The Phoenix are on track to make the play-offs – but will need to achieve some strong results away from home as the A-League reaches a critical stage.
The Wellington side have traditionally been solid performers in New Zealand and that has continued this year (only two losses in nine home games).
But that won’t be enough to cement a place in the top six, let alone a coveted top four spot which guarantees a home semifinal.
Including today’s game against the Jets, six of the last 10 games for Ernie Merrick’s team are in Australia, meaning points on the road are vital. The style of their away performances have improved markedly under Merrick – they are now a team able to keep possession and dominate for long periods – but the results are still yet to come, with just two wins in eight away games.
In the past four seasons, an average of 36 points has been the minimum required to reach the play-offs and around 41 points has been the entry point for the top four.
It means the Phoenix will need to collect around 20 points from a possible 30, a steep task.
“Realistically I don’t know if top four is achievable – but I don’t think there is a great advantage in [making the] top four, apart from a home venue,” says Merrick. “There is an advantage to being in the top two but basically every game is knockout; first and foremost, let’s get into the top six and then take it from there. After that, it is knockout so everyone is on tenterhooks.”
The fact that the Phoenix are even in the conversation regarding a play-off spot is meritorious, after a remarkable turnaround. Ten games into this campaign, they had not won and had just four points from a possible 30.
However, an outstanding streak, winning five and drawing one of their last seven games has placed them back in the mix.
“It is a work in progress,” says Merrick, “and it starts from the first day of pre-season. You are always looking to constantly improve. There are no sudden turning corners. It is about getting better in every department.”
They have. The concession of soft goals has dried up while the strikers are finding the net – after earlier finding new ways to miss – helped by a combination with the midfielders that is getting stronger every week.
The first half of last week’s game at Eden Park was a good example. The team missed early opportunities but the chances kept coming and were eventually put away.
Merrick doesn’t want to talk about the finals prospects, at least not publicly. He says he is focused on processes, while the playing group set the outcomes.
“I set process targets and we review those after each game,” says Merrick. “Things like number of passes, number of runs, number of strikes on target and percentage of time in the front half of the pitch. The outcome is set by players; they want to make the finals and will reset their goals once they get there.”
Herald on Sunday