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

Football: Nix have lost the knack

Host of problems to solve in second half.
Jeffrey Sarpong has been the biggest disappointment in a disappointing first half of the season for the Phoenix. Photo / Getty Images
Jeffrey Sarpong has been the biggest disappointment in a disappointing first half of the season for the Phoenix. Photo / Getty Images

For much of this A-League season, the focus around the Wellington Phoenix has been on off-field matters.

Can they secure another licence, will they get big enough crowds, can more money be squeezed out of Sky TV to placate Football Federation Australia?

But as the second half of the season approaches, the focus is turning to their on-field performance and the signs aren't promising.

If this was a mid-year report, the Wellington club would achieve a C+ - some good moments but not nearly enough.

The contrast with last year is profound. At the equivalent stage, the Phoenix were in the midst of a six-game unbeaten run, which included three impressive away wins.

They had won nine of 13 and were comfortably in the top four, a position they retained for the rest of the season. Nathan Burns was scoring for fun - and even when his goal streak slowed, he provided plenty of assists - and the club had a happy knack of getting points in Australia, with a season record seven wins across the Tasman.

This season, the Phoenix have garnered just five points from a possible 24 on their travels, an unsustainable record for a team with top four aspirations.

Some games were tough asks, such as the Victory in Melbourne and the battle with Brisbane in the tropical heat of Cairns, but other performances in Australia weren't up to last season's level.

Some respite will be offered in the second half of this campaign - eight of their last 14 games are at home - but will it be enough?

The Phoenix haven't looked comfortable defensively for much of the season and have been unable to find the right solutions at fullback.

They've missed the versatility of Michael Boxall more than many would have expected, and the resolve that Ben Sigmund brings to his work.

They have conceded more goals than any other side in the A-League, except the bottom-placed Central Coast Mariners.

And of maybe even more concern, things are yet to click in the attacking third of the field.

All Whites midfielder Michael McGlinchey, hailed as the missing link when he was signed two years ago, has yet to recapture the form he showed in the first half of last season.

Roly Bonevacia is being marked out of many games, with opponents wary of his skills, and is still not getting the protection he deserves from officials.

However, the biggest disappointment has been Jeffrey Sarpong. There is still time for him to get going, but it must happen soon.

Sarpong was meant to be a marquee signing, a player of genuine pedigree who had spent years in the Ajax academy and started matches in La Liga.

But so far, he has been a mystery. He was never going to be a huge source of goals or a direct replacement for Burns - the 24-year-old is not an out-and-out scorer - but fans might have hoped for a Paul Ifill style winger, or someone with the impact of a Kenny Cunningham.

Instead Sarpong has shown only rare glimpses of what he can do, and often appears tentative and unwilling to work his way into a match.

- Herald on Sunday

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