Vince Lia credits Merrick for good Phoenix form
Vince Lia doesn't like fuss but there's been a bit of it this week.
The A-League's official statistics revealed that the Wellington Phoenix midfielder had completed the third most passes in the opposition's half this season (638), behind only Brisbane Roar duo Thomas Broich (781) and Luke Brattan (686).
Such a stat would have been unthinkable in the Ricki Herbert era, when Lia was deployed as a defensively-minded tackling machine.
But the arrival of Ernie Merrick and Albert Riera has freed the former Australian age-group star to display his attacking qualities and, while he has just two goal assists to his name, Lia is a vital cog, shifting the ball quickly and efficiently.
The Phoenix's backroom staff were quick to congratulate Lia this week, and Merrick - who coached Lia at the Victorian Institute of Sport and Melbourne Victory - went as far as to say last Saturday's 2-1 win over Adelaide United was the best he'd seen him play in their 15-year association.
"The last week or so there's been a lot made of it," Lia said of his reformed reputation as a slick passer.
"I think it's just down to Ernie changing everyone's mindset and my mindset, and working on things, and we're playing out from the back a lot more than we have done in the past. A lot of it is down to Ernie and what he's doing at the club and giving everyone confidence to just play attacking football. It didn't really worry me what other people thought (in previous seasons), as long as I was keeping the coach happy and doing my bit for the team.
"I guess you don't like to be labelled as a panelbeater or whatever but I guess it's more enjoyable playing this way."
Lia has played on the right side of a midfield diamond this season but Friday's groin injury to Riera means the 28-year-old is likely to take the Spaniard's screening role against the Jets in Newcastle tonight.
It is a task that Lia has fulfilled in the past but he acknowledged the significance of Riera's injury.
"It's disappointing, Albert's been fantastic this season ... It's a little bit of a different role for me but I've done it before so it shouldn't be too bad. (The key is) working well with the back four and when you get the ball, keep it moving, you can't take too many touches on the ball. You never really get a lot of time in that position so it's to change the point of attack and keep things moving and play some good forward passes."
The Phoenix's depth will be severely tested at Hunter Stadium tonight.
In addition to Riera, Paul Ifill, Louis Fenton and Leo Bertos are out with injury and Kenny Cunningham and Michael Boxall are suspended.
Youngsters Josh Brindell-South, Jason Hicks, Matthew Ridenton, Reece Caira and Alex Rufer may all have significant roles to play.
Whatever the outcome, Lia, the only remaining foundation Phoenix player, said the club was in good shape.
Off contract at the end of the season, he hopes to extend his stay.
"I'm enjoying it out here and this is the best the club has been. The new ownership, new coaching staff, it's all heading in the right direction. It's a good time to be part of the club."
In the meantime there is a game to be won in an important clash between two teams locked together on 20 points near the foot of the ladder.
The Phoenix are the league's form team and under normal circumstances would be bullish but they are now missing a large chunk of their best players.
"They're struggling a little bit at the moment but they're going to be keen to put in a good performance in front of their home fans," Lia said.
"We know they're dangerous, (Adam) Taggart's the top goalscorer in the league, equal with Stein (Huysegems) so they're a dangerous outfit."