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  • Writer's pictureRob Binns

The first leg of Wellington's Semi-Final was the perfect encapsulation of their season

Few who watched the first leg of Melbourne Victory and Wellington Phoenix’s A-League Men Semi-Final at AAMI Park would have called it a remarkable match. There were no goals, no genuine clear-cut opportunities, and, for the Phoenix, not a single shot on target. But, of course, this pattern of play was to be expected. The teams – whose three meetings in the regular season produced just five goals and one win for the Phoenix in April 2024 – have a habit of sharing the honours in edgy encounters.

The Wellington Phoenix are looking to reach their first ever A-League Men Grand Final tomorrow. (Image: Adrianne Armida)


No, the game was not remarkable – at least, not in and of itself. What was remarkable, though – at least from a Wellington standpoint – was how vividly the game served as a microcosm of the Phoenix’s 2023/24 campaign to date. It was Wellington’s season, in redux: the 2,560 minutes of Wellington’s regular season condensed to only 90 against the Victory last Sunday night.


How? Let’s start with shot concession.


The Phoenix have been content to give their opponents shots on goal all season. Over the 27-game course of the A-League Men season, the Phoenix allowed a staggering 493 shots – only fewer than the 517 Macarthur conceded and 163 more than the team with the least: funnily enough, Melbourne Victory.

That is an average of 18.2 shots per game the Phoenix faced this season. Last Sunday, they allowed 20. The catch, though? Just six of Victory's shots came from inside the box – and only five were on target.

For Wellington, it has been a story of their season. Of the 493 shots the Phoenix faced in the regular season, just 138 hit the target. That is less than three in ten shots (28%) that test Wellington goalkeeper Alex Paulsen: the lowest (and therefore the best) in the entire league and by some margin (the Central Coast Mariners, for whom 32.4% of the shots they have conceded have hit the target, are the next best).


Again, we saw this statistic faithfully reproduced in Sunday’s first leg against Tony Popovic's side, where just 25% of Victory's shots hit the target.


This statistic was not due to erratic finishing on the hosts’ part. It is a plan that dates back to pre-season.


“I think if you look at the chance creation, even though we do concede quite a number of shots, they’re not clean-cut opportunities…[not] one-on-ones, or two-vs-twos. They’re more half-chances in the box with a lot of numbers behind the ball, and that’s done by design,” the architect of that plan, Wellington boss Giancarlo “Chiefy” Italiano, previously explained following their win away to Western United in December.


In modern football's overly sanitised, PR-friendly parlance, a manager speaking to the media with such honesty and detail – and about his team’s tactics, no less – is refreshing. What's more, it is not hot air: as we saw last Sunday and have observed throughout the entirety of the Phoenix’s incredible 2023/24 campaign, it is a statistical reality.

Sunday night’s game meant the Phoenix have now conceded a miserly 26 goals in 28 games and kept 12 clean sheets in the process. Across the last five seasons of A-League football, only two sides – the 2021/22 Melbourne Victory and that phenomenal Sydney FC side from 2019 to 2021 – ended the regular season with fewer in the goals against column.


And again, this solidity was borne out in Sunday night’s action. Despite the Victory dominating some key stats – 57% possession, ten corners to the Phoenix’s three – they came away with no goals. Having failed to establish any lead ahead of a trip across the ditch this weekend, the Victory will need more than a flurry of increasingly desperate shots from outside the box to shrug off the noises of a partisan crowd and progress to the Grand Final.

So, what does Wellington need? The short answer is goals; once more, this season’s statistics can tell us why.


Perhaps the most significant anomaly of the Phoenix’s season is that despite finishing second – and being a mere three points off what would have been their first-ever minor premiership – they have been bizarrely goal-shy. Only the Newcastle Jets (39) and Western United (36) scored fewer than the Phoenix across the 2023/24 season.


The reason? You cannot score if you do not shoot, which the Phoenix have struggled with in a big way. By some distance, the Phoenix’s 302-shot tally was the lowest in the league (the next-lowest, 10th-placed Newcastle, registered 346; the best, Sydney FC, was 513). Italiano would, of course, counter with the fact that where the Nix’s shooting patterns have lacked quantity, they have excelled in quality.

With 123 of Wellington’s shots (40.7%) on target, they recorded the highest in the league for this metric.


Juxtapose these figures, and you get Wellington’s season in a nutshell: few shots, fewer goals, but a ruthlessness in burying those opportunities, however scant they may be.


Ahead of the Phoenix’s return to Sky Stadium – where the club has the chance to qualify for the first Grand Final in its 17-year history – Wellington fans can look to their team’s numbers and see a somewhat double-edged sword. According to the data, they are unlikely to concede many goals. But they are also unlikely to score them.


Facing an opponent like the Victory—who also have a stingy defence and fierceness in front of goal among their key attributes—it is easy to see why Wellington's encounters against them are usually tight and why, like on Sunday, a 0-0 draw is the safest bet.


But something will have to give on a night when only a win can suffice.

 

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It is said that finals games are like derbies, with the form book and the statistics going out the window. But the Phoenix proved last Sunday that – at least as far as they are concerned – football does conform to the numbers.

The figures do not falsify; the data does not deviate. The statistics do not lie.


Undoubtedly, the game tomorrow at Sky Stadium will hinge on no more than one or two flash points—and the influence of the crowd, with the 34,500-capacity ground now sold out.


The first leg against the Victory was somewhat of a Platonic ideal for the Nix’s season. Tomorrow, though, they will have to break the mould of those maths and go one step further. If they can – create and convert chances with the callous precision that has defined their season in front of goal for just another 90, or possibly 120, minutes – their first Grand Final awaits.


Statistics sourced from FBref.


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