Finding the right formation Herbert's challenge

ON THE WAY OUT? Ricki Herbert has reportedly tendered his resignation as coach of the Wellington Phoenix.
ON THE WAY OUT? Ricki Herbert has reportedly tendered his resignation as coach of the Wellington Phoenix.

The All Whites' useful 1-1 draw with China may have left coach Ricki Herbert with more questions than answers.

For instance, what formation is he going to go with for the crunch World Cup qualifier against New Caledonia in March? In recent years, Herbert has favoured a three-man backline, largely because there hasn't been a right back up to the required standard. Yet he played a back four against China, with centre back Ben Sigmund filling the troublesome position, and not to good enough effect to persuade Herbert that Sigmund is the answer.

Leo Bertos has been converted into a right back to fill the gap for the Phoenix. Did the fact that he was on the bench in China, while a centre back played his position, mean that Bertos doesn't yet cut the mustard in Herbert's eyes?

Several senior players - principally Ryan Nelsen, Ivan Vicelich, Shane Smeltz and Chris Killen - were absent from the starting lineup on Wednesday. But after the promising performances of Herbert's "team of the future", are any of those four about to be consigned to the past?

Nelsen, of course, is there as long as his legs will carry him. But holding midfielder Dan Keat, for example, is a more mobile player, with a greater range of passing, than the vastly experienced Vicelich, and will replace him at some stage. Will that be before or after New Zealand's involvement in the World Cup ends?

Chris Wood, Kosta Barbarouses and Marco Rojas all did enough to warrant serious consideration for the front three positions for the New Caledonia game and beyond.

Wood, a big striker with a soft touch, is good in the air and on the ground, and has been in goal-scoring form lately. He added to his international tally when the Chinese goalkeeper came, saw and wholly failed to conquer a cross from Michael McGlinchey, leaving Wood to head into the open net.

Now, with well over two dozen appearances for his country, the 20-year-old has plenty of experience and looks ready to shoulder the responsibility of leading the attack.

Barbarouses and Rojas looked most likely to unlock the Chinese defence, and two cute passes in particular from Rojas turned the hosts inside out, leading to great chances for Wood and youngster Tim Payne. Would Herbert be prepared to leave out Smeltz and Killen, both 31, and go with Wood, Rojas and Barbarouses, whose combined age is 63?

But the critical question confronting Herbert concerns the team's playing style. Continued uncertainty regarding the formation - 3-4-3? 4-3-3? 4-1-4-1? - suggests the coach is not yet sure what system he'll use against New Caledonia and then, provided that fixture is successfully negotiated, the Concacaf representatives in the World Cup playoff.

If he doesn't know the formation, then he can't know his best team, or what playing style to use, because a team with Barbarouses and Rojas in attack is going to play in vastly different fashion to a team with Smeltz, Killen and Wood up front.

Having that much tall timber to aim at gives a side the option of playing a lot of long or high balls forward, and it's worth remembering that New Zealand's three most crucial goals in recent memory - against Bahrain to take the All Whites to the World Cup, and the two at the World Cup - all resulted from aerial balls into the penalty box.

But having a forward line full of "Smurfs" forces a team to get the ball down and play on the ground.

All will be revealed.

Billy Harris is a former All White.

Sunday Star Times