This morning's 1-1 draw with China meant the All Whites lost only two of their 13 games in 2012 but it is one of those defeats that will define their year.

Ricki Herbert's side rounded out 2012 with a solid draw with China in Shanghai to take their record to eight wins, three draws and two defeats.

On the face of it, it's a good record but nine of those matches were against island nations and the 2-0 defeat to New Caledonia in the semifinals of June's Oceania Nations Cup has hurt not only the All Whites' World Cup plans but also the coffers of New Zealand Football.

Encouragingly, however, the All Whites seem to have learned from some of their mistakes in Honiara, and Herbert is more willing to utilise different formations like the 4-1-4-1 he employed against China this morning and 4-3-3 away against Tahiti. He previously stuck almost religiously to the 3-4-3 that got his side to the 2010 World Cup finals.


Their recent results have also highlighted the fact they are more comfortable in one-off games or across a campaign rather than rapid-fire tournaments.

The All Whites played five games in nine days in Honiara in searing heat and humidity and didn't cope. Contrast that with their ruthless efficiency in the four World Cup qualifiers when they have won all four and scored 13 goals and conceded just one (in the 6-1 defeat of the Solomon Islands).

Add to that a defeat of Honduras (1-0) and draws against El Salvador (2-2) and China and they have proved they can earn results against decent opposition on the road.

That will be important if, as expected, they progress to the high-stakes playoff against the fourth-best side from Concacaf in 12 months for a place at the 2014 World Cup and the ability to be fluid is essential.

"We were a little different tonight,'' Herbert said afterwards, "a little experimental. We put out a different shape [against China] to look at that for potential future games.''

It was also a young side, with the average age of the outfield players 23, but not an inexperienced one even with Ryan Nelsen absent and Shane Smeltz, Ivan Vicelich and Leo Bertos starting on the bench.

Most have been exposed to plenty of international football - Dan Keat was making his first start - and have been in and around the setup for some time.

In reality, they should have beaten China. They were a little vulnerable in the early stages, particularly as the hosts got in behind fullbacks Ben Sigmund and Tony Lochhead, but had more than enough chances to win.

Both Chris Wood and Ben Sigmund missed golden chances from close range in the first half, Tim Payne failed to capitalise on a one-on-one and Tommy Smith nodded over from a free header late in the match.

They controlled large periods of the match and Marco Rojas continued his recent good form for Melbourne with a number of threatening runs.

One thing it highlighted, however, was that Vicelich is still the best option in the holding midfield role. He's 36 and less mobile than he used to be but reads the game well and rarely plays a bad match.

Herbert tried Keat in the position against China with limited success. Teenager Tim Payne is another option - he could also be turned into a right-back long-term to fill New Zealand's most troublesome position - but Herbert trusts Vicelich and will almost certainly opt for him if the All Whites progress to the intercontinental playoff.

How that goes could help define 2013.