Phoenix fail to rise to occasion

2:55 pm on 5 May 2015

OPINION: Something unusual happened to the Wellington Phoenix on their way to the A-League play-offs.

After a season in which the team played some of the best football in the league, they lost their nerve.

Phoenix striker Nathan Burns was tightly marked throughout the elimination final against Melbourne City.

Phoenix striker Nathan Burns was tightly marked throughout the elimination final against Melbourne City. Photo: Photosport

It was hugely frustrating to see the Phoenix bow out at home on Sunday to a mediocre Melbourne City without firing a shot.

Questions will inevitably be asked of coach Ernie Merrick's tactics and team selections in the final weeks of the season.

Merrick has displayed chutzpah all year and his team's attacking football was, at times, breathtaking.

Young players and new talent flourished, and some of the old hands reached new heights.

But, there is no doubt he dialled back the attacking intent in the past few weeks, opting to stack his team with mid-fielders and leaving his best attacking options - Kenny Cunningham and Roy Krishna - on the bench.

Striker Nathan Burns had an outstanding season driving into the box from wide positions. But he was increasingly isolated as teams double and triple marked him, safe in the knowledge that the rest of the Phoenix lacked attacking edge.

The Phoenix's run of poor form in the league's final rounds reflected a few factors.

The team looked tired after a tough campaign and lots of travel, including extra tours of duty for the squad's many international players.

Other teams had also clearly figured out how to combat the Phoenix's rapid passing game: press them high in midfield, play physically and close down Burns.

The side's weakness at both right and left full-back, and vulnerability to high balls, was also exposed and the side started shipping goals.

With things unravelling, Merrick played a more cautious hand and it didn't work.

Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick

Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick Photo: Photosport

The coach will be disappointed in his side's inability to execute the tactics that he obviously felt offered them the best path through the play-offs.

Yet the Phoenix undoubtedly made huge strides this season and Merrick deserves credit for that.

The core of the team - Glen Moss, Ben Sigmund, Andrew Durante, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Riera, Roly Bonevacia, Michael McGlinchey and Burns - is sound.

But Merrick does not yet have the squad to make a lasting impact on the league and to sustain the attacking, possession-based football he prefers.

At a minimum the Phoenix need to recruit a fast, goal-scoring striker and a high-quality left-back. Extra cover at right-back and central defence, and a bit of mongrel and size in midfield, are also required.

With those in place, the Phoenix will be a genuine threat next season.