There’s an impeccable irony about it, no? Last night, Selangor’s AFC Cup hopes were handed a minor boost, despite their below-par stalemate against Ceres La Salle. Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi sealed an unprecedented win over Tampines, allowing Selangor to move one point clear of the Singaporean side.
The Red Giants will only need a draw from their final match against Tampines to progress into the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup – something worth celebrating right? Unfortunately, the bigger picture isn’t as optimistic. Performance-wise, they were incredibly poor yesterday. And it isn’t an isolated case either – it’s been the story of their season.
As we edge into May, the Red Giants find themselves in a peculiar position. Squad morale is at an all-time low. They’re losing significant ground on league leaders Felda United and Johor DT. They’ve failed to score in their last two games, and looked completely uninspired in a continental fixture last night. What exactly is going on?
It’s a funny thing, really. The fact that Malaysian teams don’t necessarily prioritize continuity showcases the sort of naivety that’s still prevalent. Continuity, contrary to what’s preached within Malaysia, has a big role in football. Selangor’s ability to do well last year, was premised on Mehmet’s understanding of squad from 2014.
The burden on Selangor was always going to increase this year. They were Malaysia Cup champions last year, besides finishing second in the Super League – which granted them access into the AFC Cup. Generally speaking though, Selangor are always expected to accomplish more than their peers.
Then it all came crashing. First, they wanted to release Robert Cornthwaite, despite him forging an immaculate partnership with Shahrom Kalam at the heart of their defence. Of course, that decision was eventually reversed after intense pressure from the legion of Selangor faithful.
What came next was the decision to expel Mehmet Durakovic, merely weeks after his Malaysia Cup triumph. An ‘upgrade’ – that was their description of the move. But judging by stories we’ve heard from insiders, it had a lot more to do with Mehmet’s inability to play the political game – something that’s a part of every manager’s KPI in the MSL, no matter how outrageous it sounds. Zainal was drafted in, the management latched onto the ‘club legend’ rhetoric and made it seem like everything was going to be fine and dandy.
But of course, it was never going to be fine. Destroying the momentum acquired in 2015 is one thing, but making squad decisions before appointing a new head coach, is an entire different problem. As always, Selangor’s squad list was finalised even before Zainal’s appointment was announced, which probably means he was never given the opportunity to pick a squad that fits the style of football he prefers. Now, let’s discuss the team.
On paper, it looks like a decent team, to be honest. When every player is fit, this is Zainal’s preferred starting eleven. It’s not a bad team, when you look at it off the cuff.
Tactical precision though, is about making trade-offs. Cornthwaite and Shahrom Kalam are not the quickest center-back around. Make no mistakes, both men have a strong understanding of one another – as evidently seen in the partnership they formed last year. But when you field a defensive partnership that’s generally slow, you’ve got to play a low-line of defence, which opens up a lot more space in midfield.
The question then becomes, who occupies the space? This year, Zainal has heavily preferred the midfield partnership of Hafiz Kamal and Nazmi Faiz – two midfielders who know how to pick the right pass. Let’s call out a spade here though, they aren’t the most hardworking midfielders around, and they’re certainly not defensive-minded players. This has been a major issue for the Red Giants this season as they’ve been exposed thoroughly in the defensive midfield area, where Nazmi and Hafiz have struggled to exert their influence.
A simple example would be the match against Kedah, where Liridon Krasniqi’s influence in midfield, allowed Sandro to drop into the pockets of space between Cornthwaite-Shahrom and Hafiz-Nazmi. This was also particularly visible during the AFC Cup tie against Tampines. Sundramoorthy was smart to employ a 3-5-2 formation, which allowed them to outnumber Selangor in midfield and create plenty of chances through the same pocket of space.
How did it work for Selangor last year, you may ask? Here’s Selangor’s starting eleven for the Malaysia Cup final against Kedah, which they won 2-0. Let’s take a look at this team and break the differences down into several points.
1) The major difference between this line-up and the current one, is the presence of a hardworking defensive midfielder, who got the job done, box to box. Leandro dos Santos wasn’t the prettiest player around, but he was a crucial part of Durakovic’s set-up. In fact, his presence didn’t only allow Cornthwaite and Shahrom to be comfortable with a low-line of defence, it also brought out the best in Nazmi Faiz, who was given the flexibility of moving forward a lot more often.
2) Patrick Ronaldinho is a fantastic forward but Guilherme was a better team player. While he wasn’t a prolific goalscorer, the Brazilian was always a hard-worker on the pitch. A striker that closes down quickly puts more pressure on opposition defenders, which more often than not results in opposition midfielders dropping back as well. This trickle-down effect also allowed Nazmi and Leandro some breathing space in midfield.
3) Hazwan Bakri and Andik’s involvement gave Selangor a lot more variety in 2015. Hazwan scored 12 goals – a no mean feat considering he primarily plays on the flank. Andik on the other hand, bagged seven goals from the flanks as well. Everytime they went on the attack, it was difficult to predict their movement. Guilherme’s ability to drop back and interchange with Andik and Hazwan also gave them plenty of mobility in attack.
Now of course, these differences don’t necessarily mean Selangor can’t maximize the talent at their disposal this season. Necessary trade-offs though, have to be made. Watford’s Troy Deeney recently claimed that Huth and Morgan’s stubbornness in defence makes them impenetrable. “When Watford had the ball in wide areas they kind of left us to it, and concentrated on dealing with the cross rather than stopping it being put in. Huth and Morgan take two positions – one takes the near post and the other takes the middle of the box near the penalty spot as if to say ‘go on, cross it, and we will deal with it’,” Deeney told BBC.
But Leicester’s ability to employ such tactics is premised on the presence of TWO defensive-minded midfielders – N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater. Not ONE, but TWO. Both men are extremely hardworking and they work tirelessly to close down spaces that exist in midfield. The one difference between them and every other midfielder out there is discipline. You will rarely see Drinkwater or even Kante being out of position. They’re always there, deep in midfield, looking to influence play without pushing forward unnecessarily.
Similarly, Selangor need to make tactical trade-offs. Hafiz Kamal and Nazmi Faiz may be able to pull strings against weaker opposition teams in the MSL, but against the likes of Kedah, JDT and even Felda United, it’s virtually impossible. Perhaps, S. Veenod ought to be given an extended run in midfield. He’s hardworking and is never afraid of diving in for a tackle, when it matters the most. Or alternatively, Zainal could dive into the transfer market in June and bring Leandro back.
That said, none of it would matter if Selangor don’t adapt their tactics to fit and counter certain teams. The home defeat against Tampines Rovers was a clear example. With five men in midfield, the Red Giants were visibly outnumbered in the middle. But still, they continued to play through Nazmi and Hafiz, instead of pushing through the flanks, where they had 2 men (one fullback, one winger) vs 1 man (one wingback).
The biggest decision for Zainal right now, involves Mauro Olivi and Patrick Ronaldinho. While he is a better team player, compared to Ronaldinho, the Argentinean doesn’t seem to fit into Selangor’s attacking set-up. He makes the right runs and has a knack of producing unexpected through balls. But what Selangor are visibly lacking is goals – something Ronaldinho seems to be decent at.
On a balance of requirements, sacrificing Olivi for a capable defensive-minded player sounds like a smart trade-off. If it allows Gopi to play a lot higher, if it allows Andik to focus more on attack, then it’s a reasonable trade-off. But Zainal could also opt to sacrifice Ronaldinho and bring in a striker that gets more involved with the team. It will be a risk though, a major one in fact. Failure to sign an adequate replacement would significantly retrench their ability to bag goals.
Either way, there’s only a small window for Zainal to fix things and he’s got to do it quick. The longer these issues drag, the more difficult it becomes to keep up with Johor DT and Felda United. Ultimately, the ball is in Zainal’s court.