Wellington Phoenix lagging as league improves
The Wellington Phoenix are facing their most difficult season yet.
So far on this campaign they have over-promised and under-delivered and have been wrong-footed by the rising quality of the A League.
The arduous travel imposed by the All Whites' schedule is also taking a heavy toll. This week, for example, coach Ricki Herbert and six players flew to China for an international friendly before heading to Newcastle for Sunday's A-League clash.
This is a recipe for fatigue and under-performance in what is an increasingly tough league where no team is standing still.
The pre-season predictions were rosy for the Phoenix and the first two performances - a win against Sydney FC and a draw with Melbourne Heart - added additional glow.
It has been downhill since with another draw and three losses in row.
There is no question this is a better Phoenix team than last season's. But the difference is marginal.
An injection of young blood - particularly in the form of impressive rookie Louis Fenton - has added much-needed pace.
And in Belgian striker Stein Huysegems they have signed a classy player who provides a new dimension with his link play and eye for goal.
For a brief moment, it seemed that Herbert was implementing a more attacking game-plan.
With each passing week, however, the tactics have returned to type and it has become clearer where the Phoenix are still lacking.
The central midfield remains a flair-free zone. Alex Smith has some nice touches and wins ball in the air but is several notches below the very good players he is up against most week.
Manny Muscat is a talented footballer yet has looked less effective with each passing game as the Phoenix have been over-run and out-played through the middle.
Muscat's best position may indeed be in central midfield, not fullback, but only if he is adequately supported in the middle of the park.
The Phoenix's cause has not been helped by Paul Ifill's lack of form. He is the side's best player but is still a few weeks away from regaining that half-yard of pace that makes him so effective.
There is a makeshift feel to the Phoenix which points to a failure to build a well-rounded squad.
Leo Bertos is a case in point. He has been converted from a flying winger to a right fullback. While he is doing a decent job it does smack of plugging a gap by finding a home for a good player who may have his best football behind him.
Up front, Jeremy Brockie is lost. Again, he is being played out of position. Brockie is not a natural striker, but he is an exciting talent and would be more at home playing out wide or if given a roving attacking brief.
The problem, however, is that the Phoenix don't really have anyone better to play up front. And unless Herbert changes his ideas, formation and tactics, Brockie may have to soldier on.
Herbert is a good enough coach to figure this out but is probably finding it tough juggling his commitments to club and country.
The problem is that in the A League he is up against a rising tide of formidable coaching talent. These rivals do not have dual coaching responsibilities and they have recruited top players and are deploying astute, progressive, flexible tactics.
The league has improved. There are few, if any, poor teams this season. If the Phoenix are to keep pace, things will have to change.
The starting point for that will probably be restoring the team's rock-solid defence and fighting spirit and ensuring they remain very difficult to beat at home.
Beyond that, the Phoenix need to add an element of surprise to their tactics, play their best players in their best position and recruit a midfield play-maker or two. Otherwise, a disappointing campaign beckons.