Numbers game key to Herbert's success

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 16/11/2012

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Steely Dan weren't specifically singing to the All Whites coach when they warbled: "Ricki don't lose that number, you don't wanna call nobody else".

But Ricki Herbert would do well to heed the 70s rockers' advice - although make it "numbers" in his case. The New Zealand football team were rather raggedy at rightback in yesterday morning's 1-1 draw with China. But the 4-1-4-1 configuration seems to suit the burgeoning talent in the All Whites ranks.

Could this be a Shanghai Dawn for Herbert's honchos? Only if the gaffer holds his nerve and perseveres with his young personnel and the new formation.

Herbert fielded a greenhorn gang. The average age of the outfield players was 23. Starting midfielder Tim Payne and substitute Cameron Howieson ARE still in their teens, while Chris Wood and Marco Rojas still not likely candidates for shaving company endorsements.

It was a patchy performance, but the All Whites' younger brigade still seem more poised on the ball and more comfortable executing a passing game.

The All Whites started in Shanghai without captain Ryan Nelsen, 35, and midfield godfather Ivan Vicelich, 36, plus strikers Shane Smeltz and Chris Killen, both 31.

They need Nelsen back in the heart of the defence for March's crucial World Cup qualifier against New Caledonia. His leadership and organisational acumen were missed as much as his physical presence.

The skipper's return would allow Winston Reid to shuffle over to right back to replace Ben Sigmund, who was given a torrid time in the first half, and missed a sitter after an air shot with the Chinese net beckoning just before the home side opened the scoring from a counterattack.

Sigmund is definitely more at home at centreback, his Wellington Phoenix role. Herbert should have swapped him with Reid, the young premier league pro, when China's attacking intent first became evident.

Wood, 20, equalised with a free header after the Chinese keeper blundered by leaving his line too early. He is setting the English Championship alight with a goals glut for Millwall and probably has a better touch than his older rivals.

But Smeltz is still the senior pro and the man most likely to score the defining goal.

The All Whites would have won had Nelsen and Smeltz been in harness. They'd never have given away the soft set-piece goal had Nelsen been marshalling the defences at the 31st-minute corner, and Smeltz would have buried the gilt-edged chance Wood missed.

So, November 15, 2012 - three years since Rory Fallon's "Header From Heaven" against Bahrain earned the All Whites a ride to the 2010 World Cup finals - may go down in history as the day Ricki Herbert inters his 3-4-3 formation in the same trench the Chinese entombed their terracotta troops known as the Buried Army.

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3-4-3 served the All Whites ably, but it was a product of its time just as permed hairstyles were in Herbert's own playing days.

Besides, Herbert latched on to that system virtually by default. He didn't - and still doesn't (some eight years after his appointment) have an experienced, specialist right back and he was having a devil of a job deciding which of his three senior strikers, Killen, Smeltz or Fallon, to leave out had he employed a more traditional 4-4-2 formation for the first leg of the Inter-Continental playoff in Bahrain.

The 3-4-3 worked then, because the players made it work. But that was then. This is now.

Reverting to Leo Bertos and Tony Lochhead as wing-backs would mean no room for Rojas or the equally attacking Kosta Barbarouses on the flanks.

Bertos has since switched to a regulation right back role at the Phoenix. He's still learning his trade but has four months to convince Herbert, his club coach, he is ready for the No 2 jumper at World Cup level.

Lochhead is about as comfortable as he can get in the traditional left back berth, rather than having to get up and down the line as a wing back. Up hasn't been as much a problem as back.

The All Whites got away with 3-4-3 in South Africa because central midfielders Vicelich and Simon Elliott seemed to have taken a quick dip in the fountain of youth.

But Elliott is now coaching in American and Vicelich no longer has the legs for anything other than a central defensive gig.

If the All Whites want a maturing Michael McGlinchey to be their key creative fulcrum, they'll need to give him more support.

Having someone sweeping in front of the back four and another working in the centre of the pitch offers better backup. Dan Keat did the holding role ably, making a desperate last-ditch tackle to concede the corner which led to China's free-ride goal.

It would be a travesty to drop Rojas and Barbarouses. New Zealand football hasn't had an attacking duo of their dynamism since the great Wynton Rufer and Michael McGarry were in harness 20 years ago.

The All Whites will beat New Caledonia without them, but they've got more chance of cracking a home-and-away World Cup playoff series with an inter-continental rival from North or Central America or the Caribbean with Rojas and Barbarouses' pace and artistry out wide. The more games they play now the better.

So remember Ricki, what Steely Dan said about keeping that new number: "You might use it if you feel better, when you get home." Fairfax NZ

- © Fairfax NZ News

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