Friday, 7 October 2011

Wellington Phoenix 2011-12 Season Preview

Wellington are another club to have undergone an off-season meltdown (in contrast to Newcastle, this occurred in the boardroom, not the dugout). Foundation owner Terry Serpios was compelled to sell his stake in the club to a consortium of local businessmen. Unfortunately, this happened too late to enable manager Ricki Herbert to embark on any meaningful recruitment campaign. The Nix reached the minimum complement of players just days ago, and it's going to take some time before the new signings gel.

Conversely however Wellington have been stable, and this stands in stark contrast compared to the likes of Perth, Adelaide and Gold Coast, which have undergone revolutionary changes in the playing squad. Herbert is still able to call upon an experienced and reliable core of players, including Paston, Sigmund, Durante, Lockead, Muscat, Brown, Lia, Bertos and the mercurial Paul Ifill, all of whom have formed the foundation of this Wellington squad for the past few seasons. The grievous injuries of Lucan Pantelis and Pavlovic are a huge blow, on the eve of the season proper. Pantelis in particular would have ensured accurate delivery and penetration down the left flank.

In terms of new signings, Herbert has brought in Tsattalios, Downey, Smith and Sanchez. The former two signings are quite intriguing, because of their versatility; both are reputedly able to operate as fullbacks AND wingers. Herbert is well stocked in defence, so expect the two newcomers to be deployed further ahead, Tsattalios on the left and Downey on the right. Deploying fullbacks as wingers has become a common trend in Europe; the most famous examples are probably Gareth Bale at Tottenham, Seamus Coleman at Everton and Valencia mangager Emery's doubling up of leftbacks Alba and Matthieu to counter Barca's Dani Alves. The advantages of using a fullback as a winger are obvious; modern fullbacks more often resemble orthodox wingers themselves, given the modern propensity for wide players to be inverted so they can cut-in; the fullbacks are expected to overlap and stay wide to provide the width. The difference is a nominal fullback is naturally more defensively aware. This should enable Wellington to restrict the advances of opposition fullbacks, while retaining attacking intent along the flanks.
Paul Ifill

Smith and Sanchez are unknown quantities; the American is a striker and ostensibly present to provide cover for Pavlovic. Sanchez is an orthodox trequartista, with experience in Spain and Scotland, so he should be able to thread a ball through the eye of a needle and deal with bone-crunching tackles; perhaps Herbert has unearthed the next Flores? Sanchez will probably be deployed in his favoured No 10 role behind Greenacre, with Ifill and Bertos or Downey and Tsattalios linking up from the flanks.

Brown, Lia and Ward will be competing to partner in a double pivot, while Sigmund and Durante should resume their defensive partnership.

For the Nix to succeed in 2011-12, they will have to sort out their torrid away form, which acts like an elephant on their backs. Though they made the finals last season due to an unlikely late surge of form, Wellington can't continue to rely on luck given that so many clubs have improved exponentially. I expect Newcastle and Wellington to struggle over the wooden spoon like a pair of 6 year olds whose mum just finished stirring the cake mix. That is unless Perth implode - which is a possibility.

A note on Marco Rojas; his departure late last year was a huge blow. Rojas in an exciting young prospect, and while he is entitled to make the decisions he believes is right to progress his career, in my opinion, leaving the Nix was a mistake. New Zealand is his home; he was already well established in the starting line-up and could count on getting a full season under his belt to aid his development. At the Victory, Rojas faces the prospect of significant time warming the pine as he must compete against Cernak, Hernandez, Thompson, Solorzano, Allsopp, not to mention Harry Kewell, for match minutes. There is also the debt of gratitude he owes his home town club to consider; I can't think of any other player in the modern era who owes his career to the fans - the Fever literally paid for his scholarship.

LATER ADDITION: The prospect of a hard Wellington season actually saddens me; I like the plucky Kiwis. Here's hoping Sanchez and Ifill tear up the comp.

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