Sooner or later it all gets real. And it tends to happen quicker than anyone’s prepared for. The Wellington Phoenix lost their first two games but any sense of panic was offset by the progress that this team in transition was showing, however a third loss, 2-1 at home to Perth Glory, really ramps the pressure up. There’s only so long you can coast on bad results but promising signs. Eventually you have to find a way to tally up points even when you’re playing below your capabilities – if the Nix have to peak in order to finally win a game then it’s going to be a looooong season.
It’s not just the result though. The Nix also, for the first time under Talay so far, took a step back in their performance. There were some individual efforts that thrilled and they still made a fair bit happen in that attacking third plus already certain trends and patterns are emerging from this team and its players. But it just wasn’t as sharp as the game in Sydney and a poor first half really doomed them.
Which I s’pose means the main takeaway here has to be the risks of working with a shallow, young, and inexperienced squad. Progress doesn’t always happen in a linear fashion and even when it does there are always elements of chaos ready to upset a delicate situation. For example, with Libby Cacace in that back four things have a certain balance to them and Louis Fenton on the other side looks nice and solid at fullback. Take out Cacace and replace him with a guy in Walter Scott who only had two A-League appearances in his career prior to this one and that balance is shattered. Against his old club poor Wally had a bit of a shocker, putting his body in a poor position to be able to get in the way of Bruno Fornaroli’s opening goal and failing to clear the ball before Chris Ikonomidis’ second. Two beautifully worked goals from Perth but two pretty preventable ones from a Phoenix perspective too. And that fragility on the other side left Fenton suddenly looking vulnerable too. He and Ulises Davila both got waxed by the same Diego Castro move in the build-up to the first goal and that simply can’t happen. (Although Fenton did make one brilliant defensive header to prevent a third goal before the half – so at least he broke even).
Diego Castro always seems to dominate the Nix. Maybe that’s only a projection, I can’t be bothered looking it up, but it bloody well feels like it. He was a magician here. On a blustery Wellington evening where corner kicks were swerving all over the show he still had the ball on a string, especially in that first half. If it wasn’t for the almost-as-magical fingertips of Stefan Marinovic then it would have been four or five by half-time. Chalk up two more worldie saves in this one and already has about four save of the year candidates in his highlight reel since he signed. Obviously there are other elements to being a top class keeper and some of his gloved rivals around the league can take him in those aspects but nobody in this competition is better than Big Stef as a pure shot-stopper. Take that one to the bank, mate.
The Nix, as per the script, got much better in the second half. That’s been the biggest of all the emerging patterns so far and it’s a good one. Maybe Perth were feeling the travel or maybe they just eased off to play it safe (they definitely had by the end, the wily bastards)... but the Nix were definitely the more proactive team in that second stanza. Problem was that their strikers still can’t do the thing. David Ball and Jaushua Sotirio each had their moments but there were plenty more disappointing ones in there than the excellent ones. Ball looks like he’s all in his own head, he desperately needs that first goal to get himself going (Cillian Sheridan had the same dramas last season too). Meanwhile Sotirio’s problem is a simpler one: he’s not a striker. His pace and his movement and his ability to create for others... that’s a wide forward skillset. As a striker though he’s not got that killer instinct. And when both strikers are off their games you’re in a bit of a mess... Gary Hooper’s surgically repaired muscles better be able to carry that weight.
As always Ufuk Talay didn’t hesitate to mix it up, pushing Alex Rufer into a more advanced role at HT to get an extra body forward and that did make a difference. Reno Piscopo then replaced Rufer after an hour to get a more natural number ten in that role, which also made a difference as Piscopo provided the brightest spark he’s offered so far. But it wasn’t until the last fifteen minutes that Gary Hooper and Ben Waine were chucked into the pot – perhaps ten minutes too late. For all the increase in enterprise it was still 2-0 at that time and the Nix were always vulnerable to leaking a third. Hooper’s presence in the penalty area added another dimension to the team, winning that late penalty with a bit of that veteran know-how, getting his body in the right position just like how Wally Scott wasn’t able to do in trying to deny that first goal. Ulises Davila then went disturbingly soft on the power but still placed his spot kick perfectly in the corner to score. Of course by then it was the fifth minute of injury time and the result was already gone... if Hoops had been on to get that done ten minutes earlier then we might have had a finish on our hands. But so it goes. That kind of hypothetical thinking’s really about as useful as yelling at twitter that Perth shoulda had a red card in the first half (wasn’t a pretty challenge but it’s not like it went unpunished – a yellow card and a free kick looked fair enough to me, not sure I’d appreciate Alex Rufer being sent off for something like that).
This is what it means to be supporting a young and inexperienced team. Mistakes are made that can cost you games and the learning curve is mighty steep. One suspension and suddenly you’re completely exposed. Not coincidentally, Perth are one of the oldest sides in recent A-League memory and safe to say there were some lessons to be taught from the old veterans. It’s rough but all that volatility does still give us a team with huge upside if they can ever make it click (when you’re in the car you’d better belt up quick).
For Mark Rudan that clicking moment came all of a sudden with a win away to Sydney in the seventh game of the season, but his team got the monkey off their backs with a week one win against Newcastle whereas this team is feeling the pressure after three straight defeats, albeit three games in which they only lost by a single goal. But that’s becoming a trend now that cannot continue any longer.
The Nix clearly don’t have the finishing to get away with these strong second half comeback attempts. They can’t keep starting on the back foot and getting into it as the game goes along, they need to start the way they’ve been playing in these second halves. And they also need Libby Cacace back in a hurry... though unfortunately he’s still banned next week too (but on the plus side it seems his contract has had a triggered extension for another year after this one, which is a comprehensive relief).
This could be a pivotal time for Talay and the Nix, it doesn’t take long before a couple sloppy defeats turn into a very sloppy habit. It’s Melbourne City away next Sunday and a fourth defeat to start the season would officially be a Very Big Problem. But of course it won’t come to that.
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