The ‘upturn’ Phoenix need to boost Premiership hopes & the one game that could decide it all

The Isuzu UTE A-League Premiership race resumes after the international break, with Wellington Phoenix and Central Coast Mariners split by just two points at the top. Opta data has trawled through the numbers to assess both clubs’ Premiership credentials.

Wellington Phoenix and defending champions Central Coast Mariners appear to be in a two-way battle for the Isuzu UTE A-League Premiership title – but who will come out on top?

The Phoenix are three points clear of the Mariners at the summit, albeit having played a game more, as the 27-match regular season approaches its conclusion.

Macarthur FC and Melbourne Victory are just five points adrift of second-placed Central Coast, too, while Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers are attempting to hold off a top-six pursuit from Melbourne City for a place in the final series.

Here, we consider whether the underlying data suggests Giancarlo Italiano’s Phoenix will push through to lift the Premier’s Plate, and who from the chasing pack will secure a post-season place as the final rounds of fixtures await.

Wellington may have to face Victory, Mariners and Macarthur in their final five matches but Italiano’s men have taken the most points (16) and boast the highest points-per-game on average (1.8) against A-League teams in the top half of the table this season.

Sunday’s meeting with eighth-placed Brisbane Roar, plus the April 19 trip to Newcastle Jets, may actually bring little to fear either, as the Phoenix have also managed a league-leading 27 points from 13 games against bottom-half sides.

If they are to go all the way, an upturn in front of goal may be needed for Italiano, whose side have slightly underperformed their expected goals (xG) tally of 11.2, scoring 10 from their last eight games since the start of February.

However, Italiano may hope for business as usual at the other end, where Wellington have only conceded six goals from an expected goals against (xGA) of 9.9 – the second-best differential in terms of goals conceded from the quality of chances faced since the beginning of last month.

That defensive overachievement can be somewhat credited to Alex Paulsen, whose 83% save percentage (29 stops in eight games) is the best of any A-League goalkeeper in that timeframe.

The April 6 meeting between the Mariners and Wellington at Industree Group Stadium will likely have a huge influence on where the Premiership ends up – and Mark Jackson’s men will fancy their chances with a four-goal favourable swing in goal difference.

SOCCEROOS DEBUT: Nisbet’s promise to teammates after Socceroos debut & a ‘special’ goal made in Adelaide

Only the Phoenix have taken more points against top-half sides this season, and the same goes for bottom-half teams, than the Mariners’ 15 and 25 respectively. With the struggling Jets, Western United and Adelaide United to come, Central Coast have the fixtures to further their title hopes.

Their next trip to fifth-placed Sydney presents a different challenge, as well as the home clash with Melbourne City, and Central Coast are largely performing in line with their underlying data – conceding three from 4.9 xGA and scoring 11 from 10.9 xG since last month.

That suggests a continuity to their form, signalling Jackson’s side are in the hunt to persist in their title hunt – eagerly waiting to capitalise on their game in hand or for the decisive meeting between the two Premiership challengers, with the reverse such fixture ending in a goalless draw this term.

Macarthur may harbour dwindling hopes of catching the aforementioned pair, with lower-table sides Western and Adelaide to follow in their next two before facing Sydney and Wellington.

However, Macarthur are the league-leading overperformers in underlying data since the start of February. They have scored 12 goals from 8.8 xG (+3.2 differential) and conceded 11 from 15.8 xGA (-4.8) – both the most significant differentials in the competition.

Macarthur’s numbers create a sense of an expected downturn in form, though Victory – who are also on the same points – could still harbour aspirations of a late Premier’s Plate charge.

Only the three sides above Victory have managed more points-per-game across top-half teams than their 1.36 (15 points from 11 such games), an encouraging sign with rivals Melbourne City and Wellington to come in their run-in, which also includes meetings with Perth Glory, Western Sydney and Brisbane.

That output could be improved, too, should Victory usher away profligate showings in front of goal. Victory have scored just nine goals from 13.8 xG since last month, with only Adelaide (-5.3) having a worse differential than their -4.8 in that time.

JOEYS SQUAD: Roar teen, Reds prodigy & 14yo City defender part of Joeys squad to face Italian giants on training camp 

Sydney are in close company, also boasting a game in hand, ahead of clashes with Central Coast, Perth (twice), Newcastle, Western Sydney and Macarthur. Ufuk Talay’s side have only averaged 1.1 points-per-game against top-half teams, though.

A top-six place may at least be in their control, and Sydney’s high press could be crucial to those hopes. They have also forced 82 high turnovers since the beginning of February – 12 more than any other team in the competition. Talay can also call upon Joe Lolley, whose 23 chances created are the most in the league in the same period.

Western Sydney are the other favourites for a post-season berth, sitting level on 31 points with Sydney and two clear of Melbourne, and their underlying data suggests improvements could still yet come.

Marko Rudan’s Wanderers have conceded 24 goals from 20.2 xGA, with that 3.8 differential the league’s second-worst next to the Roar’s 4.4 – albeit Nicolas Milanovic has scored four goals from 0.86 xG, the best difference among players in the division since the start of February.

Rudan will hope for Milanovic to continue in his rich vein of form up top, while Western Sydney will wish for better fortunes in their own defensive third if they are to hold off the top-six competition from Melbourne City.

That push from City may be unlikely, though – even with a game in hand over Western Sydney. The three-time reigning premiers have only managed 1.2 points-per-game against top-half sides, of which they face three to face in Central Coast, the Victory and Rudan’s men.

City’s 1.67 average points per match against bottom-half teams is only better than four other A-League competitors, too, suggesting a late top-six charge is far from a certainty with the Jets, Glory and Western United to come in what may represent more inviting fixtures for other contenders.

The Roar should not be discounted either, having had 130 sequences of 10+ passes in the A-League since the beginning of February – 33 more than any other team in the competition.

Brisbane are just five points adrift of sixth place, though they face three top-half sides in their final five, only averaging a point-per-game in such fixtures this term. 

Yet if the Roar can amend for woeful defensive form, suffering from the worst differential between goals conceded and xGA (4.4) since the start of last month, then they may also have a last-gasp hope of making the post-season.

It’s all to play for as the last rounds of A-League fixtures await – can Wellington hold off Central Coast? We’re about to find out…