Phoenix Mid-Term Report

With 15 games gone this A-League season, here’s my mid-season report on the Wellington Phoenix.

Best performance
When you beat someone 5-0, it’s always memorable. When it’s a side that has beaten you in each of the last seven meetings, it’s even more impressive. But the Phoenix’s dismantling of perennial championship-contenders the Melbourne Victory was one out of the box. The goals were of a high quality, the football was eye-catching and the opposition were simply put to the sword on a memorable night in the capital. Almost as pleasing as the “five” was the “nil” as the Phoenix rear-guard hardly gave the much-vaunted Victory front-line a sniff. It was one of those nights when it was impossible to find a player in a Phoenix shirt who didn’t have a good or great game. Phoenix 5 Victory 0 – one of the more unlikely scorelines in A-League history.

Turning point
Coach Ernie Merrick doesn’t like talking about turning points, because he believes it opens the door to the possibility of certain matches marking a down-turn in a side’s fortunes. However, if you’re looking for a game when the Phoenix went from also-rans to playoff contenders, it was the 3-1 away win over Western Sydney Wanderers on New Year’s Day. Victories over Sydney FC and Melbourne Heart had kick-started the Phoenix season, but this performance announced the arrival of Merrick’s men as a side to be reckoned with. Even when they went 1-0 down, the Phoenix never looked like dropping their heads and a maiden A-League goal from Tyler Boyd, followed by a classy brace from Stein Huysegems gave the Phoenix one of their most memorable ever away wins. No-one who saw the game could argue they didn’t deserve it.

Best goal
It’s hard to go past Kenny Cunningham’s stunner against Melbourne Victory on Saturday as he collected a pass from countryman Carlos Hernandez, took a touch and then fired a swerving, dipping volley past Victory ‘keeper Nathan Coe. It was one of those goals that leaves the crowd stunned for a split-second as they process what they’ve just seen. An honourable mention too for the fifth goal of the night scored by Stein Huysegems whose absolutely sublime touch to control Jeremy Brockie’s cross before firing the ball home wouldn’t have been out of place in any of the world’s top leagues.

Biggest surprise
The quick conversion of Michael Boxall from central defender to right fullback. As back-up to skipper Andrew Durante and stalwart Ben Sigmund, it seemed Boxall’s opportunities would again be limited, but the season-ending injury to Louis Fenton has given the robust centre-back the chance to slot into an unfamiliar role on the right side of the back four. After a tentative start against the Mariners, Boxall was excellent in the 5-0 win over the Victory and looks set to occupy the spot for the rest of the season. Right-back has historically been a position where the Phoenix have struggled and while Boxall is yet another example of a converted full-back, he looks perfectly able to make a decent fist of the role in the next few months and even beyond.

Unsung hero
Vince Lia was released by Ernie Merrick at Melbourne Victory and when his former mentor arrived in Wellington, many thought Lia, who had basically been an ever-present under former coach Ricki Herbert, would spend this season on the periphery of the playing eleven. Instead, he’s started every game and is the best example (with the possible exception of Ben Sigmund) of a player who has bought totally into Merrick’s way and adapted himself accordingly. Not every player could have managed that; it’s a credit to Lia that he’s not only done so, but with such impressive results. Perhaps the best illustration of the change in his game is the fact his yellow card against the Victory in round fifteen was his first of the season.

Most improved
Strikers need goals, but try as he might, Tyler Boyd was simply unable to score one. He’d played 29 A-League games without hitting the back of the net, and for all his enthusiasm and endeavour, it was the one thing missing from his professional football CV. Boyd came off the bench to set up the winner for Stein Huysegems in eye-catching fashion against the Heart just after Christmas and five days later, finally broke his goal-scoring duck against WSW. Boyd credited Ernie Merrick for coaching into him the positional play which led to the goal and his continued impact from the bench was soon rewarded with a first start of the season against the Victory.

Breaking the drought
Last year Jeremy Brockie scored goals for fun – 16 in all – to be second in the A-League’s Golden Boot standings. He started off OK in 2013/14 with a couple of goals in his first three games, but from mid-November onwards, he couldn’t buy a goal. To make matters worse, easy chances were being spurned, including two missed tap-ins in consecutive weeks which saw the All Whites striker’s confidence plummet even lower. He was eventually dropped to the bench for the Victory game, but made a spectacular late entrance by drilling home a dam-breaking goal shortly after arriving, before setting up the fifth for Stein Huysegems. At training two days later, everything Brockie hit was flying in. The rather sizeable monkey which had spent the best part of the last two months residing on his back was last seen slinking away from Westpac Stadium, hopefully never to be seen again.

Player of the season
Albert Riera. The story of the Spanish paramedic’s arrival in New Zealand is now the stuff of football folklore and he has become the most famous back-packer in the history of the A-League. When he signed for the Phoenix, Riera expected to be a back-up player who might get the odd game off the bench; now he’s one of the first names on the team-sheet each week. His assured passing, composure and astute reading of the game have marked him out as a vital cog in the Phoenix’s midfield and he’s also allowed Manny Muscat to provide solidity at left-back, contributing to what is now a watertight defensive line. Riera’s recent contract extension was just reward for a player who has quickly become a standout in the competition.

Man of the season
Ernie Merrick. The new coach has changed the face of the football club; it’s as simple as that. Through repetition and sheer hard work he has taught the Phoenix how to play possession-based, attacking football and the results have started to come. Through ten winless games, lesser men would have doubted their methods, but Merrick had faith the on-field progress would eventually bear fruit and it has proven to be so. The players love playing for Merrick; one told me recently that the coach was his “hero” and had breathed life into his football career. While there may have been doubts when he arrived about Merrick-s ability to adapt to a league that’s moved on considerably since he tasted success with Melbourne Victory, he-s shown himself to be an extremely shrewd coach with superb man-management skills. What he has achieved in a relatively short space of time is quite remarkable.

The Phoenix are now just three points outside the playoff spots with 12 games to play. There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that the recent five-game haul of 13 points from a possible 15 was anything but totally deserved and there’s now excitement and optimism ahead of every Phoenix match, home or away. It would be a brave man who’d predict the Phoenix will finish outside the top six. I think they’ll finish fourth, and from there, who knows?

Follow Jason Pine on Twitter: @pineyzb