Ah the fair fragrance of freshly-cut grass. That warm caress of the afternoon sun on your skin. That satisfying vision of a pair of perfectly erected goal nets, with that exact right twang and rustle, and an immaculately marked pitch. That soothing sound, that precise ping, of boot on ball amidst the dull humming chorus of a stadium awash with chatter. That opportunity of your own to join in the conversation and let those long-gestating theories and predictions come gushing out. Cold beers and warm chips. Nope, there’s nothing quite like the first game of a new footy season.
Although they tend to be better when the Phoenix actually win. Against Western United they looked like the team that they were expected to be, with endearing positives and concerning negatives all more or less in the anticipated places. They played some very good football but struggled to create the clear-cut chances they needed to win. Or even to draw. And when you don’t score goals you magnify the mistakes you might make at the back, no matter how rare they may be. A cheeky Besart Berisha goal late in the first half and Mark Rudan got to leave town celebrating like he’d won the damn title.
Which was a little weird considering Wests didn’t even play that well and were clinging on for most of the second half… but rivalries aside we can probably excuse them this one time since it was the club’s first ever game. If Western Sydney had reacted like that to their win over Central Coast then it would have been a different story (mate, if you didn’t see it, Dylan Fox got absolutely shafted by the VAR for the winning penalty. The ball glanced his arm for sure but he was pulling his arm away with hardly any reaction time from a teammate’s clearance with no attackers in the vicinity, therefore no goal scoring chance inhibited… the game wasn’t affected at all it was purely incidental and it cost CCM the game… Gianni Stensness played alright in the midfield for them though, even got a cynical yellow card like a champ) – like, you have to assume that the cathartic huddle parties won’t be repeated for similarly scrappy performances in the future or else you really worry about the potential of that team. Not that we really care. Ah well, moving on.
Seven Phoenix players in the starting eleven made their A-League debuts for the club in this one. Five of them were making their A-League debuts full stop, and Tim Payne and Reno Piscopo dragged that number up even higher with their cameos off the bench. It’s important to keep that all in mind because this is not a team that was ever gonna show up fully formed. Hell, the bloody squad’s not even finalised with an import striker still on the wishlist and Ben Waine only promoted up to a senior contract a couple days out from the game in order to get the Nix up to the minimum roster size. Last year Mark Rudan’s first eleven had four starting debutants and another two off the bench and you can’t overlook the steadying presence of Andrew Durante and Roy Krishna at either end as well. And don’t forget that team, after winning its first game, then went five games without a win before they finally clicked with a win away to Sydney. This year’s edition comes with an even bigger rebuild and another new coach and we have to accept they’ll be a work in progress for at least the first month.
But the good thing about getting that first game out of the way is that we now have the initial sketches to work from rather than just a blank canvas. As expected it was a 4-2-2-2 formation, the second pair operating mostly as wingers, with Callum McCowatt sneaking into the starting team in probably the only selection that wasn’t mostly predictable. But he forced his way in there during preseason just as he’s risen to the challenge with every other step he’s taken in his career so far. Sure enough, McCowatt was the most creative player out there for the Nix and doing his thing on the left you can be assured right now that the combination that he and Libby Cacace have down that flank is going to be a very big deal for the Nix this season. It’s a combo that thrived at the U20 World Cup and will probably get a go at the Olympics too. And for all the chat about this young squad, it was those two who were comfortably the youngest of the starters who looked the most likely to make anything happen going forwards.
However the rest of the attack needs some work. Lots of work. David Ball and Jaushua Sotirio up front brought a bit of energy but they barely linked up at all, with no real understanding of each other’s playing style or habits yet (in fairness Sotirio is likely a placeholder starter until a new striker joins). Making up for the goals they lost from last time (Krishna, Williams, Singh, etc.) was always going to be the main drama and there was no evidence of that happening here based on this one game. Work in progress and all that, of course.
But both were considerably better than Ulises Davila who had a shocker of a debut. Dude showed flashes of what he’s capable of, particularly with a couple nutmegs in that second half, but he was so far off the pace it was crazy. Waiting for the ball and then getting clattered. Too casual in tight spaces. Things that he should adjust to with time but what was inexcusable was his lack of application in defence. Compared to McCowatt, who was constantly getting back there to chip in, Davila was reluctant to track back at anything quicker than a jog and when he was there he was basically a training cone to dribble around. Louis Fenton is not a pure right back. And he was exposed by Davila as Western United, and Connor Pain especially, found acres of space down the right side of the Nix defence. No surprises that the goal came from a cross down that edge.
The midfield duo of Matti Steinmann and Alex Rufer was reeeeal solid though. Steinmann looks a great buy, a more defensive minded player than Mandi was but that’s what this formation demands and he and Rufer are going to win a lot of tackles, concede a lot of fouls, pick up a lot of cards, break up a lot of play, and generally just be strong presence in the middle of the park for the Nix. That was a major positive from this performance. As was the centre back duo of Steven Taylor and Luke DeVere who will more than hold their own as long as they can both stay fit and available. And Stefan Marinovic made a couple nice saves too, including one absolute ripper to deny Scott McDonald near the end. But then the shot-stopping’s never been an issue for him and we knew he was a quality buy from day one.
Also quite enjoyed the way that Ufuk Talay stayed proactive with chasing the game. The first half was a bit cagey as two teams with unfamiliar squads tried to figure themselves out on the fly. Western United passed it round nicely for ten minutes. Then the Phoenix passed it around nicely for fifteen. Then WU again, leading to their goal. But in the second half the Nix had by far the better of the run of play and even if creative ideas were at a minimum, they never quit trying things as their formation went from 4-2-2-2 to 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-3-2 and beyond.
Talay made two subs before the 70th minute – David Ball replaced by Reno Piscopo, and Louis Fenton replaced by Tim Payne. A tad surprising it was Ball subbed off seeing as he’s the poacher in the team and they were desperate for a goal but something had to change up top and Talay apparently won’t defer to reputation. But Payne on for Fenton was the clever one. Payne’s not a right back by any means but he’s a utility with great technique and a willingness to do whatever it takes. Plus his long range passing is an utter delight and not only did he seal up that leaky right side on defence but he also whipped in three or four delicious crosses into the box. Bit rude on Fenton since it wasn’t him causing the leaks but we needed Davila’s attacking flair so it had to be done. Ben Waine also got a run in place of Steinmann for the final ten minutes, one last roll of the dice.
Despite all that, the Nix only had one shot on target and it was a tracer bullet from Libby Cacace in the 29th minute from about three kilometres out. Alex Rufer headed a deceptively tricky one over the bar (it came at his at real pace… but if he’d hit the target it was a guaranteed goal). David Ball lobbed one over the keeper but wide after a stunning first touch. Several others blazed shots off target. Sotirio buggered up a counter by going alone and shooting from a bad angle when he should have drawn the defenders inwards and slipped it through for McCowatt’s overlapping run. So there were definitely chances… just not good enough chances. And some of those wayward shots from the edge of the area suggest Uffie won’t have to think too long and hard about what to work on in training this week. Add in that they couldn’t keep a body on Besart Berisha at one crucial time and that’s how you proceed to lose a game of football.
Welly Nix got stronger as game progressed
Steinmann & Rufer’s midfield combo
A reliable and experience backline + keeper
Quality impression off the bench for Mr-Fix-It Tim Payne
Finishing was pretty mud
Davila still adjusting
No sign of cutting edge up top
The right side of defence
Which is why it sort of feels only like half of a season opener, because for all the excitement leading into this thing – and I’m not backtracking on the idea that this team has a higher upside than Mark Rudan’s Phoenix team – the nagging doubt was always that they wouldn’t have enough goals in them and that the massive player turnover would be a hurdle. And, yeah, that’s exactly what the deal was. Same as we knew it probably would be… this is just what that looks like. A work in progress.
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