Chiefy’s 4-minute answer gives compelling insight into Wellington’s philosophy: ‘Done by design’

Wellington Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano breaks down the football philosophy that sees his team five points clear of the opposition in the Isuzu UTE A-League.

One journalist’s question around Wellington Phoenix’s data this season inspired a detailed response from head coach Giancarlo Italiano, who insisted the Isuzu UTE A-League leaders “know exactly what they’re doing”.

Wellington are the team to beat this season, sitting five points clear atop the standings heading into Round 18 and a showdown with in-form Perth Glory in Western Australia on Saturday night.

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

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On the eve of the clash against Perth at HBF Park, 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.

“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.

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“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.”

The reporter followed up by asking about Expected Goals (xG).

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Opta defines it as: “Expected goals (or xG) measures the quality of a chance by calculating the likelihood that it will be scored by using information on similar shots in the past. We use nearly one million shots from Opta’s historical database to measure xG on a scale between zero and one, where zero represents a chance that is impossible to score, and one represents a chance that a player would be expected to score every single time.”

When it was put to Italiano that Wellington were exceeding their xG in 2023-24, he replied: “If you want my honest take on xG and all these stats, I think they will give you a picture without giving you the detail.

“If a team has 20 shots in a game compared to a team who has had two, the team who has had two shots could have had two goals and was just defending. And the team that had 20 shots may have had all those shots from areas where they have never scored from before. So, who is the dominant team?

“When it comes to these stats, I feel like it skews the picture and gives a narrative that may not be there.

He added: “This idea of xG. Lets say we go and win the comp, everyone’s going to be back into our stats and trying to work out why the xG was like that or come up with another take.

“I don’t play into any of that… We have a model we like and we stick to it.”