Solving The Welly Nix’s New Right-Back Conundrum

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If we’re being honest then the Nix got away lightly on the ol’ injury front until pretty recently. For the longest time it was a couple spare games missed by Filip Kurto in which Oli Sail chipped in brilliantly anyway, and maybe a couple niggles for a couple fringe players that didn’t really affect anything. Suspensions were the bigger problem. But it all catches up with you in the end and the Phoenix, who have been used six different back three combinations in their last nine games, now have a rather significant problem at right-back.

Louis Fenton’s diagnosis was not good. Earlier in the week the Nix confirmed a couple broken toes and an average recovery time of twelve weeks. That’s well past the rest of the season. Fenton had been one of the slower ones to catch on to the Welly Nix revival but once he got there he really thrived. I’d suggest it was somewhere around his goal against Central Coast back in mid-December that he finally hit that new level, spurred on by the confidence of seeing that net rustling.

Suddenly we had ourselves a genuine right back. No more hesitation in attack or defence, this was the best version of Louis Ferenc Puskas Fenton, the version we’ve been waiting to see for a few years since he first got the conversion to wing-back. A Louis Fenton who’ll attack defenders and get in behind. A Louis Fenton who’ll swing in a clever cross when it’s there, particularly those low square ones and cut-backs. A Louis Fenton who has been attending the Alex Rufer School of Newfound Scrappiness and Tough Buggerness. Don’t bother sending your kids to that school, by the way. They can’t handle it.

But now he’s all but certainly done for the season and that’s a proper old bummer. At least the Phoenix did him the justice of the footballer’s diagnosis of broken ‘metatarsals’, harkening back to the good old frantic days of when Wayne Rooney broke his ‘metatarsals’ before the World Cup that time. David Beckham too that other time.

Wellington Phoenix: “Wellington Phoenix defender, Louis Fenton underwent surgery this morning after breaking his 2nd and 3rd metatarsals in his right foot during the Round 23 clash against Newcastle Jets on Saturday evening. The normal recovery time frame is approximately 12 weeks. Everyone at the club is disappointed for Louis and wish him a full and speedy recovery.”

Louis Fenton has played 1911 minutes out of a possible 2070 so far this season. All at right-back. There was one game where he was dropped for Ryan Lowry but that only lasted one game (a 3-1 defeat to Adelaide) and to date it’s the only game that Fenton has missed… which is obviously about to change. But at this point in time only Andy Durante and Roy Krishna have played more minutes than him. There was one other game where Fenton was subbed off in injury time for Lowry, then more recently he made way in the 8-2 win so that Callan Elliot could play 24 minutes on debut, Elliot also being the bloke that replaced him just before half-time against Newcastle.

This has been one of the sturdiest and most stable positions on the park for the Nix. A team which, although there are some pretty regularly enforced changes these days, has a pretty sturdy and stable first choice eleven. Kurto in goal. Back three of Taylor, Durante & Golec/Doyle/Kopa. Fenton on one flank and Cacace on the other. Mandi and Rufer in midfield. Singh/Burgess in front of them. Krishna & Williams up top. Mark Rudan only really deviates from that team when he’s forced to, if it weren’t for injuries and suspensions then things would only change if performance levels dropped and results dried up. I pointed out last week the trends towards rewarding success and making accountability changes after defeats with Marky Mark.

Steven Taylor’s extended absence has been a hassle, especially with Tom Doyle and Dylan Fox also suffering injuries at that time. Hopefully Taylor’s back this week, that one’s dragged on long enough now to be getting worrisome, but any replacement at RCB has been a stop gap. With Fenton we’re looking at a legitimate full time deal now for the rest of the campaign, including at least one playoff game. That’s a big deal and the concern is, well… there’s not really an obvious replacement in the squad.

Here are the options…

THE CONSISTENT OPTION

Mark Rudan rewards performance. Max Burgess has come in and played superbly the last three games and probably earned himself a full-time gig in the starting eleven. He was the next man up when required and he took that chance. Hence Callan Elliot would be the consistent choice here as he’s the lad that came off the bench to replace Fenton the last two times he’s been subbed off. Definitely in keeping with character if Elliot now succeeds Fenton as the right back of choice.

Elliot is not a natural defender, he’s an attacking winger. One who likes to take on defenders leave them in knots. One who likes to chop inside and shoot when he can. Defensively he’d have his problems in that role but it’s the position that he’s played his two games for the senior team in and, given this is a team that tends to operate without natural wingers, you’d figure this is what he’s been training towards. And it isn’t only with this club that he’s tried it – he was left-back in a back four for the NZ U19s at the Oceania Champs last year.

THE DEFENSIVE OPTION

I’d argue that the right-back role in this team is more an attacking one than a defensive one anyway – the back three provides enough cover but take away that width in the attacking third and it could have a crumbling effect. But Mark Rudan’s also a conservative kinda manager so Ryan Lowry could be the choice. Chuck in Lowry at right-back and you have a safety first guy who won’t give you much in the other half but will easily be the most reliable defensive option… which when you consider the playoff lifeline of extra time and penalties might actually be rather helpful. A moment of creativity up front might win you the game but a moment of inexperience at the back could equally cost you it. And Lowry has played there before this season so it ain’t new to him.

THE REPLACEMENT OPTION

Of course, a few months ago the Nix signed up Justin Gulley, referring to him as an “international full-back” in the club press release. Justin Gulley has been injured recently and only came back to full fitness in the last few weeks, though hasn’t been included in a match-day squad since the first game he was available for (0-3 away to Perth). I’m picking that’s bound to change soon.

Gulley can play fullback perfectly well, it’s probably his ideal position. But for Team Wellington these last couple years he’s been captaining them from right centre-back. The Nix have plenty of cover in that position but it’s never harmful to be versatile when it comes to working your way into a new team. But yeah, clearly they signed him as cover for Fenton at right-back and, what do you know, here we are and we need cover at right-back. Hence why I’m preeeetty sure we’ll see Gulley in the matchday sixteen on Sunday evening and I think he’s probably the slight favourite over Callan Elliot to be the new starter there too. Since he hasn’t played for the club since 2016 it might be that he plays off the bench first just so he’s not thrown in at the deep end… but this is what he was signed for so it makes sense. Fitness permitting.

THE CREATIVE OPTION

The other thing that could happen is a hybrid response. Michal Kopczynski was signed as a central midfielder but Mandi and Alex Rufer have mostly kept him out of there with their top shelf efforts. In thirteen starts this season Kopa’s only been named in midfield three times – otherwise covering in the back three. So… how would he go as a wingback? He’s held his own in the back three so he must have a good enough defensive mindset already, plus he’d bring some extra quality in possession to the other options and he’s already shown he can adapt to new positions.

The other one is Max Burgess, who might be undroppable at the moment… except there’s only room for one of he and Sarpreet Singh in the starters. Unless, that is, Burgess plays as a hybrid right-back. He’s strong enough and quick enough and he’ll do a job when it’s asked of him. Highly doubt either of these things happen but just saying, you know, neither of them would embarrass themselves.

THE FUNKY OPTION

The trick with the last two is that Kopa missed the last game with injury and Gulley’s had a spell on the sidelines too. As has Tom Doyle, who is the key to this funky option. Not sure on the fitness of any of them and the more defenders that are missing the easier this decision becomes, especially if Lowry/Kopa are needed in central defence. But suppose they’re all fit… what’s say Tom Doyle starts at left-back where we already know he’s a solid A-League option and Libby Cacace instead plays on the right.

Let’s not forget that Cacace was a midfielder in his pre-Nix days. Wouldn’t be stunned if he ends up back there in a few seasons. He’s been magnificent on the left for two major reasons: one is that he’s the most veteran-savvy teenaged footballer on the planet. He knows all the tricks, he’s never intimidated, he makes great decisions on the ball. Might as well be a ten-year pro the way he plays. The other is that he’s rarely panicked because he’s super adept with either foot. Tom Doyle is strongly left-footed. Louis Fenton strongly right-footed. Cacace can play with either so why not try him on the right when we’ve already got a dependable replacement on the other flank?

THE ABSURD OPTION

Nathan Burns is struggling for game time lately, right?

I still think the best option is Justin Gulley, with Callan Elliot doing some tag-teaming either as a late attacking sub or as a dude to help ease him into it. But they can’t massively go wrong with any of these options, Burnsy aside. Not with Mark Rudan being the hands-on, empowering manager that he is. Anyone who starts at RB is going to have a fairly comprehensive idea of what their job is and how they can help the team succeed. The rest is confidence and faith.

In many ways the bigger problem is whether Steven Taylor is back or not. Because you chuck him in as the RCB and there’s an automatic lifeline there to guide whoever ends up in Fenton’s role. He misses more time and the new right-back is sliding into a slightly chaotic situation. The Nix haven’t kept a clean sheet since the end of January. It’s their explosive goal scoring streak that’s been doing all the damage lately, the defence is still looking a little frisky behind all that. Sooner Stevie T is back, the smoother it all becomes for everyone.

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