Alex Paulsen is taking the Isuzu UTE A-League by storm with Wellington Phoenix this season, writes Sacha Pisani.
“There are going to be clubs after him,” Wellington Phoenix head coach Giancarlo Italiano said earlier in November.
He was talking about his goalkeeper Alex Paulsen after his contract extension, and based on what we have seen in 2023-24, it is a statement shaping up to be proven as fact.
Lets not forget this is a player who is still to play 10 Isuzu UTE A-League matches.
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The 21-year-old has not only emerged as a cult hero this season, but one of the best shot-stoppers in the competition with a string of eye-catching performances in the Isuzu UTE A-League.
Paulsen produced a number of incredible saves to earn a 0-0 draw away to Western Sydney Wanderers in Round 1 – he denied Nicolas Milanovic and Marcus Antonsson near-certain goals. He was at it again the following week; with the ‘Nix leading 2-1 heading into the 88th minute, the keeper saved a penalty from Socceroos forward Adam Taggart in a victory over Perth Glory.
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The talk of the A-Leagues, Paulsen made himself a penalty hero again in Round 5 after thwarting the competition’s all-time leading goalscorer – Jamie Maclaren – from the spot in the 74th minute of a 1-0 win against three-time reigning premiers Melbourne City last week.
“Alex Paulsen, build him a statue,” the Sky Sport New Zealand commentators said as Paulsen and his teammates celebrated the saved penalty on Saturday afternoon in Auckland.
“It’s a lot of self-talk,” Paulsen told reporters post-game when discussing his mindset approaching penalties. “I always love talking to myself.
“Goalkeepers are known to be a bit psycho on the field but I love actually talking to myself and keep reminding myself of what I need to do.”
Going back to the beginning, Paulsen was born to a South African father and a Namibian mother in New Zealand, a country where rugby reigns supreme.
But Paulsen, who is contracted to the Phoenix until 2026-27, opted for the round ball.
“It’s tough because we’re known as a rugby country,” Paulsen told FIFA.com. “But I fell in love with football when I was very young. I had a feeling I could make saves.
“I love the game and I got better and better at it. I started out playing futsal, which is similar to football and I just took it from there.”
He is now reaping the rewards of Wellington’s philosophy and pathway.
The Auckland-born goalkeeper first joined the Phoenix Academy in 2018, playing for the reserves and winning the ISPS Handa Premiership MVP at the age of 18 in 2020.
“When I was younger I was at Onehunga Sports up in Auckland,” Paulsen reflected in 2022.
“At the time they had a partnership with the Wellington Phoenix soccer schools. So it was kind of like that pathway for all the younger boys and girls at Onehunga Sports to make a pathway to go to Wellington Phoenix.
“There was a Wellington Phoenix game, I must’ve been 13 or 14, maybe. There was a prize giving from Onehunga Sports, so they did a bit of a function where you could do your prize giving, and then after you could go watch the Wellington Phoenix play.”
He first made a name for himself when he appeared for New Zealand at the 2019 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Brazil, where the likes of Spain’s Pedri, Italy’s Destiny Udogie and Wilfried Gnonto, USA’s Giovanni Reyna and Brazil’s Gabriel Veron emerged.
Paulsen starred in New Zealand’s 1-0 win over Canada thanks to a string of superb saves.
Then in January last year, he well and truly thrust himself into the spotlight with his goalkeeping heroics.
Paulsen saved three penalties to send the ‘Nix to the Australia Cup semi-finals for the first time in their history.
“Making a bit of history was fantastic for everybody,” he said at the time. “I felt we all dug deep and worked hard for each other to actually execute it at the penalty shootout. I’m stoked, I’m still buzzing.”
Now, he has well and truly emerged out of Oli Sail’s shadow in Wellington.
Sail departed for Perth at the end of 2022-23 while the ‘Nix recruited Jack Duncan. There had been concerns following the exit of the long-serving New Zealand international.
However, Paulsen has stepped up and not looked back after staving off competition from Wellington’s new signing.
“A.P (Alex Paulson) and Duncs (Duncan) have been very close all pre-season,” Italiano told Paramount+ said of his decision following the Round 1 match against Western Sydney.
“A.P got the nod primarily because of his feet and how he builds up – but even in the shot-stopping today he was unbelievable.”
His ability with the ball at his feet has been on show throughout the opening five rounds. It also highlights the inspiration behind his style.
“In the academy I also looked up to Andre Onana,” Paulsen said, referencing the Manchester United star.
“In terms of how I build up and how he used his body to manipulate strikers in terms of him being composed on the ball. Trying to absorb pressure and make sure he can get away from sticky situation.”
His extraordinary form, in the midst of Wellington’s best-ever start to an Isuzu UTE A-League season, also earned him a new contract.
“I feel the Wellington Phoenix have the best resources, the best facilities and overall the best people to help me push and strive to be the best goalkeeper and person that I can be,” he said at the time.
“The Phoenix have invested in me since I was at the academy and I want to return the favour and ensure the club earns the respect it deserves.”
In the round gone by, it wasn’t just Paulsen’s penalty save. It was his acrobatic effort to keep out Hamza Sakhi’s stunning long-range free-kick. There was also a moment at the death as the ‘Nix keeper picked out a header with one hand.
“I was just so impressed with his all round shots topping ability and his confidence and his calmness. “That’s usually something that you see in older goalkeepers,” said KEEPUP’s Tom Smithies on the Official A-Leagues Podcast with Wellington set to visit Western United on Saturday.
“His positioning is good an he seems to be well coached.”
KEEPUP’s David Davutovic added: “He’s been outstanding. You just love seeing, like a lot of young players I think it’s almost like just that that the exuberance of youth, the naivety, they just seem to play with a completely carefree attitude.
“He’s filled those big shoes or big gloves of Oli Sail and he’s been absolutely outstanding.
“He’s uncapped at the moment with the All Whites although he was called up to the squad for the recent international window, but if he keeps going, you’ll clearly be playing for New Zealand in the foreseeable future.”