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Opinion

Wellington Phoenix are best placed to challenge Sydney FC's crown

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Expert
28th January, 2020
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Sydney FC are running away with the league, Perth Glory have bumpy beginnings to continue their ascent from last season, while Melbourne City are looking a reinvigorated side under Erick Mombaerts.

Under Ufuk Talay though, Wellington Phoenix are quietly going about their business, currently fourth on the ladder.

Perhaps it is because they are across the ditch and somewhat understandably don’t receive much media attention in Australia, but the fact they have only lost once in their past 11 matches means they are one of the best sides in the league.

Talay’s success has come through his thrifty yet successful recruitment. Every addition that looked questionable in pre-season has flourished under the former assistant coach of Sydney.

Phoenix are fourth when it comes to expected goals difference with 1.85. However, recent months have seen the team grow from strength to strength.

Of course, a lot of that growth is down to Wellington’s pride and joy, Ulises Davila.

The Mexican star has tormented every opposition defence he has come against with his quick feet and deadly eye – he already has ten goals and three assists this season.

Davila is arguably the best player in the A-League right now.

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He averages an expected goals rate of 0.56 per 90 minutes, while still managing to maintain expected assists of 0.19. That means he is either getting on the end of or creating chances worth almost a goal a game.

Even though he’s a huge attacking threat, Davila still participates in build-up play, with high numbers when it comes to progressing the ball up the field, as well as averaging 34.35 accurate passes every game.

More still, he is an active defender high up the pitch.

Ulises Davila.

Ulises Davila has been a revelation for Wellington. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Having Davila is a huge boost, but Talay boasts a plethora of talents.

Former Celtic striker Gary Hooper has taken some time to get going, but he looks an excellent player in his limited minutes.

Then there is the hardworking David Ball, the reinvigorated Jaushua Sotirio, and exciting youngsters such as Callum McCowatt and Reno Piscopo.

Liberato Cacace, the teenager who feels like a seasoned veteran at left back, might also be following his compatriot Sarpreet Singh before too long, with reports linking him to a move to Germany.

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Talay may have discovered a gem in former Sydney midfielder Cameron Devlin, who won the player of the month award in December.

Devlin is a genuine box-to-box player with enough energy for two. The heatmap in Phoenix’s most recent match against Newcastle Jets shows just how much ground he covers.

Cameron Devlin Heatmap vs Newcastle Jets

A lot of his touches might come in the early phases of possession, when he helps build out from the back, but he can help in the final third too, with some nice passes to create a couple of good chances.

Talay’s trust in some raw players before they joined his side is a greater symbol of the way this team operates.

Last season, the keys were given to Mark Rudan, and following his departure, they continued to trust promising, local coaches who knew the league instead of a fancy, foreign name.

If there is one negative, it is that Phoenix have not been up to standard defensively, with good fortune and spectacular keeping from Stefan Marinovic keeping them out of trouble. Especially when trying to hold a lead, Phoenix sometimes drop a bit too deep and have looked shaky, as was seen last Friday against Newcastle.

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Their expected goals Against suggest that they have conceded chances worth 22.84, while in reality they’ve conceded 18 goals. That’s a sizeable difference, and it might mean they face some troubles in holding clean sheets if they continue on the same trend.

Still, there is plenty to be excited for with this current crop.

Talay has picked up where Rudan left off in improving the side, even if it might have come from a different style of play.

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A couple of years ago it looked possible, even probable, that Wellington’s poor results would see them dumped out of the league. They are now one of the top contenders for the championship.