By Jason Chua
Four Games played. Three wins, including one over SEA powerhouses Philippines who have made four semi-finals since 2010, and a solitary loss to Thailand. A respectable seven goals scored, with only three conceded. Two clean sheets and a first AFF Suzuki cup semi-final spot in nine years.
On paper, anyone scoring the Singapore National Team would have listed this as a pretty successful group stage campaign, one that sets the team up nicely for an encouraging performance in the knock-out rounds. This is especially so given that the team had been written off by sections of Singaporeans, who were expecting the likes of Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and even Philippines to vie for the final four spots instead.
Nonetheless, ask any Singapore fan and you can’t quite shake the feeling that there’s a “but” to the team’s group stage performance. Was it a case of the team over-performing to give rise to unrealistic expectations in playing style, or was it a team that got the rub of the green by avoiding the Group B of Death?
The answer is probably slightly nuanced, but that analysis can come at the end of the tournament. Instead, at this mid-way juncture of the tournament, we’re here to talk about the Good, the Bad and the
Mike Ashley Ugly of the National Team’s Group Stage performances so far.
The Good: Progressive football
Philosophy was once a fun buzzword thrown around whenever Louis van Gaal gave a press conference. Today, it’s something that underpins how many successful teams play. Having been spoilt by the high levels of tactical gameplay in the English Premier League over the past years (unless, of course, you support Manchester United), fans these days tend to have a slightly romanticised view of how their team should play football – win, but only through an exciting and attacking style of football, please.
While the National Team still looks more comfortable picking up goals via counter attacks and set-pieces, you don’t need to squint to notice a clear and distinct shift towards a more progressive playstyle. Players are asked to be more comfortable with the ball, understanding when to keep possession, while those around the ball carrier move to create space for a pass, and eventually work towards scoring Sterlings – i.e creating overloads on the flanks for a winger or full back to cross to the opposite winger to tap it home.
Of course, the team isn’t quite there yet, but there are more than enough signs that if we “trust the process”, we can see the Lions reclaim its SEA throne in the coming years.
Honourable mention: Singapore’s second goal against Philippines
That incredible, tenacious, lung bursting run from the half way line by Zulqarnaen Suzliman to serve it up on a silver platter for Faris Ramli to equalise. In today’s era of possession, tactical positioning and defensive shapes, it was refreshing to see a goal created by a good old fashioned gritty hard run.
None of that intricate passing triangles, or half spaces “fancy pants stuff”. Zulqarnaen saw his opportunity and took it, bullying a distracted Oliver Bias off the ball, before leaving Amin Nazari in the dust. Showing maturity that belied his youth, the right-back kept his head up and waited for runners, instead of putting in a hopeful cross into the area. Credit also has to go to Faris Ramli for creating an option in the far post, allowing Zulqarnaen to present him with a tap-in to make it 2-0 to the Lions.
Grit, desire, old fashioned hard running, all those buzz words that’d make your kopitiam uncle swallow his comments about “the game going soft” and “lack of passion” … at least for the next 45 minutes.
The Bad: Injuries to Gabriel Quak and Shakir Hamzah
Coming off a title winning season with Lion City Sailors, there was much hope that Gabriel Quak, the SPL's top local scorer this year (13 goals), would carry over his form to the AFF Suzuki Cup. Typically a fleet footed winger for the Sailors, Quak showed his tactical flexibility and intelligence by slotting into the number 10 role against Philippines to help create an extra man overload whenever the ball was in the attacking half. Unfortunately, he suffered a recurrence of an earlier dislocation and complete labral tear during a friendly against Morocco 'A' earlier in November and will undergo surgery.
The Lions had their injury woes further compounded when defender Shakir Hamzah came off worst after a heavy collision with Thitiphan Puangchan in the 2-0 defeat to Thailand. Shakir had featured in every game so far, including a goal against Timor-Leste. He was later confirmed to have sustained injuries to his anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in the right knee.
We wish both players a speedy recovery.
Honourable mention: Sterile possession against Timor Leste
For seasoned Manchester United fans, this was an all too familiar sight. Players in red taking the easy option by passing sideways. The occasional adventurous balls to the midfielders met with a first time pass back to the defenders for “safety”, instead of attempting to spin their man to create space for themselves.
Lack of movement or a third man running to create space for the passer and receiver. An isolated attacker chasing and pressing every ball but unable to do anything on his own. Every counter attack from the opponent looking dangerous even though, on paper, they were the weaker team.
Yes, things got better once creator-in-chief Shahdan Sulaiman came on and started to dictate play, making quicker switches of play to the other flank after the opponents had been sucked into one side of the pitch. But this was definitely a performance to forget from the national team, albeit an understandable one as the team continues to get to grips with a more progressive system of play against a parked bus.
The Ugly: Those Boos
Disappointingly, there was a section of “fans” who decided to voice their displeasure at the team in the final group stage game by jeering the team. We don’t want to go down the road of telling fans how they should or shouldn’t support the team, but we can all agree that boos do little to help the situation. In any case, we’ll leave it to head coach Tatsuma Yoshida’s very well put post-match comments in response to the jeers to wrap up the group stage performances as we cheer on the Singapore team in the semi-finals.
"I think Singapore football is on the way to improve. We have to work together, us and you (the media) and fans. Singapore is not a high class (high level footballing nation) country, so I want us to work together, always … We need to cooperate, I accept the blame on me, but we are on the way, always.”
“(It is) our first time for nine years, we go to the semi-finals. So, I feel very sad (about the reaction). I'm proud of them always. We have to work together to improve Singapore football. I love Singapore. Singaporeans must believe in them, must believe in football."
Let’s cheer on the national team together when they play Indonesia in the AFF Suzuki Cup semi-finals.
This article, "Singapore's AFF Suzuki Cup Group Stage review: There’s always a 'but'" originally appeared on Football Siao – Singapore’s craziest EPL website.