The theme of that opening game was that the Wellington Phoenix are a work in progress, so it stands to reason that their second game, away to the defending champions, has to be viewed in that light as well. But it looks like the work is working. With some much improved efforts from a couple imports, appearing far more settled for that first proper hit out, the Nix stepped it up considerably from that Western United defeat and despite the daunting nature of this fixture they were pretty bloody unlucky not to take anything from it. But they didn’t, as a pair of weird set piece concessions overruled Ulises Davila’s first A-League goal and Sydney FC won it 2-1.
Which leads to a slightly frustrating conflict of emotions because the disappointment of two straight defeats is challenged by the optimism of a promising performance. Neither of those things exists alone – we can’t be completely happy with those improvements because we lost but the pain of defeat is lessened by the performance, so it goes. Of course it could have been a whole lot better had the Nix been able to finish their chances – another conflict because on the one hand the Nix looked way more creative and effective but on the other hand they were just as bad, if not worse considering they were getting better looks, at doing anything with them. Eight shots on target out of 23 (compared to 1/14 last time) and if they’d made the most of all that then they could have been sippin’ bubbles on the plan back to Wellywood with a statement three points in their pockets.
S’pose that’s why they went and got Gary Hooper though, aye? Chuck a guy who once won golden boot in the Scottish Premier League into this team and it’s a different prospect. Hence why Uffie called him the final piece of the puzzle. As to the rest of the puzzle, well it looks a lot more colourful, a lot brighter, with David Ball and Ulises Davila playing the way they did here as opposed to last week. Ball was a little lost within the system last time. Davila was simply off the pace and physically overwhelmed. Neither of those things were true against Sydney FC... where they were arguably the Nix’s two best players. Ball showed a fair bit of skill and flair, beating defenders and looking to make things happen. Davila was able to hover into great areas and work some magic with his left foot. Davila scored one goal (with the help of a significant deflection) and Ball hit the post (one he maybe should’ve scored). Get that level out of your imports more often than not and you’re in a good spot.
You’d imagine Hooper comes in for Jaushua Sotirio now and that’ll hopefully add another dimension to it all. Sotirio has worked hard, he’s used his pace to get in good positions, he played a big role in Davila’s opener here too. Considering his signing was mostly met with shrugs at best since he didn’t fit the youth agenda and isn’t experienced enough to be a veteran, he’s played better in these two games than people probably expected – definitely better than I expected. But I get the feeling that David Ball’s been mischaracterised as a leading man when he’s really better suited to being a second striker and paired with Sotirio it’s a bit too much of the same thing. Sotirio’s pace and energy helps him and it’ll keep him around as an option off the bench if it comes to that but Ball has shown a little more pizzazz. He’ll link up with Hooper better. He’ll chip in with some goals of his own. It makes sense.
So that was promising. As was the fact that for the second time in a row the Welly Nix grew into the game and were comfortably the better team in the second half. Mate you could even argue they bossed this entire thing outside of a sloppy first fifteen minutes. Sydney came out fast with their fullbacks, especially Rhyan Grant with his nasty mullet (IYKYK), pushing forwards and creating trouble. Combine that with the movement of their frontline (including old mate Kosta) and safe to say the signs were concerning. But tell ya what the Nix didn’t wither. It might not always have been pretty but they defended quite well and when the goal finally did come it was from a messy set piece situation and an unlucky deflection, they weren’t carved up from open play. Steven Taylor and Luke DeVere looked solid last week. They looked even better this week with another ninety minutes together. Big questions will remain as to whether the Nix’s depth can handle it when one of those CBs is inevitably misses a game but that first choice duo is choice as bro.
Part of how the Nix got themselves into the contest was patience. Part was being able to get McCowatt and Davila involved and forcing Sydney to respect them (even if they really targeted McCowatt – who had a much rocker game this time but handled the task quite well and will learn plenty from that experience – he’s never daunted, that lad). And part was the typically combative and physical approach from Alex Rufer and Matti Steinmann in midfield. They take no prisoners. They pull no punches (/kicks). There are going to be a lot of yellow cards between that pair (and the backup is probably Tim Payne! He doesn’t hold back in the challenge either!)... but nowhere near as many yellows as there will be bruised shins from the buggers tasked with trying to get past them. Absolutely love what those two are building there. Alex Rufer’s enjoying being the more attacking of the two as well, his willingness to feed the strikers at their feet is a very useful tendency... Roof’s just gotta work on that finishing because he won’t be getting that first A-League goal any time soon the way he’s going. If he can develop into a player that chips in with five goals a season then it’s all over.
And you know what else? I thought Ufuk Talay handled the game superbly. Against his old team he turned up with a lovely gameplan which he adjusted to fit after the early pressure (but didn’t panic and over-adjust). He used his subs smartly, keeping one up his sleeve and getting little cameos out of Reno Piscopo and Ben Waine (especially the former, who had more time). Mark Rudan was brilliant as a leader and he built a wonderful culture within the squad (so wonderful, he might add, that they all wanted to follow him when he left) but he always had question marks over his ability as a tactician. Could he alter a game that was getting away from his team?
He could definitely fire the fellas up and there were a few famous finishes where that did the trick. There were plenty others where it didn’t and when teams started defending deep and cutting off those Roy Krishna runs in behind the Nix went through an extended spell where it got stale. Their nine-game undefeated streak was followed by a run of one win from six (seven if you include the last game of the undefeated streak), which only ended with that 8-2 win over Central Coast. Rudan’s Nix were pretty good at putting those kinds of teams away, yet against the top four (PER, SYD, MVC & ADL) they won once, drew five times, and lost seven – scoring 12 goals and conceding 26. It was against Sydney FC away that the Nix kickstarted their whole season last time with a 3-0 win, a first half blitz, but that was the only time they got the better of a top four team. There were one or two where they could have won, a couple games against Melbourne Victory spring to mind, but for whatever reason they weren’t able to. And that was one of the main reasons I felt ambivalent towards Mark Rudan leaving: it was a sizzling revival but the Nix still only finished sixth, got waxed in the playoffs, and there was a niggly suspicion that they might have reached their ceiling in that particular incarnation. Though that might just be because Rudan made it into a capsule season once it became inevitable that he was leaving.
Anyway, Ufuk Talay doesn’t come with the same gift of the gab but that’s been refreshing. He just sits there in pressers and tells you where it’s at. No unnecessary hot air, he’s not trying to be everyone’s friend, he doesn’t overreact emotionally... and that methodical approach is having an effect on the field too. He seems to be a manager who knows what he wants his team to look like. Mark Rudan’s Western United don’t really reflect his Phoenix team from last season, at least not yet. I dunno, I’m just really liking the direction Talay seems to be taking this team in.
The Nix deserved to be level when Davila scored. They probably didn’t deserve to then concede in the 77th minute, as Rhyan Grant flicked on a free kick from way beyond the near post and it floated in over Stefan Marinovic and in off the crossbar, but that’s football. Can’t really wrap my head around any possibility of that not being a huge fluke and that’s the way the dice fall sometimes. The Nix couldn’t make the most of their chances and then Sydney score a winner like that one. Both their goals were awkward ones to concede. It was rough.
And the possibility of a second equaliser took a kick in the nads (or perhaps a stomp on the leg) when Libby Cacace got silly and left his sprigs in a fifty-fifty challenge and was sent off after a VAR peek. It wasn’t deliberate, just a little lazy, but after seeing the replays it was hard to disagree with the card. The bigger problem there is that he misses next week against Perth now. Walter Scott at left back, perhaps? Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi, Tim Payne, and Callan Elliot would be the other options (unless a CB can slide over) and none of them are natural options. Wally Scott against his old team then, how about it?
Thus we had ourselves another close defeat full of positives. The defence stepped up to the challenge, the midfield was very good... and this time they were able to do some things on attack as well. The biggest glaring weakness from last time got a significant improvement. The work in progress idea is equally as relevant now as it was a week ago... it’s just that for the plethora of chances they created this time they should have done more with them. Where’s Roy Krishna when you need him? Ah well, Gary Hooper should be available next week and with him comes the possibility of another big progressive step up in performance in another area where they need exactly that (whether he starts or is eased in is another matter - remember he’s not played a lot of footy lately).
We do have to be careful with living on optimism. The future’s not guaranteed. Ultimately the Nix have lost back to back to start the season and have scored one goal in 180 minutes and there’s not much longer that we can survive on the potential of food without actually scoffing down a hefty feed. We’re moving in the right direction though.
Support The Niche Cache on Patreon if you appreciate what we do and wanna give back
Whack an ad to say cheers whenever you read a decent one
Keep cool but care