It’s an ingrained tradition at this point, the Wellington Phoenix popping over the ditch in the middle of their preseason to lose another FFA Cup game. This was the sixth year of the Nix bring involved in this thing and they’ve only ever won one game. That was back in 2015-16 when they beat Central Coast 1-0 thanks to an early Kwabena Appiah goal and their reward for that was to get pumped 5-1 by Melbourne City in the next round two weeks later. Not really our competition, is it?
For the second season in a row they’ve lost to an NPL team too. They took it to penalties this time which is a whole lot better than the 1-0 defeat against Bentleigh Greens last year when the Greenies played the entire second half with ten-men… but it’s understandable that a fair few Nix fans are a bit pissed off at yet another season beginning with a disappointing defeat. However we’ve gotta remember that this is effectively a preseason game. Ufuk Talay did spit some bars about wanting to win every competition but any manager in the world is going to struggle to win their first game when only one import player is available, only three starters were at the club last season, and the rest of them were not only making their club debuts but they’ve only been at the club for a maximum of two months. That’s a lot to ask. We’ve got to be a little realistic about it all.
Even then, they probably still should have won. They conceded a couple sloppy goals but they forced their way back from 2-0 down in pretty torrid conditions away from home and would have been preparing for a round of 16 clash had David Ball been able to convert his spottie in extra time. Can’t really let those chances slip whether it’s Melbourne Victory or Brisbane Strikers. When you lose on penalties you know the margins were slim enough to have feasibly gone either way and when you’re the better team in those situation that means it was well within your control. Even in the shootout they should have done a lot better than they did… but oh well. If we’ve learned one thing from the last half decade it’s that losing in the first FFA Cup game has zero effect on the Nix’s upcoming A-League season.
True to his word, Uffie’s Nix took this game a lot more seriously than Mark Rudan’s lot did twelve months ago. Rudan treated it like a kick around in the park, admitting afterwards that they hadn’t even begun to work on attacking structures yet. Talay meanwhile picked as strong a team as he could, withheld subs up his sleeve in order to push for the win (it was a very inexperienced bench), and let his lads play with plenty of attacking freedom.
The results of that were mixed but there were glimpses, just glimpses, of some absolutely sublime football with the front four combining deliciously. Those glimpses weren’t enough to completely satisfy but they’re a hint that this team is going to play with a lot of intent in possession, hitting those one-touch moves, and looking to attack with pace and creativity. Compared to the usual turgid FFA Cup affairs this one might have been an ugly result but underneath that there’s the making of an enjoyable team if you’re willing to squint your eyes.
Defensively this was a sloppy one though. Luke DeVere looked alright but the defence remains dangerously slow (even without Andy Durante) and there were a couple times that got exposed. Plus both goals were the result of not being able to clear the ball decisively enough… in fact both goals came specifically from Liam McGing headers that went straight to the guy who then shot and scored. That’s not a great sign… but defence is so much about communication and trust and without Steven Taylor we had two debutant CBs there with a debutant goalie and that’s obviously a tricky one to overcome. There’s still a lingering doubt that we’re a centreback short in this squad, especially with the worries about Taylor and DeVere’s ability to stay fit for an entire season. Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi player right back here and has been signed as a defensive utility so he’s another option. One more experienced CB wouldn’t go astray.
INDIVIDUAL THOUGHTS ON THE DEBUTANTS…
Stefan Marinovic – His clunky feet got him ruthlessly laughed out of Bristol City and it’s fair to say that distribution is not his strength. Some wayward clearances off the boot here and not a bloke who’s ever fully inspiring with the ball at his feet… but this is the A-League so that’s fine. All he needs to do is be commanding in his area, be a vocal leader at the back, and be the elite shot stopper we know he is. Ticks in all three of those categories so far. Not sure if that first goal took a deflection or not, it was hard to tell from the telly, but wouldn’t say there was much Big Stef could’ve done about either of the goals regardless and he made one crucial stop near the end of regular time. Still the best signing the Nix have made this offseason. Couldn’t deny any of the penalties though which was a tad unfortunate for an international calibre keeper up against a semi-pro.
Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi – Got the first butchering of his name in his first game (seems the first name is going to be the tougher one for Aussie commentators so keep a tally of how often they conspicuously only use his last name). Actually did pretty well at right back and that might be a position he can make his own considering Fenton’s current injury and Elliot being more of an attacker. Great on the ball and very disciplined. The measure of his success there (if indeed it becomes a regular thing) will be his delivery into the box and his willingness to overlap. Because, you know, defensively none of our options are standouts.
Liam McGing – Dude’s got a really long neck, aye? All the better for winning those pesky defensive headers, though next time maybe keep them away from opposition strikers. Hard to get a line on him in a game like this, probably the new fella who struggled most but it was only one game and he’s not really in the mix for a starting gig ordinarily.
Luke DeVere – Thought he looked pretty decent. He’s a very good defender but he’s also a tad sluggish and the two occasions he was exposed were when he was left one-on-one against a pacey attacker and that just looked like a penalty waiting to happen. Clearly the first choice alongside Captain Taylor though. Should do a solid job as long as he stays fit.
Tim Payne – There are elements of Payne’s game which make you think he’s not an ideal midfielder but this is clearly the position he fits best in for this team. He’s always going to be tough in the challenge, no dramas there, but what was pleasing here was how settled his passing game was. If you haven’t watched much Premmy footy the last two years then know that Payne has one of the best long balls in the country. With skilful and speedy players in our attack that’s a very useful tool. The Nix are probably signing another midfielder with one of them import spots so Payne might slip back to the bench after that’s done.
Cameron Devlin – Tiny little fella but he’s a tidy one too. Really enjoyed the way that he and Callum McCowatt moved around within the 4-2-2-2 shape. They’ve got a lot of freedom in those roles but they’re crucial as links between the lines and they both did well to stay involved – scoring the two goals. The gaffer brought him over the ditch for good reason.
Callum McCowatt – He’s the Josh Dugan of kiwi football when it comes to needing injury treatment basically every game he plays but like ol’ Duges it’s because he puts himself about so much, always looking to spark something. His goal was a little beauty and when he and Libby Cacace started running the show down the left in the second half – that U20s connection – was when the Nix were at their best in this game. Curious to see which of he and Devlin drop out for Ulises Davila… though McCowatt can also play up front no worries (he did a little of that later on in this one).
David Ball – He looked great… until the penalties. The first one sorta mirrored a chance he had in the first half where he got decent contact but drew a fantastic save. The one in the shootout… maybe that was a reaction to the earlier miss? Dunno but it was a bloody shocker, you never wanna see a dude missing the goal altogether and especially not your number nine who is supposed to be a finisher. Ball seems a vibrant player. He’s not in your usual English lower league battler mould, he’s a fella who’d rather take a risk and try something special. In this team he has that licence, just wanna see more of a determination to get a shot off from him. Fingers crossed he’s not an overthinker.
Quick shout out to Walter Scott who played off the bench too for his first appearance. He was signed as a fullback but actually played much further forward here, putting himself about but not doing much that stood out. In a similarly tactically notable way, Cacace moved into midfield later in extra time which allowed Scott to slide back to left-back (where’s he’s probably the backup). Libby came up as a defensive midfielder so no worries there, nice to see him still considered in those spots. He’s such a good left back thought that it’s hard to imagine him making that switch permanent later in his career… but you never know.
Also Alex Rufer’s set pieces are becoming a bit of a thing. There were two in a row where he nearly scored directly from a corner while the first goal came from a clever swerving ball to the back post which Ball headed down for Devlin to strike.
You have to think that this team will look sturdier with Steven Taylor in place and silkier and more threatening with Ulises Davila in place. Jaushua Sotirio and Louis Fenton were out injured too, don’t forget. Chuck in an import midfielder and things are looking a lot better than they might appear right now.
Also the A-League doesn’t even start for two more months and that’s plenty of time to get to work on those many combinations. Two months ago was when Stefan Marinovic signed. Back then he only had seven teammates and one of them has since left for Bayern Munich. They’re now only a few more signatures away from a completed squad. Mark Rudan might have reinvigorated this club last season but there weren’t many leftovers on the dinner table after he’d finished eating and Uffie’s pretty much rebuilding this squad from scratch this season. This game wasn’t about the team that they currently are, it’s about trying to spot the team that they could be. Stay positive.
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