From development to possible contenders: How Wellington Phoenix turned their season around

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On the morning of the February 6, Wellington Phoenix were in poll position to take the wooden spoon. After two big upsets, however, the Kiwi side has suddenly gone from contestants to contenders.

It was just a few weeks ago when Wellington fans were left staring blankly at their screens after suffering a miserable 4-0 loss to Adelaide United. It was the side’s fourth A-League loss in a row and the Nix now sat 11th on the A-League Men’s table.

For many, the season was pretty much a write-off. Some supporters groups and fans began to suggest that with such a young side based away from home, Wellington should focus on player development instead of a run at the title.

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And at the time this seemed like a fair claim. Not only had Wellington dropped four straight but they had also been outscored eight goals to one over these losses. Any hope of a top-six finish seemed to be quickly fading.

But oh how things change. Fast forward and Wellington has now won three games in a row and sit a single point outside the top six. Better yet, these three wins have all come against top six teams Western United, Macarthur FC, and Melbourne Victory.

So what changed for Wellington?

Firstly, the signing of Gael Sandoval was a pivotal moment for the side. The Mexican has helped improve what was Wellington’s weakest area on the pitch – the midfield. Sandoval has also added a little bit of flair to his new side and as a pass-first player, he has gotten his teammates more involved too.

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Players have also upped their game in a big way. Whether it was the two-week break due to COVID-19, or a kick up the butt from coach Ufuk Talay, some important players have totally turned around their performances over the last few weeks.

None more so than captain Alex Rufer. After being criticised by fans and the media early on due to poor performances on the pitch, Rufer has finally found his rhythm. After stating himself that he needed to be better, Rufer created both goals against Western and the 25-year-old has really put in some quality performances to help his team. 

Star playmaker Reno Piscopo and speedy striker Jaushua Sotirio have also been two players that have stepped up during the winning streak. Both have been significant factors in Wellington’s last two wins, and the sides once non-existent offence has now put away six goals in three games – four of which have been thanks to these two.

But perhaps what has been most impressive is the Phoenix’s defensive turnaround. After  conceding just two goals during their three game win streak, Wellington has still conceded the most goals in the competition due to how poor their defence was early on.

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After nine games, the Nix finally finally achieved their first clean sheet of the season in Wednesday night’s 1-0 win over Melbourne Victory. Once again, coach Talay seems to be the mastermind behind his side’s defensive improvement.

Talay switched out young defenders James McGarry and Callan Elliot while also moving workhorse defender Tim Payne from centre-back to right-back. Allowing for new and vastly experienced import Scott Wootton to step into the starting lineup, while left-back Sam Sutton has been another player who has really stepped up his game.

The returning goalkeeper Oliver Sail has also had a massive impact and a reason why Wellington has let so few goals in recently. He has returned to his stellar form after his hip injury.

Talay touched on his side’s 360 turnaround this season after the win over Victory.

“I think we are heading in the right direction and have begun put out some good performances,” he said.

“In particular in the game against Macarthur and this one against Victory we have played extremely well, we have started to defended solidly, which has made a big difference.”

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Talay also credited the improved quality of play to his players fighting for spots, mentioning that good play “creates competition” for starting spots and therefore everyone plays harder as they want to be in the first choice 11.

So after falling to the bottom of the table, Wellington has launched themselves back into top-six contention. Over the last few season the Nix side have become the definition of down but not out, as they have yet again turned around a very poor start. 

Wellington’s next match-up is against a side that wiped the floor with them, Adelaide United. If the Nix can grab a win, it will be a true indication of how far the team has come. It also may be the moment where Nix fans can start preparing for an extended stay in the top six, rather than the wooden spoon.

Feature Image Credit: Cameron Mclntosh

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Harry Bartle
Harry is a young Journalist based in Wellington. He will be covering the Wellington Phoenix during the 2021/22 season for the Football Sack and has a love hate relationship with Ulises Davila

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