Reason: The Phoenix are learning - pass it on

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 22/01/2014
Ernie Merrick
CAMERON BURNELL/ Fairfax NZ
DOING GOOD WORK: Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick.

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OPINION: Brian Clough famously said, "Rome wasn't built in a day, but then again I wasn't on that particular job."

Rome would have been a doddle compared to Wellington. At least the Italians knew how to build from the back. Even ol' big mouth would have struggled to put Wellington together again in a day, given the rubble left behind by Ricki Herbert. Under those circumstances, the re-construction job done by Ernie Merrick seems little short of a miracle.

That is not to say that there won't be a few more shakes before the end of the season. The Phoenix could well get a dusting at the Roar this Friday given they must travel without Carlos Hernandez and Kenny Cunningham, who are away with Costa Rica.

But it is the manner of the Phoenix's rise that has been so impressive. It didn't start with the 5-0 thrashing of the Victory or even with the win just before Christmas against Sydney. It started the moment that Merrick arrived at the club.

It started with the three E's. No, not Ernie, Ernie, and Ernie. But education, evolution and entertainment. Merrick has taught the Phoenix how to play football. It is a huge achievement.

Under Herbert, the Phoenix hoofed long balls forwards from the back. They hoped that Paul Ifill might manage a bit of magic. Defenders took set pieces. Honest, hard-working players like Tony Lochhead went up and down the rails, knocking in hopeful crosses. Vince Lia kicked opponents more often than the ball. The three h's - hack, hoof and hope.

Look at Lia now. I did not believe that he was capable of playing the football he produced on Saturday. Beauty may be too strong a word, but it was certainly good looking. Ernie has got the boys playing touch and pass.

The Phoenix's opening goal came about when Lia controlled the ball with his right foot and knocked the ball through with his left foot. The commentators thought it might be a bit lucky. They wondered whether the pass had gone to its intended receiver. But that was a lack of understanding of what the Phoenix are now about.

Hernandez is allowed a few touches on the ball. Cunningham, Boyd and Huysegems are allowed to dribble and run at defenders. But the back four, Lia and Albert Riera constantly now take one touch and then pass. The point of attack is constantly moving and so are the players.

Lia's pass came through to Hernandez because he was expecting it. If the players are expecting touch and pass then they have to be always on the move. Their feet have to move and their brains have to move. Two-touch football makes you think.

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Cunningham's goal was a touch and pass from Hernandez. And the third goal could never have evolved under Herbert. It was touch and pass across the entire back four, with Ben Sigmund finally finding Michael Boxall for the umpteenth time. I did not believe Sigmund could pass as well as he did on Saturday night - and off either foot.

Merrick has got more football out of Boxall in a couple of weeks than Herbert did out of Lochhead in seven years. Boxall was continually giving Sigmund an outlet to the touchline with his movement. He took on defenders as he did in the move that led to the Hernandez penalty. And when the Victory had the ball, Boxall pressed up on the wide man.

Earlier this season Melbourne Victory took the Phoenix apart in the opening 30 minutes. Merrick was tinkering with his formation and the Phoenix players were still at the bottom of a steep learning curve. Adama Traore caused havoc down the Phoenix right, the back four were caught too high up the pitch and the centre backs didn't know whether to hold or fold.

Traore wasn't a factor on Saturday night. Boxall squeezed the touchline and Lia dropped into the space, with Albert Riera coming across when necessary. And even Sigmund, with one exception - sometimes he still just can't help himself - held the line with Andrew Durante.

In a matter of weeks, the back four has learned when to drop and they do it as a line, helped by standing much closer together. It's not quite the old Arsenal just yet, but it gets more accurate by the match. The Phoenix have conceded two goals in their previous five games.

The main man in all of this is the backpacker from Barcelona. And to think they laughed at Gareth Morgan's ambition when he wanted the Phoenix to entertain. The owner now even has his own man from Barca.

Merrick saw Albert Riera playing for Auckland and observed, "We could not get past him and he did not give the pass away either. He has brought the best out of Vince (Lia)."

Riera has brought the best out of the Phoenix now he has adapted to the faster pace of the A-league. Three times in the second half against the Victory, Riera took a touch and hit a sweet through ball. Brockie scored off one of the passes, but each one created a chance. The forwards can time their runs because they know when the pass is coming - touch and pass.

Riera is doing for the Phoenix what Claude Makelele used to do for Real Madrid and Chelsea. A foolish Madrid president let Makelele go, saying, "We will not miss Makelele. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents and 90% of his distribution goes backwards or sideways. Young players will cause Makelele to be forgotten."

He is still remembered. Indeed it is now sometimes called the Makelele role. As Zinedine Zidane, the most poetic of players, said at the time, "Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the engine."

Riera and Merrick are educating a generation. Riera says himself that he has been passing the ball across the field all his life. Now Lia and Sigmund and other lumpen New Zealanders are starting to pass as well.

And it has been a joy to watch.

- Fairfax Media

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