A Few Ponderous Questions Ahead Of The New Welly Nix Campaign

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Where Did Everyone Go?

This one isn’t so much ponderous as it is a reminder of everything that the Nix have had to cope with in recent times. Not only are they bringing in a new manager but basically three-quarters of the squad are new as well which is mental to think about – especially since there was similar player turnover when Mark Rudan took over as well. Two fresh starts in two years… Alex Rufer must feel like a grizzled veteran at this point (he plays like one, so it adds up).

Of the 19 first team contracts as of writing, which is one short of the minimum size so they’ll need to ink another bugger before game one and we know they’re in the market for a final import striker. But I assume they could just do something short term with an academy fella or something to buy them some more time if there’s nothing on the horizon. Anyway, only six of those nineteen were with the club last season. Six plus Ben Waine who is technically still an academy player for one last year. Waine only played 90 mins last time, Callan Elliot only played 77 mins. Oli Sail played four games. Libby Cacace, Steven Taylor, Alex Rufer, and Louis Fenton are the only first team regulars coming back.

A bit of context to keep in mind, anyway. Ufuk Talay might seem like an ideal guy to build off the aborted foundations that Mark Rudan left behind but any thoughts of a smooth transition disappeared when the bulk of the squad disappeared. Maybe that’s for the best, who knows? There’s definitely an argument that the potential of that group was capped and that the new crew have a whole lot more room to be whatever they’re going to be. But this is another rebuild, no doubt about it.

Where Are The Bloody Goals Gonna Come From?

The Wellington Phoenix scored 47 goals last season. 19 were scored by Roy Krishna on his way to the Johnny Warren Medal. He’s now playing in India. David Williams was next with 11 goals and he’s also gone, re-upping on that lovely partnership with Roy at ATK in the India Super League. Sarpreet Singh scored five goals and he’s at Bayern Munich. Take out another three own goals as well as Cillian Sheridan’s strike and a pair for Mandi Sosa and there are literally just six goals remaining from last season’s squad: spread between Louis Fenton, Steven Taylor, and Libby Cacace.

That’s not surprising considering how many players have left but it’s this one aspect in particular that’ll be most affected. The guy who has been signed to provide a good old fashioned striker presence is David Ball… who missed a penalty on debut in the FFA Cup. But he does look a tidy player, with a sneaky hint of creativity to mix it up. They’re also still chasing that second import striker to really hammer it home and then there’s Jaushua Sotirio looking to bust out as a reliable A-League goal scorer. What’s most exciting about this is that during preseason though is that Callum McCowatt and Ben Waine have been scoring on the regular, really pushing a case that at least one of them should be top choice starters, if not both. Not to mention young Aussies Cam Devlin and Reno Piscopo. And Ulises Davila is on the charge as well. Heaps depends on how well he can act as a supply line. Doing what Sarpreet Singh did at his best but doing it more consistently. Chipping in with some strikes of his own.

Replacing what Roy Krishna provided last season is impossible but perhaps they can make up the difference across the entirety of the squad if everyone chips in. There are options in this squad and those options will look a lot better with that final import in place too… just a matter of finding the right combinations. Easier said than done of course and this is the number one concern about the Nix on the eve of the new season.

How Much Will Ufuk Talay Switch Things Up Tactically?

This one we already sort of know a bit about. Talay’s bringing across the Sydney FC 4-2-2-2 formation with two central strikers, two roaming playmakers behind them, two defensive midfielders, and a relatively flat back four… though those fullbacks will presumably be asked to provide width on attack, either through overlapping runs or in support (which is why it helps to have to defensive mids). Things that we know Libby Cacace will dominate at on the left even if the right back spot is more up for grabs. Louis Fenton, Callan Elliot, Walter Scott, Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi… again, there are options and with such a fresh squad the existing hierarchies don’t really exist. The depth charts should become clearer in the coming weeks. At a guess for that first starting team: Marinovic / Fenton, Taylor, DeVere, Cacace / Rufer, Steinmann / Davila, Piscopo / Ball, Sotirio… although McCowatt could easily come in for either Piscopo or Sotirio.

Mark Rudan preferred a quite pragmatic way of playing, which involved three at the back, some bend-don’t-break defence, wing-backs that pushed quite high, a quick-trigger approach to getting the ball forwards to the strikers (ideally to run onto – though as the season progressed Roy Krishna got fewer and fewer opportunities to do that as oppositions wised up) and with a central playmaker behind two strikers there was a lot of pressure on individuals to provide the creative sparks. Under Ufuk Talay there’s already an extra attacker which should mean more balance up and down the park but potentially less width and structure (there’s always a give and take).

It’s too early to determine whether they’ll be a team that bosses possession or if they’ll be a team that hoofs in crosses over and over or if they’ll be a patient team in their attacking structures or the opposite of that… their preseason stuff was either against amateur opposition or behind closed doors and the FFA Cup was a significantly weakened side that played so despite glimpses it’s probably best to avoid making judgements before the season starts. But Talay has stressed an attacking approach to the game, something that his players will enjoy and that fans should too. These are the kinds of things all managers say and it’s subjective too so you’re never quite wrong. But anticipating a more fluid tactical approach feels fair. And as long as Alex Rufer and Steven Taylor are there you can figure they’ll still be aggressive in trying to win the ball back when they don’t have it as well. Plenty more feisty yellow cards on the way.

What’s That They Say About Winning With Kids?

You don’t, is what they say. But that doesn’t mean anything. The Nix were pretty young under Mark Rudan and they’re going to be even younger this time around with a few old faces departing and being replaced, in keeping with Uffie’s history as a youth coach, by up and comers. Andrew Durante’s departure alone shrinks the average age by a chunk.

As it stands, Steven Taylor is the old man of the team at 33 years of age. He’s also one of only three players who were born in the 80s. 12 of the 19 players were born in 1995 or later. Seven of them in 1998 or later. In other words there won’t be any preseason get-togethers at the casino, you can count on that one. Even if we exclude Ben Waine (18yo) from the conversation, along with a few other academy fellas who might make a dent in the odd matchday squad as things progress (it’s a small squad, remember), we’re still looking at the youngest ever Phoenix squad by average age – exactly what that number is depends on how precise you want to be with days and months and years but it’s around 24 years old.

So how will this affect the team on the field? That depends because each player is different. Libby Cacace is the youngest player on a senior contract at 19 years old but he plays like a ten-year veteran already, knowing all the little tricks of the trade. And the central defence of Taylor and Luke DeVere are the two oldest lads in the group. But 29yo David Ball is the only one of the strikers aged over 23 and 28yo Ulises Davila is probably gonna have a similar situation in the attacking mid lines. There’s a lot of pressure on inexperienced players to contribute on the attacking side of things and that can be both refreshing and also daunting. Young players take risks and they make mistakes. Callum McCowatt is yet to reach a level he cannot dominate but amongst a lot of other unproven players it’s a lot to ask. Should be plenty of fun though.

Any Undercover Hombres To Keep An Eye On?

Considering half the squad is unproven at the A-League level with nine of them never having even played an A-League game and a further five with fewer than 10 A-League appearances (leaving just six others – Taylor, Cacace, DeVere, Rufer, Fenton & Sotirio), most of the damn team should have breakout potential this season. It’s too easy to throw out names like Callum McCowatt, Cam Devlin, Ben Waine, and Reno Piscopo. And all the imports are expected to do big things or else they wouldn’t be here on import status.

However with a small squad there are going to be injuries and suspensions and that’s going to lead to opportunities beyond this 19 (or 20) man roster. There’s still the ability to sign up to three local players and that could be an avenue that gets explored by Talay as the season progresses – the kiwi Premiership is always a fertile ground for emerging talent... it’s where Hudson-Wihongi, McCowatt, and Payne were just signed from after all.

But there’s also the academy team (which plays in the Premmy too) with a few possible bolters amidst. Oskar van Hattum and Sam Sutton were on the bench in the FFA Cup game. OVH is an attacking player, Sutton a midfielder (who captained that side last season), and both are superb prospects. Zac Jones has been groomed as a third-string keeper behind Marinovic and Sail. Ronan Wynne is a defender who impressed last Premmy season. Adam Hewson scored a hatty in a preseason game last week. The one thing you can bank on with the Nix these days is that they do not undervalue their academy, it’s a huge priority and that pipeline to the first team will definitely be open with Ufuk Talay in town.

Okey Dokey… Season Expectations Then?

See now that all depends on way too many volatile factors to assess right now, from the mass squad turnover to the new manager to the youth of the team… and let’s not forget they don’t play against themselves either and in an expanded league the playoff race should be even more competitive. But it’s not like this team are defending champs or anything. Mark Rudan certainly improved the team but they still only finished sixth and then were bounced in the first round of the playoffs in a game they were comfortably second best in. That’s not even a top half finish – the success of that season was relative to the state that Rudan inherited them in. He might have taken them to new levels this time if he’d stuck around but we’ll never know and what his team achieved last time is repeatable.

It’s all useful for Ufuk Talay, it means that first of all there’s a template for winning games as a new manager with a new squad and it also means that he’s got a realistic benchmark to aim for. Repeating in the playoffs is a rather large ask considering the rebuild… but it feels like the most realistic starting place. We can always shift the goalposts as we go along if adversity pokes its head in the window. This is definitely a team more likely to finish last than first but that’s the beauty of the start of any new season, aye? The slate is completely clean. Anything is still possible.

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