With September having arrived, we’re now in the territory of saying, “next month” when it comes to talking about the new A-League season.
With September having arrived, we-re now in the territory of saying, “next month” when it comes to talking about the new A-League season.
While the off-season seems (and is) interminably long, it has at least given the Phoenix players the opportunity to absorb what appears to have been a mountain of information from their new coach.
Anecdotally, the players are loving life under Ernie Merrick. Without taking anything away from Ricki Herbert and what he achieved, no Phoenix player in the six-year history of the club had ever heard another head coach-s voice. Whether you hang a cliché on it and say that a change is as good as a holiday, or just realise that fresh ideas and a fresh approach are healthy things, the noises coming out of the playing group are overwhelmingly positive as they work hard to implement the preferred style of their new mentor.
In very broad terms, Phoenix attacks will now likely come through narrower channels than they have in previous years. While width is still important (and will be provided by pacey fullbacks Reece Caira and the converted Louis Fenton getting up and down regularly), don-t expect to see Paul Ifill drifting wide to pick up the ball as often as he has in the past. The two defensive midfielders (say, Manny Muscat and Vince Lia) are likely to sit in with the centre-backs, allowing Carlos Hernandez to break forward in support of the front three.
Those attackers won-t be relying on balls whipped into the box as their Plan ‘A- – instead the attacks should hopefully be created through central areas, giving the likes of Ifill, Jeremy Brockie, Kenny Cunningham, Leo Bertos and Stein Huysegems the opportunity to do their damage with the ball at their feet, rather than trying to get on the end of crosses.
Merrick-s first big challenge comes in week one of the A-League season, not only because the visitors are perennial playoff participants Brisbane Roar, but also because he-ll be facing them without at least five, and possibly more of his squad.
Because the A-League pays no heed to FIFA windows, the All Whites quintet of Glen Moss, Ben Sigmund, Andrew Durante, Bertos and Brockie will be away with the national side completing their preparations for November-s massive World Cup playoff games. It won-t have escaped Merrick-s attention that Herbert has also been quoted as saying he-d be keen to include Fenton in his All Whites squad for the October matches too.
Newly-arrived Costa Rican striker Kenny Cunningham must also be in doubt, although he hasn-t been called into his national side for the September clashes with USA and Jamaica. Given the fact he-s featured in the squad for the previous matches in the CONCACAF group though, there has to be at least a chance he-ll be recalled for the games in October.
So, with the Phoenix squad as it sits currently, that might potentially leave a starting eleven of Lewis Italiano in goal, a back four of (someone at right back – possibly Cameron Lindsay), Luke Adams, Michael Boxall and Caira; Muscat, Lia and Hernandez in midfield and Ifill, Huysegems and Tyler Boyd up front.
That-s not too bad on the face of things, but it certainly looks a little thin at the back and leaves only teenager Alex Rufer and players from the Football School of Excellence on the bench. However, Phoenix faced an identical situation in round two last year and came away with a point from their visit to Melbourne Heart. Much as he-ll say he wants to win, Merrick might just take a draw from that opening match given the limited resources at his disposal.
There-s still at least one signing to be made to achieve the mandatory twenty-man roster, and while it initially appeared that slot might go to an import, it now seems as though another young New Zealander might find his way into the mix. Merrick has certainly done what he said he was going to do and given young kiwis a chance.
Several fresh faces have featured in warm-up games against local cub teams, others have been invited to train with the side with a view to impressing the new gaffer, and Rufer and Adams have won contracts. Don-t be surprised to see a couple more young home-grown players added to the full-time squad with the remaining overseas slot kept up the sleeve for possible use later.
And finally, just how much longer are we going to have to wait to find out whether Andrew Durante is able to play for New Zealand or not? FIFA opened the investigation into his eligibility on June 21, and here we are in September and we-re still none the wiser. When New Zealand Football politely enquired via email last week as to where the process was as, they were told in no uncertain terms to limit their correspondence to fax, and that a decision would be forthcoming when FIFA were good and ready.
This has gone well beyond mildly ridiculous to now utterly farcical. Why is it taking so long? It must be incredibly frustrating and more than a touch unsettling for Durante as he drifts along in a footballing no-man-s-land, not knowing whether he should allow himself to harbour hopes of World Cup football with New Zealand, just in case those dreams are dashed by a FIFA committee. In June, it seemed impossible that he wouldn-t have an answer before the September window, let alone November-s blockbusting home and away playoff; now it-s not beyond the realms of possibility that this could drag on and on and on.