OPINION: The Wellington Phoenix owners now need to play the one card they've continually kept up their sleeve - a marquee signing.
Coach Ricki Herbert needs to bolster his squad with a dominant central midfielder. Sooner rather than later.
A proven performer in the middle of the park would benefit the Phoenix on two fronts. He would provide the club with a ball-winning distributor capable of turning defence into attack - and it would release Manny Muscat to return to right back, where he's most effective at A-League level.
The Phoenix were pulled apart defensively in their flattering 3-2 loss to Melbourne Victory on Monday. They defended too high up the pitch and the back-four were too flat.
The suspended Ben Sigmund's snap, tackle and pop was missed, and rookie right back Leo Bertos looked lost without Sigmund to direct him.
Monday's match was a contrast in coaching styles. Victory coach Ange Postecoglou is committed to playing possession-based football.
His game plan worked to perfection. His players exploited the yawning space down the Phoenix's flanks. Bertos, a converted wing, is no defender - yet. It was too easy for the Victory forwards to get goal side of him.
Likewise at left back. Tony Lochhead may be a tremendous athlete, but he too often ends up facing his own goal or getting pulled infield.
But Lochhead suffered for a lack of visible support on Monday.
Paul Ifill, on the left side of midfield, still looks short of match fitness. Both Ifill, and the promising Louis Fenton on the right flank, are attack-oriented players but struggle to cover their fullbacks when the opposition flood forward.
Herbert should have made changes much earlier than he did. It was obvious from the outset that the Phoenix couldn't cope with the pace and precision of Archie Thompson and Marco Rojas, or contain South Americans Marco Flores and Gui Finkler.
Muscat should have been shifted to right back where he would have closed down that channel. He was the No 2 in the A-League last season.
Vince Lia, who made some impact off the bench, could have filled the space in central midfield. Jeremy Brockie could also have swapped roles with Ifill.
Brockie scored two fabulous late goals to spare the Phoenix's blushes somewhat, but the jury is still out on his best role for the Phoenix.
As a striker yet he needs to work more on his movement off the ball and his ability to open up space. Brockie doesn't have the predatory goal-box pouncing instincts of All Whites team-mate Shane Smeltz.
His best goals are generally spectacular long-range efforts, like his sweeping drive and pinpoint free kick in Melbourne. He could still do that from midfield.
The Nelsonian has more experience as a wide midfielder and is the best the Phoenix have at helping his defence. Lochhead wouldn't have been left so exposed had Brockie been redeployed to the left flank.
A-League clubs generally make marquee signings to boost their gates.
Sydney FC's signing of former Italian World Cup winner Alessandro del Piero has proved a box-office hit.
The Newcastle Jets have got great value from former Liverpool and Aston Villa striker Emile Heskey, who is scoring more goals than he ever did in England.
But the Phoenix need a marquee signing to turn around their season on the field.
A defensive coach - either Herbert's All Whites assistant Neil Emblen or former premier league player Danny Hay - is also urgently needed to work extensively with Bertos, Lochhead and reserve back Michael Boxall.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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