Coming off their first win of the 2021/22 season, the Wellington Phoenix’s next challenge comes in the form of the Western Sydney Wanderers in Wollongong.
The Phoenix haven’t made it through a match with a clean sheet yet, giving up a goal to both Macarthur and the Central Coast Mariners. However, outside of an unlucky miskick from youngster Josh Laws, the defensive group was rock solid last week.
Centre backs Laws and Tim Payne had seven clearances between them to go with 10 accurate long balls, helping keep Damian Tsekenis from taking a single shot.
Fullbacks Callan Elliot and James McGarry combined for 33 passes in the Mariners’ half, responsible for creating plenty of attacking play. McGarry made three crosses in what was one of best games for the Phoenix yet.
With just 24 appearances in the A-League Men, the young left back is beginning to come into his own as a player.
“I was confident and I think I got forward, cut a few balls back into the box, which is what I want to do,” McGarry told The Inner Sanctum.
“There were a few times where I could’ve got up to my man a little bit quicker and try to stop the cross, that’s something to work on. But I’m confident, I think the team’s confident as well, I think we’re playing some good football.
“I go into games now being very confident. Obviously last season at the start of the season I would say I was a little bit nervous, it was my first start for the Phoenix last season, so first few games there were definitely some nerves.
“But now that I’ve got that experience under my belt, going into these games it’s not really nerves, it’s more confidence. [I’m] thinking about the game plan and trying to do the best I can.
“I know now what I can offer the team and it’s about doing that week in, week out.”Embed from Getty Images
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At only 23, McGarry has had to learn to quickly become a young leader at the back.
The average age of the back four that took on the Mariners was just 23.7, with only Payne older than 23. With Elliot substituted off due to a shoulder injury and Louis Fenton coming on that jumps up slightly, but coach Ufuk Talay is mostly relying on a very inexperienced group.
Moments like Laws’ wayward kick off the side of his boot leading to a Marco Urena goal could very well have rattled the group for the rest of the match, but they had each other’s backs.
After Elliot went off in the 77th minute, the Mariners took five late shots. The defenders and keeper Oliver Sail kept their composure, and solidified the 2-1 win.
“We’ve got a team of young players, I think most of us are there to help each other,” McGarry said.
“We’ve got a good atmosphere in the team and as soon as the mistake was made everyone jumped on and said ‘look, at the end of the day mistakes happen, forget about it, it’s 1-1, the game’s there to play for and we’re confident that we can create chances and score goals.’
“Mistakes happen, he doesn’t make mistakes like that, I’ve never seen him [Laws] make a mistake like that. It’ll hopefully be the only mistake and he knows that, he owns up to it straight away and apologises for it.
“But at the end of the day the only way to get yourself back is to get back in defend, don’t let them score again and that’s what he did and it was fantastic.
“That’s what we did, that mistake was forgotten about pretty quickly and we got back to business.”
A Hemed reunion
With their match-up against the Wanderers on Friday night, the Phoenix will go up against the recently departed Tomer Hemed for the first time.
The star striker made 21 appearances for Wellington last season, scoring 11 goals and assisting three more. He’s already on the board for the Wanderers, kicking his first goal in the 2-2 draw with Newcastle.
“I don’t think we’re nervous, we know what Tomer’s got, we know his attributes and we’ve just got to look to stop him getting the ball in and around the box, stop him from shooting,” McGarry said.
“I think we’ve done that with players in the last couple of games, we’ve stopped them from shooting and we’ve just got to make it hard for him. As a defensive unit we’re not nervous, we’re ready and ready to defend well.”
It’s a task easier said than done, as the Wanderers have proved how potent their group up front is.
They took a massive 31 shots in last week’s draw, more than or equal with the amount taken by both teams combined in every other individual match in Round 2.
It will be a test for the young group, particularly if Elliot is unavailable. But it’s one that they believe they’re up to.
McGarry touched on the tactical side of matching up against the group up front, which set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation that saw both Hemed and Bernie Ibini-Isei score.
“Obviously the way they play I think they also bomb their full backs on quite high, so for our full backs it’s gonna be stopping the crosses from coming in,” McGarry said.
“Tomer’s a bit of a target in the box so it’s about stopping those crosses to him, but also if those crosses do come in we’ve definitely got the boys to clear the ball out of the box.
“Obviously the Wanderers do tend to shoot a lot, if we’re letting them shoot from 40 yards out it’s not gonna cause us too many problems.
“We’re confident in Ollie in the goal, but it’s just about stopping those shots in and around the box and that will generally create problems, we’ve got to be aggressive and not let them do that.
“And also you’ve got to be careful, they’ve got good players, they’ve got Ibini and Tomer. It’s about stopping them getting it where they can create things.”
The Phoenix and Wanderers will do battle at WIN Stadium on Friday night, kicking off at 7:45pm AEST.
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