It’s only a friendly, but Sunday’s encounter against New Zealand’s finest could reveal significant information about both sides with the Hyundai A-League season fast approaching. Here’s what to expect from Ernie Merrick’s side.Results don’t matter in pre-season – or at least not for Ernie Merrick.
By all accounts last season’s fourth place finishers have had a miserable pre-season, capped by the 5-1 hammering at the hands of Melbourne City in the Westfield FFA Cup.
Previously, they struggled against two New Zealand lower league sides, battling back from three goals down against New Zealand Central League outfit Petone to draw 3-3 before going down 3-2 to Western Suburbs.
Whilst match fitness and cohesion are of primary concern during pre-season, the biggest question mark to arise from the Nix’s opening months of action perhaps came from a game in which they emerged victorious. Their 1-0 win over the Central Coast Mariners in the FFA Cup Round of 32 was an unconvincing display for eye-witnesses, carrying all the symptoms of a lacklustre pre-season affair in a cup-tie that ought to have demanded more urgency.
Although the result won’t matter, a defeat or another uninspiring display against the Wanderers on Sunday, in what is their final hit out before the A-League season commences, might give way to murmurs of concern – and it’s only September.
Despite an underwhelming pre-season on the field, Wellington have enjoyed a stable off-season away from the pitch. The departure of Nathan Burns will come as a heavy blow, (he directly contributed to almost half of the Phoenix’s goal tally last season) but Ernie Merrick has replaced the Johnny Warren medallist with what could be the signing of the season in Jeffrey Sarpong.
The former Ajax youth product had been chased by several European clubs in the off-season, most notably Blackburn Rovers [for whom he trialled and scored] but was tied down by Ernie Merrick on a two-year deal. Sunday could be the first time we see Sarpong in a Phoenix shirt, most likely anywhere across the front three – no doubt the dual Dutch/Ghanaian international will be closely marshalled by the Wanderers defence.
If Sarpong is afforded a taste of Australian football come Sunday evening he’ll likely be supported by a certain Kwabena Appiah. Although the former Wanderer and Champions League winner struggled for first-team opportunities last season, he’s made a real statement of intent during pre-season, scoring three times, including a Westfield FFA Cup winner against the Mariners where he partnered Roy Krishna up front. With the need to maintain his early run of form, and with the added edge of playing against his former employers, Wellington possess perhaps their biggest attacking threat in the form of an old Wanderer.
A fascinating part of the Phoenix’s pre-season has been Ernie Merrick’s trialling of the 3-4-3 formation and we could see this showcased again on Sunday. You certainly can’t accuse Merrick’s men of inflexibility and in this regard, despite the tweaking of the defence, it’s at the opposite end of the pitch where the Phoenix are most tactically effective.
Merrick has developed a long list of attacking deviations, favouring two forwards up front with Michael McGlinchey deployed in the number 10 role, but the Nix are just as able to adjust to several variations of 4-3-3. The success of last season was built upon the axis of Burns-McGlinchey-Krishna and the speed and fluency of transitions with the pace of Burns and Krishna hugely important. The signing of Sarpong and integration of Appiah into the first team suggests that they’re expanding upon, if not maintaining this approach.
This encounter has all the makings of a highly intriguing clash even if the result itself is redundant. With the Wanderers looking to establish a possession-based game in more ways we’ve seen previously, how they set up to counter-act the pace Wellington have at their disposal could reveal a lot about Tony Popovic’s plans for the season.
MEMBERS GET 200 REWARD POINTS FOR ATTENDING THIS SUNDAY'S MATCH
NRMA Insurance Western Sydney Wanderers v Wellington Phoenix
6pm Sunday 13 September at Pirtek Stadium
Tickets available on TicketMaster and at the gate