball rule to include non-deliberate incidents when an attacker gains a tangible advantage (leading to a goal-scoring opportunity)… which is handy, no pun intended, but is hardly gonna fix the whole problem. Louis Fenton’s still gonna be in the clear for this...
The other penalty was also dumb. Steven Taylor made a charging run into the box and collided with Michael Zullo as he tried to get on the end of Sarpreet Singh’s chipped ball over the top. Taylor then made a very comprehensive lunge into the air to make sure everybody saw the contact and the ref pointed to the spot. Now, the Nix have plenty of examples in their past of refs being complete and utter bastards to them. It’s not a conspiracy but the Phoenix have copped a few shockers in the past. Yet pretty sure, if anything, that shoulda been a foul against Taylor, who I thought initiated the contact (as they say). The dive on the end was quite embarrassing too… although you’ve gotta take the whole package with Geordie Steve. He’s an exuberant old chap and a delightful personality and his influence has been enormous upon this team. Sometimes that’ll spill over the top.
Didn’t matter though, Roy Krishna missed the spot kick (having had to re-place the ball in the swirling breeze – she was a windy one, friends). Two huge penalty calls which went in the Phoenix’s favour and still they lost 1-0.
That’s because in the 25th minute a completely sumptuous free kick was delivered into the far post by Brandon O'Neill. Couldn’t tell who it was who got there on the end of it but whoever it was they beat Alex Rufer to the ball, sliding across to square it to Siem De Jong who slotted it… rolling his ankle pretty horribly in the process. De Jong would have to be subbed off and he was joined on the bench before the break by Anthony Caceres, a couple injuries hampering things for Sydney. Yet at that break they still had the lead thanks to a flawless defensive effort and a moment of well-planned and executed set piece magic. As soon as the ball swung in from O’Neill it looked like a goal. Rufer was the wrong defender to have there. Durante couldn’t stay with De Jong. That’s a goal, 1-0.
If you want to know how ineffective the Nix were, the only attacking moment in the official highlights within the first 80 minutes of the game was a Maradona turn from Alex Rufer on halfway. It was an amazing moment… but where were all the shots? There were none. Cillian Sheridan popped one wide in the first half and that’s about all I can remember in the first 45. The second things were better but still lacking in that special something that goals are born of. It was a dud performance, no doubt about that. And Sydney were fantastic defending deep and compactly. Remember last time we went over to their place and scored three in the first half, stunning them with pace and directness against a high defensive line. It was a mistake that Steve Corica’s lads were not going to make again.
Mark Rudan predictably focussed on that Sydney defensive shield and chose to view it as a sign of respect “that they backed themselves up, two lines of four, waiting to play on the counter attack against us”. Sure, fair enough, and that’s not wrong. The reason Sydney were so conservative is because they were well aware of what got served up to them last time. But they were also comfortably the better team in the first half, exposing the Nix’s lack of pace at the back and having all the chances. It was only in the second half, with a 1-0 lead and two of their star attackers off injured, that they really settled back into their defending… and the Nix struggled to create from minutes 1 to 90.
I’m not too fussed about the unbeaten streak ending since the Welly Nix have been playing with house money for ages now. And they’d snuck a few lucky breaks along the way so a game like this was always coming. Rudan didn’t seem too worried. Still sixth on the ladder. This was a midweek game and a narrow squad like the Phoenix’s isn’t particularly well arranged to handle the quick turnarounds… although the sting of losing should fire them up for Melbourne City in a few days.
I’m more fussed about why they were so crap. The main thing was that Sarpreet Singh was left on the bench in order for one of the more fragile lads in the side to rest up a bit. Nathan Burns came in to start instead of him and Cillian Sheridan also started in place of David Williams. Three central strikers and that was more than a crowd. Burns played the deeper role but you’d hardly know he was there. He’s getting a rough go of it from some folks lately because of the goal drought but he hadn’t been playing terribly at all, just needs that one goal to get him going. Except here he was anonymous. It was a role he’s not suited for and it showed. Sheridan was getting the ball at his head all the time amidst a crowded defence. Krishna had no room to run in. Three number nines all looking for that second pass and nobody there to play the first one.
So that was a tactical misstep. Maybe Max Burgess would have been better, maybe they shoulda waited to release Mitch Nichols until they had a replacement for him. Hope ol’ Budders wasn’t watching this one because he’d have been fuming. I think my preference would’ve been Doyle in the backline, Kopa in midfield, and Mandi further forward. Get all three midfielders in there with Mandi pulling some strings in the final third.
Eventually Singh was subbed on for Burns in the 54th min and Sheridan was replaced by Williams ten minutes later. It made a difference. As the second half progressed the Nix turned the screws. They dominated possession and pushed Sydney deeper and deeper. The strategy seemed to be getting Cacace and Fenton in behind the defence to cut it back across, which is always a great option, but perhaps not so much when it’s the only option.
SFC had the penalty area stacked with henchmen and what we needed was some variation to get the defence out of rhythm. The Nix know how to sit deep and absorb pressure, we did it for ages on the weekend against Melly Victory. Steven Taylor might step in front of a long range belter with his head but not many others would. Get Sarpreet curling a few towards the top corner. Try clear out the penalty area with a few crunching drives from distance, see if one doesn’t catch a cheeky deflection. It was all just too much of the same thing even as the waves came quicker and fiercer in the last fifteen minutes. Granted, they did win a penalty and on another day a 1-1 draw would have felt alright.
Singh probably needed a rest. He probably still does. But we just saw quite clearly how crucial he is to this team – the Phoenix have lost all three games that he hasn’t started this season. Just one defeat in the 12 games he has started. Sarpreet’s the only proper number ten in this squad now and that’s a little scary. Just as there’s no cover at right back and only one spare midfielder.
The Phoenix are effectively below the minimum squad size at the moment with Reuben Way to be released at the end of the month so further signings are on the horizon. Hopefully that helps with the biggest obvious problem with this team. Other obvious problems that have been illuminated recently: the lack of pace at the back, conceding goals from set pieces, and slow starts to games (especially at home).
But this was only one match and if we’re being totally honest then a defeat will do them some good. The unbeaten streak was nice but was also at the whims of fortune. They’d relied on defiantly frantic comebacks in a couple of these games and for once it didn’t happen this time. Kept scoreless after scoring nine in the last three. Roy Krishna missed a penalty to conclude his recent scoring streak. Perhaps all a little too on the nose from whoever’s writing these scripts but okay, we get the idea.
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