The dull light of the crescent moon peeked through the heavy cloud cover, casting dark shadows across the land. A heavy breeze barged through branches and leaves with utter disregard. Perhaps it would rain overnight. It was certainly long overdue. The cicadas continued to chirp a blanket of noise, pierced occasionally by the tweeting of birds under windy assault in their nests, as the possums woke for their nocturnal scavenging, dashing across the roof of the house with a gentle pitter-patter. Beneath them, inside the house, a laptop computer hummed quietly from its perch, its flashing colours struggling to pierce the darkness of the room, a subtle stream of chatter emanating from the speakers, a football match being broadcast, while a metre away your old mate wildcard slept silently oblivious to all of this.
Look, I tried to stay awake for the Perth game. Tried extremely hard… but a few too many Saturday night beverages decided otherwise and sometime soon after the first goal I drifted off, waking briefly to note the second before falling asleep again until some unknown hour in the middle of the early morning (it did rain, by the way) when the light from my laptop screen demanded temporary annihilation. The game was long over by then, so I slammed the lid down and watched the replay in the morning instead.
To be fair, before I drifted off the first time I’d already seen enough to know which way it was going. The big question of who’d replace a suspended Andrew Durante in the back three was solved by an unfortunate illness to Steven Taylor, meaning both Ryan Lowry and Dylan Fox started with Tom Doyle in a back three that was anything but convincing on paper coming up against possibly the finest attacking trio in the competition in Diego Castro, Andy Keogh, and Chris Ikonomidis. Oh and Mandi, who had initially travelled with the squad, flew back to Aotearoa after his wife went into labour.
Right then. Foregone conclusion? Erm, not so quick there Quickdraw McGraw, about a minute into this thing Roy Krishna pounced on a loose pass out from Liam Reddy and fed in David Williams, whose initial shot was blocked and his second attempt came pinging back off the crossbar. Really similar to his early goal last game against Melbourne City. One of those rapid moments which have the potential to completely shake up a game before it’s hardly even got started. But… he missed. Should probably have scored it but he didn’t and it was only from then on that it was a forgone conclusion.
Because the Nix at the back, mate, they just didn’t have the usual composure. It was a hoof-first mentality without Taylor and Durante, who enjoy a long clearance or ten themselves but at least they know where they’re trying to put it when they do. This isn’t so much a criticism of Fox/Lowry as it is praise of the awareness, vision, and confidence of Taylor and Dura. There’s an element of class there that can’t be replaced. And with Mandi missing too there was a rhythmic predictability to how the Nix played in possession. Mandi is such a crucial bloke with the way he whips the ball around. You never see him getting caught on it and he’s always looking for ways to create space for his buddies around him.
Basically you take three of the five most important players in the squad out and this is what happens (Krishna and Kurto being the other two). Wave after wave of attack and while Filip Kurto, the Polish Panther, the esteemed and feared Colonel Kurtz, got his gloves dirty for a few of them he was unable to do a thing about Shane Lowry’s rocket of a diving header for the opener about 18 mins into it. At first look I thought Doyle must’ve been blocked off by another bugger, with Lowry running a clever route full of obstacles, but now I think I must have been hallucinating because all Lowry did was chuck in a stutter-step and go. Yet I don’t reckon you can blame Doyle for that, it’s just a remarkable header. Sometimes a bloke converts the 1/100 option and you’ve gotta applaud, it’s all you can do.
Not sure the second came from any egregious error either. Kurto made a nice initial save but palmed it straight to Ikonomidis, yet that’s more a product of the pressure they were under. Lots of Perth players in the area on attack and too many defenders with their backs to the wall and nowhere to go. They needed to find a way to relieve the pressure but without enough composure on the ball that didn’t happen.
Of course, Mark Rudan saw it otherwise. In his presser he was clearly frustrated that Doyle didn’t keep up with his man for the first and suggested that the second would have been prevented with more awareness from the defence in stepping up and playing Iko offsides. I’m not arguing with the gaffer here, all I’m saying is that the first was still unlucky to lead to a goal from that minor error (he trailed him by like six inches) and the lack of awareness for the second was hammered into an inexperienced back three by the defensive pressure they were suffering. It’s all a learning curve.
The Nix started the second half quite well and I thought if Cillian Sheridan had come on for David Williams around ten minutes into the half then maybe there still woulda been hope. Willo’s been great lately but this was a bad one from him, working hard as usual but mostly just giving away fouls and misplacing passes. There was a spell there when putting the foot on the gas could have cracked a Perth defence which has now kept four straight clean sheets and at 2-1 it’s wide open again… but the spell passed and Ikonomidis smashed one off the bar before Juande nicked the ball off a poor touch from Alex Rufer a few minutes later and Keough slammed it into the bottom corner. At 2-1 it would have been all on but at 3-0 it was all over.
Okay then, all defeats are learning opportunities, so what did we learn here? The obvious lesson is that the 2018-19 Perth Glory are an excellent team and if you let excellent teams play then you’re asking for trouble. We also learned that Shane Lowry is better than his brother at football. We learned that losing three key players is bloody tough for a Nix team that doesn’t have a lot of depth to begin with. We learned that the Phoenix are at their best when they move the ball around sharply and decisively, and that Mandi is a big part of being able to do that.
We also learned that this team continues to concede goals from set pieces and you could hear in Mark Rudan’s voice afterwards that he’s long sick of it. Any coach would be. But they also conceded one from a sustained attack in regular play and another on a defensive transition so that’s basically all the bases covered on this occasion. Teams as good as this will punish any kind of mistake so you simply can’t be making them. Again, Rufer was at fault for the third but I’m going easy on him. That’s the kind of thing he’s excelled at this season, getting his body between the ball and his marker and using his strength and skill to maintain possession. He looked a lot more versatile than Michal Kopczynski did here, I’ll tell you that. Kopa’s a solid player but I think he fits better with Mandi rather than with Rufer, when he can be the more defensive CM. When Rufer pushed forwards more in the second half the Nix looked stronger.
However if he’s planning on making that LCB role his own once Mandi’s lil bubba arrives then not sure he’s gonna get that chance. Tom Doyle’s been solid there, yet also a tad error-prone. Rudan name-checking his mistake for the first goal (slim though it was) doesn’t really bode too well for him either and that’s made Antony Golec’s signing a whole lot clearer. In about ten minutes of footy, including stoppage time, Golec showed what he offers with some scrappy defence and a strong left foot. In fact, like many left-footers, he’s extremely left-footed and I’m not sure he’d even be considered for the other two CB spots unless necessary.
Nah, Rudes looks like he’s established a clear hierarchy with his centre-backs – one starter and one backup for each. Steven Taylor on the right backed by Ryan Lowry. Andrew Durante in the middle backed by Dylan Fox (who was the best of the trio in Perth, btw). Tom Doyle on the left backed by Antony Golec… and I don’t think Golec will be the backup for much longer. Just saying. Justin Gulley also ended up on the trip and he was an unused sub. Get the feeling that he’s going to get all his gigs at right back backing up Fenton.
Do I need to spend any time going on about the immaculate holding midfield play of Juande or the incredible talent of Chris Ikonomidis? Not really. Same goes for an amazing Perth defence. But I do want to spare a sec to mention Diego Castro because the last time these two played it was a drama-packed 1-1 draw in Wellington, controversial for the VAR red card given to Ryan Lowry as a sub which most Nix fans will tell you completely changed the game (for one thing, it meant Reuben Way had to come on for his only minutes of his Phoenix career… chaos!).
The red card was a blow, no doubt about it… but the real turning point of that game was ten minutes earlier when Diego Castro was subbed on. Castro swung it completely. He took the Nix from chilling with a 1-0 lead to clinging on so desperately that they’d subbed on a defender to play in the midfield in the first place – with all that’s happened since, that game being the first game of the unbeaten streak, I seriously doubt Rudan would sub Rufer off in that situation again given how commanding he’s become as a def mid.
Castro swung the balance of that game and eventually scored the equaliser. This week he started against the Nix and pulled all the strings. That guy is as good a playmaker as currently exists in this league and in a funny way we have him to thank for jump-starting the Phoenix resurgence because if he’d played from the start on December 2 then who knows where we’d be now? That battling, controversial point ended up being the turning point in the season... point pun intended (it’s what we writers do, sorry).
Quick shout out to Louis Fenton on 100 games for the club. Feels more like 20 games with the stuttered career he’s had… tell you what though, he’s never looked better. Whoever taught him that little move where he straightens up on his markernthen cuts sharply perpendicular to the byline with a strong touch before adjusting his body just in time to stab in a cross… that’s pure right back right there. Sort of thing you see from Kyle Walker/Antonio Valencia/Hector Bellerin all the time. Absolutely loving the new confident and aggressive Louis Ferenc Puskas Fenton.
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