Phoenix ‘pattern’ we should’ve seen coming as coach’s prophecy rings true 3 months later: Talking Points

These are the key talking points from the opening leg of the two Isuzu UTE A-League Semi-Finals as Central Coast Mariners, Sydney FC, Wellington Phoenix and Melbourne Victory vie to reach the Grand Final.


Central Coast v Sydney FC at Industree Group Stadium!
Wellington Phoenix v Melbourne Victory at Sky Stadium!

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Chiefy’s Wellington philosophy on show in Melbourne

If you wanted an idea of Wellington Phoenix’s football philosophy under Giancarlo ‘Chiefy’ Italiano, look no further than Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Melbourne Victory in the first leg of their Isuzu UTE A-League Semi-Final at AAMI Park.

The last time Victory and Phoenix met at AAMI Park, it ended 1-1 in November despite Wellington incredibly ending the match without a single shot.

This time around, the Phoenix registered six throughout the 90 minutes. Victory had 20 shots and five on target, though many of those were from long range as Alex Paulsen enjoyed a relatively comfortable outing.

Statistically that may seem like the Phoenix were on the back foot and lucky to leave with a point, but in a February press conference Italiano explained that this is actually all part of the plan.

Three months ago, Italiano fronted the media before a Round 18 showdown with Perth Glory and one journalist’s question around Wellington Phoenix’s data this season inspired a detailed response from the head coach.

Italiano has transformed the Phoenix since stepping up from his role as assistant following Ufuk Talay’s departure and the A-Leagues rookie head coach has implemented a clear vision.

Before February’s trip to Perth, one reporter highlighted two stats – that the Phoenix were not taking many shots and were conceding a lot shots at the other end. Italiano delivered a compelling four-minute answer in response.

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“So it sounds like we’re a bit lucky,” he responded initially.

“Perhaps,” said the reporter.

Italiano told the press conference: “I think you’re probably the first journo who has asked us how we’re playing and it’s Round (18).

“Our football philosophy is all about control. Control means that you know exactly what’s going on in the game at all times. That also means you don’t have to be dogmatic and have the ball the whole time in order to dominate a game because that’s also very cliché.

“Do you have to defend more? Yes. And when you have the ball, do you have to be affective? Yes. So we try to fuse both.

“Our principles are centred around this idea that one, with the ball we try to bait opponents to draw into positions they’re very vulnerable. Because we have very affective counter-attacking players that can run with the ball and players who can progress the ball quickly once we break lines, we use that to effect. We try to bring and draw teams in with a press and that gives us a chance to attack.

“In order to do that, you need to defend a little bit lower in order to create that space. When you defend in a lower position, that also means you need to be set up quite well and restrict opponents that are clear and open chances.

“Do we concede a lot of shots? Yes, we concede a number of shots. But again, they are all in controlled positions. If you look at most of the shots, they’re blocked, blocked crosses. They’re never clear in behind the defence. They are always shots into the central defenders or in wide areas or exposing the goalkeeper at the near post where saves are expected to be made.

“Anyone that watches our games and watches over and over, they will see that pattern. Is it done by design? Yes, it’s done by design. we don’t sit there and go, ‘lets pray that today one of the 15 shots outside of the box doesn’t go in’. No we understand exactly what we’re doing.

“Are there times that we’re better with the ball? Yeah and that’s usually at home because at home we have the ability to be fresh, we can be fresh and can be a little bit higher.

“But I’m also the coach who is a little bit more pragmatic when we go away, I don’t expect my players to be going 100% and full throttle because they’ve just travelled across to another country. They’re getting used to the time zone.

“These are things that I think people have failed to realise. Any sort of disruption to your usual routine causes you to have to adjust. That’s one thing we’re very mindful of, or I’m actually over-cautious and maybe more over-cautious than my staff and I over play it because I just go off what I feel.

“Everything is done by design… I use my coaches. They work on what’s needed. I work on what I need.

“The fact that this year has been great because the training we’ve done all year has been centred around every possible scenario that you can go through in a game. That when we needed to change or we think it’s going to suit us to change, the boys have done it.”

After Sunday’s game and the 12th clean sheet of Wellington’s season, Italiano said with a smile: “My plan was to come here and try win 4-0. It didn’t quite end up like that.

“Nah, that was a fantastic match to be part of. I thought (Tony) Popa’s (Popovic) subs and his approach was quite smart because it kind of sopped us doing what we wanted to do. (Daniel) Arzani coming off the bench, (Jake) Brimmer – it’s a different dynamic. Whereas if they’re starting, it’s different with their subs.

“From that part, it neutralised us a little bit. Taking that into the next game, we might have to be a bit creative.”

Meanwhile, Popovic and Victory are looking to crash the party in Wellington this coming Saturday.

A bumper crowd is expected to pack into Sky Stadium for the Semi-Final return leg.

The Phoenix have been the fairytale story of the season, having been tipped to finish bottom of the standings but some pundits. Wellington went on to defy the odds and end the regular season second in the standings while breaking club records along the way.

Wellington are preparing to host their first ever Semi-Final and Victory are embracing being the antagonist across the Tasman.

“It’s beautiful,” Victory head coach Tony Popovic grinned in his post-match press conference when asked about his team’s tag as the ‘bad guy’ in the looming showdown on Wellington territory.

“I feel very humbled and privileged that me as a coach, my staff and players get to do what we love doing it.

“Credit to Wellington to have a big crowd. They deserve it. They’ve had a wonderful season. The crowd should be full to support them.

“We should embrace the hostility. Enjoy every moment on the park and trust ourselves and know we’re good enough to go through.”

Chiefy’s classy post-game gesture

Giancarlo Italiano has captured the hearts and minds of fans across the league, and that was clear to see on Sunday.

In his first season as a head coach in the Isuzu UTE A-League, the rookie coach has taken Wellington Phoenix to another level while captivating many across the A-Leagues.

From the Phoenix’s best ever finish in a regular season (second) to their highest ever points total (53), Italiano’s’s Wellington have broken records.

But Italiano, who was promoted from his role as assistant to replace Ufuk Talay at the beginning of the campaign, is not just popular across the ditch in Wellington.

Before Sunday’s showdown in Melbourne, he was stopped for photos by Victory fans at AAMI Park.

There was also a moment after the game that summed up the 41-year-old.

Before the cameras started rolling in the post-match press conference, the Phoenix boss shook the hand of every single person in the room before and after his media duties.

On the field, Wellington star Kosta Barbarouses caught the eye despite not finding the back of the net.

The 34-year-old has rediscovered his goalscoring form with 13 goals this season – his best return since 2018-19 when he scored 15 goals for Victory.

But it was his selfless work off the ball that impressed. While Barbarouses did not score, he covered plenty of ground for Wellington, who kept their 12th clean sheet of the season and the 100th in their Isuzu UTE A-League history.

There was a standout moment in the second half after the veteran forward sprinted from his own penalty area to help stop a counter-attack led by Daniel Arzani with 17 minutes remaining.

“That’s experience,” Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano told reporters after the game. “He understood the moment. He understood what was needed.

“Was the pressing working unbelievably well? Well, we started in a diamond and we had (David Ball) Bally in behind Kosta and (Bozhidar Kraev) BK to clean up any loose play.

“Then when they rotated into a three with their full-back pushing high and winger coming inside, it made it more difficult and we changed it.

“I was able then to coach on the run with Kosta and he took it on board. Even in the second half, we changed the shape three times and he just got on with it. I changed him from the middle, to the left and up top.

“That was great. You need those players. If you have too many young players and they’re inexperienced, they can lose their heads a little bit.”

‘Beware the wounded animal’: What the Mariners ‘thrive’ on ahead of blockbuster second leg

Central Coast Mariners are in the box seat to reach a second straight Grand Final. The defending champions also have the chance to host a decider in Gosford for the very first time in their history.

The treble-chasing Mariners will take a 2-1 lead into Saturday’s reverse fixture at Industree Group Stadium after Friday night’s triumph over nine-man Sydney FC at Allianz Stadium.

Sydney will be without suspended pair Jack Rodwell and Corey Hollman, while star forward Joe Lolley will miss the rest of the season due to injury.

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However, Mariners head coach Mark Jackson is taking nothing for granted.

“I’m delighted the club have worked hard to get that fixture (potential Grand Final on home soil) but we’re not there yet. We’re far from it,” said Jackson.

“People say it’s one game, but Sydney are a formidable team and a dangerous team.

“People say beware of the wounded animal and we have to be prepared for what they’re going to bring.”

Central Coast entered the game having lost only two of their previous 32 matches across all competitions.

Both defeats were at the hands of the Sky Blues but they finally got one over Sydney.

“Everybody was saying that (record against Sydney). Listen, they’re a good team and have beaten a lot of good teams this season,” said Jackson.

“They have a great way of playing. They have a good manager, good coaching staff, they’re well drilled so we knew we would come up against it.

“Everyone was talking about the two games and we’ve broken that now. But the next game is going to be even harder because they’re going to bring it. That’s the type of team they are. Will be ready for that.

“We have a few more days than what we’re used to which is nice. But this group of players thrive on continuity and doing the right things and the same things, and working hard. We’re not going to change that.”

As for Sydney coach Ufuk Talay, he insisted the Sky Blues will “never make excuses” as they look to overturn a first-leg deficit against the AFC Cup champions away from home.

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“We’ve been through this this year with injuries and suspensions, and we’ll go again,” Talay said. “Players will step up and take the role… we’ve still got (Gabriel Lacerda) and Gurdy (Aaron Gurd) to come into our backline, at the end of the day.

“If Jake is alright, Jake can slot in as a six if we really need him to. Max (Burgess) is available, we still have JK (Jaiden Kucharski) who wasn’t involved tonight (Friday).

“We still have players available and for us, we never make excuses. We’ll find solutions of what the best way is to win the game.”