The last time Javi Lopez scored any goal of note, his Espanyol team was well on the way to finishing dead last and ending an unbroken 25-year run in Spain’s ultra-competitive La Liga.
Although they sit bottom of the A-League table, a win next week against Adelaide could potentially take Wellington into seventh. This highlights the messiness at the foot of the ladder, but also the fact that the Phoenix are not necessarily the competition’s whipping boys.
Surprise victories over Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Victory in recent weeks exemplify this point.
Consistency has been a key issue for coach Darije Kalezic. When first appointed, the Swiss said, “I like to play nice and attractive football but I come from another part of Europe where organisation and discipline are important.”
In reality, he has moved between multiple styles throughout this season.
In the opening round, against Adelaide, Kalezic pushed both his full-backs high up the pitch as they constantly tried to get balls into the box, indicative of an attacking approach.
Later, against Newcastle, Kalezic instructed his team to play out from the back under very high pressure by the Jets, which led to several chances (and one goal) conceded from quick counter-attacks where possession was turned over cheaply.
Whether that was a turning point or not, as the season has gone on, Kalezic has become increasingly more defensive and reactive. The peak was probably the 2-1 defeat away to Melbourne City, where the home side was allowed to have over 70 per cent of the ball, despite having averaged less than 50 per cent for the season up until that point.
That was because Kalezic used a 5-3-2 formation, asked his back five to sit deep and protect space in behind. There were a few sporadic counterattacks through the front two of Roy Krishna and Andrija Kaluderovic, but the main emphasis was on stopping City from having space close to goal.
Wellington have not been quite as defensive since, but they still feel a bit like Perth Glory – caught between wanting to play a certain way, feeling like they have to change their approach to get results, and thus sometimes appearing slightly direction-less.
Where the Nix are different, however, is that Kalezic obviously adjusts his approach according to the opponent. Specific gameplans have been put in place to target opposition weaknesses.
In the most recent win, over Newcastle, the Kiwi side played in a 4-3-3 formation. There was an obvious intent to prevent any of the Jets’ midfield players from having time and space in central areas, as the Wellington midfielders went man-to-man against their direct opponents.
As the Jets play a 4-2-3-1, this meant Matija Ljujic and Michael McGlinchey closed down Wayne Brown and Steven Ugarkovic, leaving Matthew Ridenton one-on-one against Dimitri Petratos.
This was the game’s key battle, because Petratos constantly had to try and get free from the close attention of Ridenton. This sometimes meant moving towards wider areas. Ridenton would still follow Petratos though, particularly when he received the ball, so that the playmaker had to play back away from goal.
Although this sometimes meant the crucial playmaking zone in front of the Wellington centre-backs was vacated, Newcastle were not able to get other players in this space to exploit it effectively.
This was a general, overall flaw of one of the Jets’ poorer performances of the season. When an opponent is man-marking you, they have to react to your movement. Newcastle, however, often moved towards the ball, even when their direct opponent was nearby, which meant that the marker was able to see both the ball and their opponent, and press them if they received it.
This is most obvious in the scene below, where McGlinchey doesn’t have to move his head or change his body shape to pay attention to Brown – and thus, when the ball is passed forward, McGlinchey can intercept it and start a counter-attack.
When man-marked, staying between your marker and the ball allows the defender to anticipate forward passes and step in front to win the ball pic.twitter.com/RV7QreNhqL
— Tim Palmer (@timpalmerftbl) January 23, 2018
The Jets looked promising when they moved beyond their marker, meaning the Phoenix player had to look at both the ball and the player he was marking. This is often called playing on the ‘blindside’. In these moments, Newcastle were able to get free and receive passes in behind their opponent, which is why their best chances in the first half came when Daniel Georgievski and Jason Hoffman got in behind the opposing back four.
As a man-marker, Wellington's right-back's first point of reference is stopping his man getting the ball – even if that is at the expense of playing other opponents onside pic.twitter.com/X0hI3Db8lv
— Tim Palmer (@timpalmerftbl) January 23, 2018
You can actually see in that scene how the first point of reference for each Wellington defender is their nearest opponent, not the ball. Right-back Daniel Mullen constantly turns his head to look at Pablo Rodriguez on the blindside behind him, without realising he is keeping the other attackers onside.
The first orientation for Mullen was his nearest opponent, so his first priority in decision-making was to stop his man getting the ball – even though that meant the Jets were able to create a goalscoring opportunity.
Because Kalezic’s tactics seem to be most influenced by results (and not by the parameters of a particular style of play, as would be the case for someone like Josep Gombau or Paul Okon), we will likely see more of this approach.
Man-marking central midfielders has been a common ploy of A-League teams for years, for two reasons – firstly, it’s easy to coach and assess (each player is directly responsible for someone, and if you lose him, that is your fault) and secondly, many individuals don’t know how to attack against it.
Therefore, it is a great opportunity for Wellington’s next opponents, Adelaide, to come up with a strategy to exploit some of the described weaknesses.
If they do, Kalezic might change approach again.
Naturally, there are strengths and weaknesses to any tactic, but Kalezic seems happy to adjust as the season goes on. Whether that works or not in the long-term will depend on results, which, ultimately, appears to be what he is happy to be judged upon.