In the end the transfer window passed with three signings and two releases. Cillian Sheridan turned up good to go as soon as January began. Mitch Nichols and Reuben Way were given the flick after pretty unglamorous contributions over the first half of the season. Then Antony Golec and Justin Gulley were signed to fill things out.
What that gives us is a 21-man squad (if you count Callan Elliot, who isn’t really viewed as ready for this stage quite yet – though it’d be fun to see him get a run off the bench at some point) and the more we see of it, the more it seems to make sense like an almost completed jigsaw puzzle begins to make sense. Through 18 games only Roy Krishna has started every one of them. Injuries, illness and suspension all making a mess of fellas at various times. But Louis Fenton, Andrew Durante and Steven Taylor have each started 17 of those matches (dropped once, suspended once and ill once in that order). Alex Rufer, Sarpreet Singh and David Williams have also played in 17 but come off the bench once or twice of five times in all that. Libby Cacace and Filip Kurto have 16 starts. Mandi has 15. You see where I’m going here?
Chuck them all together and you’ve got an extremely clear first XI. Krishna and Williams up top, Singh behind them, Mandi and Rufer in the midfield. Cacace and Fenton at wingback. Durante and Taylor in central defence and Kurto in goal. The only position up for grabs is left centre back where Tom Doyle and Michal Kopczynski have largely split their time (despite each presumably being intended for a different position, CM or LWB – though can’t say they haven’t largely done a fine job in the middle there). Doyle has started eleven games in the back three, Kopa has started six and Dylan Fox slipped in there once early on. Football being football, they’ve only had six games with that first choice starting eleven but the Nix are undefeated with two wins and four draws in those six games – all the wins at home and all the draws were away.
Which gives the signing of Antony Golec a lot more sense. At the time it was like, okay, another centre back. A decent one at A-League level but still one more on a stockpile that doesn’t seem to be getting much use as it is when what we really need is a midfielder. Neither Ryan Lowry nor Dylan Fox has even played 200 minutes this season and here’s another bloke competing for those mins. However a pattern is emerging and it’s one that suits a methodical and demanding gaffer like Mark Rudan pretty well.
He’s always talking about competition for places, right? Don’t pull your weight and you’re gone, sorry Mitch. Get too complacent as a starter and you’ll be on the bench next time, sorry Nathan (Free Nathan Burns! – he wasn’t even playing badly, just wasn’t scoring the goals). Don’t push the fellas ahead of you in your position on the training ground then bye bye, see you later Reuben. The Phoenix have a fixed starting XI which, following some initial shuffling, has emerged as the team that would start every single week if everybody were available. The only position of contention is between Doyle and Kopa and yeah… just so happens that Antony Golec is a left centre back. Don’t think that’s a coincidence there, chieftain.
Golec offers something that neither of those other two have. Doyle is a tough bugger who doesn’t mind getting stuck in and he’s got a good left foot and a more natural defensive sensibility than Kopa, who can struggle with the positioning aspect but brings a superior passing range to the position, which helps heaps when playing out from the back. But Golec has a classy left foot of his own, plenty of defensive experience, and he’s also bloody tall which is going to come in handy when defending those pesky set pieces. In effect, combines the strengths of Doyle and Kopa in that position plus adds a little icing on the cake as well. It’s going to take a few weeks for him to settle into the club same as everyone else, Rudan hasn’t been one to rush a fella into this team, but it’s easy to envision Golec taking over that LCB role down the line. That’s my prediction anyway. I like what I’ve seen from him so far (including a solid ninety against Auckland City for the WeeNix the other day).
And if he does then it frees Kopczynski up to play specifically as the first change midfielder, which is useful considering Alex Rufer and Mandi are each only two yellows away from another suspension. Rudan wants competition for places and he seems to want to keep a sturdy tactical shape regardless of who is playing. That means the reserves are competing for specific positions. Specific positions even within shared positions like the back three. Getting rid of Mitch Nichols and signing Golec and Gulley has brought more clarity to that whole situation to where we now have an almost exact first XI and second XI, with a readymade replacement good to go for every bugger when necessary.
UPDATED WELLY NIX DEPTH CHART
GK: Filip Kurto (Oli Sail)
RB: Louis Fenton (Justin Gulley)
RCB: Steven Taylor (Ryan Lowry)
CB: Andy Durante (Dylan Fox)
LCB: Antony Golec/Tom Doyle
LB: Libby Cacace (Tom Doyle)
CM: Alex Rufer (Michal Kopczynski)
CM: Mandi (???)
ACM: Sarpreet Singh (Max Burgess)
FW: David Williams (Cillian Sheridan)
FW: Roy Krishna (Nathan Burns)
One simple problem there: only one backup midfielder. Kopa can fill in nicely for Rufer when needed but Rufer and Kopa together has been a bit of a drama since neither brings the passing fluidity to the table that Mandi does, they’re too similar. Luckily Mandi’s only missed three games so far... though we did get a clean glimpse at the risk run here with only one other central midfielder in the squad when Rufer was suspended for one of the games Mandi missed and Mitch Nichols had to play a half of midfield and was so bad he was never seen again.
That’s all sweet though because it’s easily solved – the shape of the rest of the squad suggests they’re just a player short. Find a free agent midfielder with some nice passing range and a dose of creativity and bingo. Cam Howieson, Owen Parker-Price, Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi, and Mario Ilich all spring to mind from the Premiership, not to mention the odd Aussie battler over the ditch.
Other than that, Tom Doyle is also left covering two positions on account of the Nix only having 21 registered players at the mo’, I expect Gulley is also seen as a left wingback just in case. And there’s no room for Callan Elliot, though I don’t think that’s an oversight – I think Rudan’s just taking it slow with him so he’s not really in this equation. The main victim of this is Nathan Burns, whose plight is seen in a different light when he’s stuck behind the most prolific player at the club in Roy Krishna. It wasn’t as tricky when he was competing with Williams as well but ever since Cillian Sheridan arrived Burnsy has only appeared in one out of seven matchday squads.
Krishna is one of four players (along with Fenton, Singh & Talyor) sitting one yellow card away from suspension so curious to see if Sheridan would start alongside Williams in that situation, kind of assume he would despite the other implied rules here (hey, I’m only speculating - nothing is set in concrete). The two centre forward positions don’t need specialists in this style of playing … they’re getting identical instructions: link up with Sarpreet, run in behind heaps, drift out to help your wingback when needed, shoot when you get the chance, work bloody hard. Not such a great message in the tea leaves for Burnsy then. The one game he did play recently he was played in place of the rested Sarpreet Singh in attacking mid and safe to say that didn’t work at all.
A few other notes to make here concerning Ryan Lowry and Max Burgess, whose places are way steadier than you’d think. Actual on-field minutes have been rare but both have been included on the bench for almost every game. Lowry has been an unused sub eleven times, with two starts and three subs appearances. Contrast that with Dylan Fox who has been an unused sub once with two starts and three subs appearances. Fox seemed well ahead of Lowry last season, not so much under this gaffer. Lowry even made the bench ahead of the Tom Doyle when the latter was dropped last game.
Similar deal for Max Burgess, who has only started one game… but has also only been left out of a matchday squad once. Sixteen times out of eighteen he’s been included on the bench – compare that to Nathan Burns being dropped altogether on seven occasions. Didn’t really expect that, though I wonder how much of it has to do with a wariness of Sarpreet Singh’s durability as a young player (who takes on defenders) in this league. Keeping the sub who’s more likely to be needed, methinks. Burgess is also a bit more versatile thank Burns which helps when you’re sitting on the bench.
This is all a bit of idle speculation but Mark Rudan is not a bloke who leaves any stones unturned. He obviously has very specific plans on how he’s built his squad, from the characters he demands to the effort he demands to the positions he wants each joker to play. The more we get of him the more those plans make sense.
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