Stringing together wins in a packed run into the A-League finals looks like being a challenge, if the first few matches of the restarted competition are an accurate guide.
Wellington Phoenix’s escapades this A-League season prove rookie manager Ufuk Talay is currently the best in the league.
Talay arrived at the New Zealand club in a period of freefall. The team had just lost manager Mark Rudan to new boys Western United as well as the spine of their team. Key outs included Roy Krishna, Sarpreet Singh, Filip Kurto and David Williams. All six of these men were key in the Nix becoming a dark horse in the 2018-19 season.
At the start of the season Wellington was tipped by many fans and pundits alike to end the season last. However, Talay currently has his side in fourth, two places above where they finished last season, with 12 games remaining. The team recently embarked on an eight-game undefeated run, with only one loss in nine games. They are also one of only two teams to have taken points off Sydney, the other being the Western Sydney Wanderers.
On paper Wellington easily has one of if not the worst squad in the league. So the question is: how has Ufuk Talay got this level of performance out of an average-to-poor squad?
The answer has two parts: recruitment and tactics.
When making their predictions for an upcoming season many tipsters take a club’s transfer activity during the transfer window into account. Wellington’s transfer activity last season was positive. Rudan got rid of most of the deadwood building up within the side and brought in Kurto and Williams, to go along with Liberato Cacace, Louis Fenton, Steven Taylor and Mandi.
This window’s transfer activity just looked uninspiring. Seven key players left the club, while 14 relative no-names and an ageing Gary Hooper came in to replace them. But looking at the Nix now, you could say that some of the signings Talay has made have been inspired.
Talay brought 14 signings to the club during the preseason, and there have been seven arrivals that have particularly shone. Ulises Davila, David Ball and Reno Piscopo are all instrumental to the way Wellington attack. Cameron Devlin provides the dynamism needed in midfield, Tim Paine fills in seamlessly for the injured Fenton and Josh Sotirio is a key cog for the Nix. Stefan Marinovic has saved a number of goals with his brilliant keeping, with the Nix conceding 22.84 expected goals compared to 18 in reality.
There has to be a way Talay has got this out of this group of players, and it’s simple. As assistant to Steve Corica’s Sydney side last season Talay would know a lot about attacking football. These tactics ultimately stem from Graham Arnold’s Sydney side, a team who until this season boasted the highest points total in an A-League season after 14 games.
Talay has generally deployed a 4-4-2 this season, with Davila operating on the wing or as a striker opposite Callum McCowatt and Matti Steinmann and Devlin holding the midfield.
His tactics and astute transfers have this very average squad overperforming on a massive level. This proves that right now a rookie manager who was last season a right-hand man is currently the best manager in the league.
And there’s every chance that Ufuk Talay could be Australia’s best manager since Ange Postecoglou.