Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Michael Burgess: Lack of spirit biggest woe for Phoenix

Leo Bertos of the Phoenix. Photo / Getty Images
Leo Bertos of the Phoenix. Photo / Getty Images

Of all the worrying signs around the current Phoenix malaise, the greatest concern must be their lack of fight and determination when things go wrong.

In their short history, the Wellington club have always been renowned for their team spirit and will, which often saw them perform to a level far greater than the sum of their modest individual abilities.

On recent evidence, that has gone, especially over the past two weeks, when the men in yellow and black have shown the fight and zest of your average tabby, curled up by the fire after a large meal.

Against Western Sydney at home two weeks ago, they dominated the first half but couldn't find the net. Once they went behind in the second spell, there was no collective will to get out of the mire; they were deflated and fell to a lamentable loss.

Against Sydney, it was even worse. The Sky Blues played well but were ninth on the table for a reason.

After again missing some early chances, the Phoenix seemed to succumb to their fate.There was no single focus on how to get out of trouble and they were beaten all over the park.

The players are way down on confidence and Ricki Herbert, for all his achievements in the past, seems to have lost the ability to inspire his troops.

There are some reasons.

Tim Brown has been a much bigger loss than anyone anticipated. He was always good for half a dozen goals a season but more importantly brought fight - and bite - to the middle of the park. He set the tone and others followed.

Striker Stein Huysegems has completely lost his finishing mojo and Paul Ifill has been sorely missed. To compound matters, the midfielders with experience lack creativity, while the potentially creative types (Louis Fenton, Tyler Boyd, Benjamin Totori) lack A-League experience.

Then there is the confusing situation around a change in playing style, spotlighted by Gareth Morgan's unfortunate 'total football' comments.

The outcry over the remarks is misguided. There is little discernible difference in approach. They are perhaps slightly less direct at times and try to play out from the back a little more but still exhibit the Phoenix style we have come to know.

They aim to be difficult to break down, work hard, get plenty of delivery into the box and rely on a bit of magic in the front third. That is the crux of the problem - while the rest of the League has evolved, the Phoenix haven't really developed. They have never had ball-playing creative midfielders, so they struggle to hold possession; combine that with the current problems at either end of the park and you have a recipe for disaster.

Last season was a particularly soft one in the A-League. The Melbourne Victory and Sydney had awful campaigns, as they couldn't integrate high-profile imports, while Adelaide, another traditional powerhouse, struggled from the outset and Gold Coast sank without trace.

This season, the big boys are back and the Phoenix are struggling to live with them.

The match against the Newcastle Jets today (they are winless in Wellington since 2007) needs to start a mini-recovery.

The Wellington side have never lost five consecutive A-League matches and another defeat would be terminal for their faint play-off chances and disastrous timing ahead of next week's big clash at Eden Park.

- Herald on Sunday

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Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday. He was named the 2013 New Zealand football writer of the year and was a finalist in the Sports Reporter of the year at the 2014 Canon Media Awards.

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