Tactical Triangles: Merrick's Phoenix show early promise

Tactical Triangles - analysis exploring on-field strategy in the A-League. Each piece includes three points, just like the passing triangles that are key to beautiful football

Prior to this season, many expected Brisbane Roar to challenge for the title. With a midfield the envy of any club and two of the best players in the competition - Besart Berisha and Thomas Broich - Mike Mulvey is expected to lead the Queenslanders to the upper echelons of the table.

By contrast, Wellington Phoenix were the big unknown heading into the 2013-14 campaign with a new head coach in Ernie Merrick, plus a young squad, drastically different to last season. Having finished last in the 2012-13 season, Phoenix were predicted by many to collect another wooden spoon. But on Sunday, Wellington almost snagged a point against Brisbane, and with a bit of luck they even could have won.

While Mulvey's men took all three points back home thanks to Ivan Franjic's stoppage-time strike, how did Wellington go so close to defeating the Roar? It seems Merrick has installed a similar set-up at the Phoenix as he did when claiming two A-League doubles with Melbourne Victory; a solid defensive structure with power on the counter-attack, which disrupted Brisbane's vaunted passing ability.

Melbourne Victory 2.0?

During his tenure at Victory, Merrick had a simple system. Victory played with a solid back four with two covering midfielders, all of whom rarely got involved in the forward third. Merrick would then rely on a creative midfielder to set up opportunities for speedy attackers. The Big V regularly scored on the counter-attack and did not mind going direct when required.

football formations Wellington's performance at Westpac Stadium had many of the hallmarks of Merrick's Victory [see starting line-ups, left]. In defence, the Phoenix set up with two banks of four with an attacking midfielder and striker around the halfway line. Another ex-Victory man, Carlos Hernandez, played in behind Stein Huysegems and was the main outlet for Wellington when they won possession from the Roar. The Costa Rican's ability to hold up the ball, often under pressure from more than one opponent, was reminiscent of the role Alessandro Del Piero plays for Sydney FC, allowing Kenny Cunningham and Jason Hicks to push forward in support.

Wellington's willingness to go direct created their best chance in the second half with a cross-field pass in the 64th minute finding Hernandez on the left, who flicked the ball to a flying Hicks and he pushed forward before squaring the ball for Huysegems to unleash a shot, which Michael Theo did well to save. With Brisbane's full-backs regularly pushing up, counter-attacks meant the Phoenix were sometimes faced with just two or three defenders.

Defensively, Merrick's 4-4-1-1 formation meant the Phoenix always outnumbered Brisbane when the visitors were in possession. With Luke Brattan often splitting his central defenders, the Roar's holding midfielder would look up to see eight Wellington players clogging the visitors' attacking third. Wellington's two banks of four also meant all seven Roar players ahead of Brattan would be marked. It meant the home side regularly intercepted Brisbane's forward passes with the Phoenix finishing with 23 interceptions to the Roar's six, while Merrick's men made 36 tackles and 22 fouls compared to the visitors' 24 and seven.

Franjic shows how McKay will play

The most surprising selection in Brisbane's line-up on Sunday was Mulvey's decision to play Ivan Franjic as one of his two central attacking midfielders. The Roar have been working on a midfield trio of Matt McKay, Liam Miller and Brattan, and with the former away on international duty, Franjic stepped in. Brisbane's formation took on a 4-1-4-1 shape in defence, while, in attack, Kwame Yeboah pushed high on the right, and Broich oscillated from doing the same on the left and dropping inside. When the German moved inside he helped create Brisbane's best opportunities as the Roar would outnumber Wellington in the middle of the park.

Franjic's movement when Broich abandoned his left-wing position underlined what Mulvey expects from McKay when he returns from the Socceroos' trip to Paris and London. Franjic would drive forward into the gap created by Broich, often getting in behind inexperienced Phoenix right-back Luke Adams, who had a torrid time trying to deal with Brisbane's movement. It is easy to imagine McKay, with his impressive engine, doing the same, cutting the ball back to Berisha.

Wellington need two Muscats

Brisbane's passing game never really got going in Wellington due to the home side's defensive midfield duo of Manny Muscat and Vince Lia. They were everywhere. Muscat and Lia combined for 19 ball recoveries, 15 tackles, four interceptions and nine fouls; a total of 44 disruptions of Roar attacks. By contrast, Melbourne Heart's Andrea Migliorini and Massimo Murdocca, who received praise for their defensive efforts in the Melbourne Derby, managed a total of just 24 disruptions.
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The Phoenix's hard work in defence meant Brisbane finished with a passing efficiency of 73 percent, the worst rate of any team in Round One. But the effort also took its toll on Wellington, which led to Brisbane claiming all three points.

The Roar equalised in the opening minute of the second half when Franjic got in behind Adams, who is naturally a central defender, and set up Berisha. Merrick responded almost immediately and brought on Albert Riera for Adams but the Spanish central midfielder was also being asked to play out of position. Brisbane continued to take advantage down the left, underlining the big hole in Merrick's squad. Muscat is Wellington's best defensive midfielder but the 28-year-old is also the Phoenix's only genuine right-back. Simply put; Wellington need two Muscats.

Riera's inexperience on the right side of defence also led to Brisbane's winning goal [see right]. In the 92nd minute, the visitors won a throw-in high on their left wing. Shane Steffanuto pushed up to take the throw with Broich his closest option, with Riera and Lia covering them respectively. But Henrique's diagonal run in behind Riera saw Muscat and Ben Sigmund get pulled right as they worried about their Spanish teammate's positioning. Suddenly, four Wellington players were marking two opponents in the field of play, which allowed Miller to drift into box and set-up the goal as Broich's shot rebounded to Franjic, who scored.

Looking Ahead

Next up for Mulvey's men is one of the other Round One-winners; Sydney FC. There were plenty of positives to take from Brisbane's trip to New Zealand but Wellington proved the Roar are susceptible to counter-attacks. With McKay expected to come back into the Roar's line-up, Franjic is likely to replace Yeboah on the right wing. Mulvey will no doubt be happy to see McKay back, as the former Roar skipper should track back more frequently compared with Broich and Miller.

For the Phoenix, the only way is up, with their large group of New Zealand internationals available after the international window. Merrick was happy with how his team carried out his plan against Brisbane and with the likes of Jeremy Brockie and Andrew Durante back, Wellington should be even better this week. Despite that, the Phoenix face a tough trip to Western Sydney to take on the Wanderers and their problems at right-back should be exploited by Tony Popovic's ruthless side.

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