Wellington Phoenix 2015/16 season preview
However, Wellington’s 2014-15 success was a surprise to many, including the club’s diehard supporters, so building on that bodes well.
The big challenge for Merrick, is the departure of Johnny Warren medallist Nathan Burns who left in the off-season for FC Tokyo, but the former Melbourne Victory coach has seen off similar issues in the past.
David Cross, Yellow Fever founder (www.yellowfever.co.nz) & ex-Kingz FC Bloc 5 supporter
Expectations for the season ahead as a fan?
If you look at our pre-season we have been Jekyll and Hyde with an embarrassing exit in the FFA Cup to Melbourne City - although as we're never allowed to play at home you wonder how much we care - yet we had wins over Sydney and the Wanderers.
Obviously the loss of Nathan Burns is a big one for us but perhaps the bigger concern is the loss of Michael Boxall who was showing the ability to have become our key defender for the next five years. We've recruited in the attacking third quite well but our backline is still going to be anchored by Andrew Durante and Ben Sigmund who have over the last decade been two of the best centre backs in the league but are both aging.
I think it's a season where the optimistic are hoping for a season like last year - perhaps without the half dozen games we should have won but failed to - but expecting a sneak-into-the-top-six-type year.
What are the lessons learnt from last year?
If we could put our finger on where we fell short last season, life would be perfect. We dropped points in games we really should have won easily based on our displays but I'm not sure we know exactly how. Obviously our set pieces are desperately bad with close to 12 months between scoring from corners so maybe we've practiced that a little more in the off-season.
We need to keep everyone fit and ensure we don't see the drop in form from our key weapons as the season rolled on. Burns dropped off towards the end, as did Michael McGlinchey and Roly Bonevacia. In the early half of the season they were as good as any other A-League side but following the Asian Cup break we never quite found that rhythm again.
Is Ernie Merrick the man to take Wellington to the next level?
Ernie has already made a mark here and with the backing he gets from the Welnix owners some great things are happening. In the last 12 months the club have got a reserve team up and running in the ASB Premiership, have a Youth team in the NZ National Youth League, two Academy set-ups (in Auckland and Wellington), a side in the top grade of the local winter competition and plans for replicating this for the women's game and Ernie is integral to this. Even if this year isn't a championship season the work he is doing in putting the ground work in place to take the Phoenix forward for years to come is clear.
If the FFA give us a chance and show some support for some of the most committed ownership groups in the A-League by giving us a 10-year licence, this club can easily be contenders.
How do you replace Nathan Burns?
Hope that Ernie can work his magic and make Jeffrey Sarpong a finisher! While Burns quite rightly got the headlines last season, players like Bonevacia, Roy Krishna, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Riera all had periods last year where they were fantastic. If Sarpong clicks with these players and they maintain a season’s form, then the pressure may be off Sarpong to be the new Burns as the others chip in with just a few more goals than last season.
Burns came to the Phoenix well outside his best form and the Phoenix helped him re-launch his career and he has gone from strength to strength. If anything Sarpong's history and pedigree is better than Burns so if Ernie and the club can work the same magic watch for something special.
Why they’ll do well
Under Merrick, this is a side with genuine adventure and willingness to get forward, allowing the likes of McGlinchey and Bonevacia to express themselves. With Burns in full flight last term, it was a difficult combination to stop.
Wellington’s backline is very settled and very experienced, providing the cornerstone to success. Glen Moss, Durante and Sigmund have worked together for a long time and despite getting on in age, they’ve got the runs on the board to suggest they won’t be letting up.
It’s this familiarity and continuity which binds Wellington together, in a squad which hasn’t made too many changes.
Why they’ll do badly
Wellington quite simply don’t have the resources afforded to other clubs in the A-League and as a result they don’t have the squad depth to cope with a few injuries or suspensions. They’ll need their share of luck to keep their best side on the park, otherwise they will be stretched and begin searching for talent in the local New Zealand leagues, such as promising but untried teenager Sarpreet Singh.
The signing of Joel Griffiths in January last term provided a boost but when he went down with a season-ending injury, there was no Plan B for Wellington. Sides figured out the reliance on Burns, stifled his influence and suddenly the Phoenix went from premiers-to-be to also-rans. Merrick needs to formulate a Plan B.
The big questions
Can Sarpong replace Burns?
Merrick has publicly admitted he will try to convert the former Ajax Amsterdam and Real Sociedad attacking midfielder into the type of player that Burns was last term. The 27-year-old Dutchman has the skills to fill the void, but can he adapt to a new role? Merrick has had success in the past, with Burns and also Robbie Kruse at Melbourne Victory.
Is Roy Krishna able to take his game to the next level?
The Fiji hitman netted nine goals last term, including strikes in four consecutive games. Barely 12 months earlier, Krishna was only an injury replacement player and has progressed his game as a full-time professional under Merrick. He has the potential to add more goals and with Burns gone, Phoenix will need it.
Wellington claimed seven wins on the road last term, including triumphs at Victory, Adelaide, Glory, Brisbane and Sydney. Winning on the road has always been tough for Phoenix, but with five of their first eight games away from home this term, including a long Round Two trip to Perth, that will be key as they strive for a positive start.
Key player: Jeffrey Sarpong
The Dutchman has a big job and big expectations to go with it. In an off-season where Wellington hasn’t really added to their squad, but lost the league’s best player, Sarpong’s impact will be defined by Phoenix’s success. Essentially, the former Netherlands youth international has been signed to replace Burns in supplying and scoring goals.
What they’ll be saying come April
Wellington don’t have the resources and squad depth to compete with the big boys, but they sure make a good fist of it.
Merrick has done a lot of positive work at Wellington and that’ll ensure they are highly competitive but in the lower rungs of the top six.
Blake Powell (APIA Leichhardt Tigers)
Jeffrey Sarpong (NAC Breda)
Troy Danaskos (Sydney Olympic)
Tyler Boyd (Vitoria de Guimaraes)
Michael Boxall (SuperSport United)
Josh Brindell-South (released)
Kenny Cunningham (released)
Jason Hicks (released)
Joel Griffiths (released)
Nathan Burns (FC Tokyo)