Friday, April 1, 2011

A look at the Azkals and our Unheralded Heroes

This first appeared in the award winning sports blog, Fire Quinito.

Going into the group stages, there was apprehension about the loss of Phil Younghusband due to injury. Although Phil’s loss was tempered somewhat by the inclusion of Fil-Spanish striker Angel Guirado, the team was also missing the services of midfielders Chris Greatwich and Jason de Jong. 

Were they missed? 

Phil’s exclusion turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Yanti Barsales, the Azkals’ 38-year old veteran. Apart from being a huge factor in our attacking third, his primary role was holding the ball while waiting for support from both flanks and the midfield. 

Chris has been absent since the Suzuki Cup, and the team has arguably adapted to life without the attacking midfielder. There are reports he could be back for the World Cup Qualifiers in June.

With Jason de Jong’s absence, Coach Weiss employed numerous players to fill in his defensive midfield slot, with varying degrees of success. Ray Jonsson started in that role against Mongolia, but in my opinion, he isn’t really a defensive midfield sort of player. Aly Borromeo filled that role to good effect against Myanmar in the first game of the group stages, but he is much too important for our defense to be playing a holding midfield role.

Jerry Lucena seems to have settled into the role, and has claimed it as his own in the last two games of the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers, againstPalestine and Bangladesh. Assuming both de Jong and Lucena are available for the World Cup qualifiers, it would be interesting to see who will be tasked with the defensive midfield role.

If Coach Weiss pleases, he could employ the “double pivot” alignment, with Jason de Jong and Jerry Lucena both in midfield, but that strategy would effectively curtail the attacking football he promised and used to good effect against Bangladesh. But this “double pivot” could still be employed when the Azkals are playing matches away from home, when the concern would be to not concede any goals. 

This is especially important in the upcoming World Cup qualifying rounds, where the home-and-away format is again in effect. The Philippines will be playing in Sri Lanka for the first leg of its qualifier, so the strategy might be to try not to concede goals and play for a scoreless draw. The “double pivot” would help shore up the backline, essentially giving the Azkals a six-man defense. 

Newcomer Angel Guirado, who scored two goals against Bangladesh, looks like the real deal. Lively on the ball and a constant attacking menace, opposing defenses seem to panic when he gets the ball in the box. He is good in the air as well, scoring his first goal with a header. We will certainly see more from the Man from Malaga.

The aerial ability of the Azkals is also something I am sure the coaching staff is keen to exploit. James Younghusband, in fact, has ceded his corner-kicking duties in order to be available to score headers off those corners. Phil Younghusband, Aly Borromeo, and now Angel Guirado are no Frodo Baggins either, so opponents would become wary of conceding free kicks and corners to the Azkals in dangerous positions. With the monster throw-ins of Jason Sabio and Anton del Rosario, the Philippine side is indeed a dangerous proposition in dead-ball situations.

Then there’s Neil Etheridge, the star man of the group stages. Solid as a rock between the Azkals’ sticks, he provided the confidence boost needed by a defense that consisted of three different combinations for the three group stage games. 

The Azkals started the games against Myanmar and Palestine in the back foot – that is, on the defensive – so Neil was almost always the busier of the two keepers. Against Bangladesh where we had to score, we took the game to the opponents right from the off, so Neil had much less work in that game.

The flexibility of our players has also been to our massive advantage. It is not unusual to see Roel Gener, Ray Jonsson, Jason Sabio, Aly Borromeo, and Anton del Rosario playing multiple positions on the field. To brand them as “utility men” would be extremely harsh, as all excel in whatever position they are tasked to fill.

Football is a game that relies on very few statistics. Goals scored. Goals attempted. Saves. Yellow Cards. Red Cards. Fouls. Unlike the detailed statistics of baseball, football gives no mention to other elements of the game such as interceptions, crunching tackles, last ditch tackles, shoulder barges leading to lost possession for the opponent, etc. It is high time we highlight the people who do these as well.

Roel Gener
Photo by S. Kieron Tan of SKT Digital.

In fact, let me take a few paragraphs to celebrate Roel Gener. He never gets interviewed by the press, and he is often overlooked by local football sites, but he has really let his play on the pitch do the talking for him. Out of the spotlight, he quietly goes about his business on the field. 

Small in stature, but big in heart, he has ably filled in the left back slot against Mongolia, where he was Man of the Match for me. He also held the right back slot against Myanmar, and ably replaced the injured Chieffy Caligdong in midfield in last year’s Suzuki Cup.

Never complaining and working tirelessly, his presence on the team sheet gives a massive boost to the coaching staff with the multitude of options he brings to the team.

Personally, I hope that the major networks and media in general would find it important to give time and attention to the unheralded players of the Azkals like Gener. They are every bit as important as the people who score goals. Without them doing the little but essential things, goals would certainly be very difficult to come by.

Another case in point: Ray Jonsson, who was Coach Weiss’ personal choice for Man of the Match in the second match against Mongolia, was nowhere to be heard from after that game. Instead, it was Phil (who was substituted due to injury), James (who scored the only goal) and Aly (the Captain) who were interviewed after the match. While I have no gripes about the media interviewing those players, but shouldn’t the head coach’s choice for Man of the Match deserve an interview too?

For every Ian Araneta/Phil Younghusband/Angel Guirado goal, there was a tackle or an interception behind it that started the move. Difficult as it is to imagine, it is the truth. 


  1. I guess part of football education would be educating media on who to put the spotlight on after every game. That or whoever is coordinating the team's media appearances should make sure to field for interviews those that played well---or at the very least, rotate those to be interviewed. We can't have fluffy, non-factor types wearing silly costumes while being interviewed all the darn time.

    Gener and Jonsson played really well, and it's high time they should be credited.

  2. In football, if you are really a fan, you appreciate the little details of each member of the squad you cheer for. You shout out their names as if they are your neighbors, just to encourage them.

    I find it silly really why the media's attention is on the "star players". Maybe because they are the ones who scored the goals. Or maybe because the are aesthetically pleasing. But mind you, during Brazil's last World Cup win, that was 2002. Their coach credited the likes of Gilberto Silva for their win.

    Jonsson and Gener deserve their spot in the starting XI. The Azkals can't be successful without these two.

  3. We could opt for a 4-5-1 where Angel becomes a feeder for Ian up front.

    I like the idea of having both De Jong and Lucena protecting the back four while feeding JYH and Chieffy and Angel up the middle.

  4. We are still re-learning football again. Give us a bit of time and I'm sure, Pinoys will be football savy again. :)