The 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup will always be memorable to Philippine football. The sport which had been forgotten in the country was catapulted to the front pages locally and internationally. There was newfound respect for the rag-tag Azkals, ensuring that opposing coaches and players would no longer look at the Philippine national football team with mock contempt in future competitions. Football won’t be the same again in these shores.
But arguably the greater legacy of our Cinderella run in the Cup is the stability it allowed the Philippine Football Federation to pursue its programs and grassroots level development. This is due in large part to the funding pledged by the private sector in light of the Azkals success.
On the pitch, this newfound stability manifests itself by the ability of coaches to define our football identity. Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss thinks that this should be an offensive, attacking identity. This entails us taking on teams instead of sitting back on defense before counter-attacking. Weiss’s vision is the exact opposite of the defensive system the Azkals used under previous coach Simon McMenemy.
One reason McMenemy employed the defensive system is that it takes very little preparation and training to do so. As discussed in my previous article, we just keep it nice and tight at the back, making life difficult for the opposing team.
This system requires less organization than it does to attack teams high up on the field, which leaves you more exposed at the back. Pressing teams high in the pitch leaves gaps all over the field, which could be exploited by well-prepared teams.
What is different this time, however, is that we have the time and training to develop this attacking football formation. We saw glimpses of this against Mongolia in Panaad.
In the first half, the Azkals seemed a bit nervous, which is perfectly understandable given the hype surrounding the game. But once we calmed down, we did our business and bossed the field, especially after the Mongolians went down to 10 men.
Jason de Jong plays the ‘Claude Makelele’ role in the midfield for the Azkals.
Against the Blue Wolves, Jason de Jong had a spell of bad passes that almost induced a heart attack, for which we almost paid dearly.
This may become cause for worry, because for us to succeed in our new attacking mantra, de Jong needs to get his game spot on. With more men committed to attack, his role as the lone holding midfielder is vital in keeping opposing attacks at bay. His timely interceptions and tackles as he breaks up opponents’ play are essential to our strategy. He should be the base and the key of the midfields, ensuring the team keeps clean sheets – that is, preventing the other team from scoring.
Jason’s plays the ‘Claude Makelele’ role, named after the French holding midfielder literally defined the position because of his outstanding play. His departure from Real Madrid arguably signalled the end of the club’s Los Galacticos era.
Meanwhile, Phil Younghusband’s impact off the pitch is unquestionable as the face of the Azkals, but on the pitch is where he must do his real work. Being a marked man against Mongolia is just a portent of things to come from the former Chelsea man. Being the most high profile member of the Azkals, he certainly will be the recipient of many kicks and knocks – what basketball players would refer to as gulang.
He has shown flashes of brilliance, but he also showed another side to him. He needs to mature on the pitch. He also needs to keep the petulance and persistent imploring to referees for uncalled fouls at a minimum. It is guerrilla warfare out there, and it will not be farfetched for opposing managers to send a tough, tackling hit man to do a hatchet job on Phil by going Dennis Rodman/Ron Artest on his head.
There was one instance in the Suzuki Cup when he was unable to get a call from the referee for a perceived foul, so he stomped away angrily, turning his back on the action. Unfortunately, in doing so, he completely missed the ball which was going in his vicinity. This prompted the commentators of Star Sports commentators to react: “And that is the reason he isn’t in Europe anymore.”
Ray Jonsson was used as a leftback in the last Suzuki Cup, but he was given the central midfield playmaker slot in Panaad. He sprayed passes to Chieffy Caligdong, who was simply a livewire down the left flank. Time and again, Chieffy was able to beat his man and deliver those telling crosses to the box. Unfortunately, no one was there to meet them. Methinks he finally got tired of delivering the crosses which no one met, and decided to knock one in himself.
Chieffy Caligdong played well in Panaad, but support was a bit lacking.
This was where I felt the services of a box-to-box midfielder was greatly needed, someone to be on the other end of Chieffy’s crosses. With Phil man-marked, and striker Ian Araneta still not ending his goal drought spanning six games already, someone from the midfield had to take up the scoring cudgels. But Ray apparently wasn’t the man to for that, because he simply isn’t that type of player.
This type of box to box midfielder is personified to great effect by Chris Greatwich, who met James Younghusband’s cross for the equalizer against Singapore and who also turned provider for Phil Younghusband’s goal against Vietnam. Chris would thrive in this role. If you analyze the play leading up to that role, he intercepted the ball from our own half and sprinted down the Vietnam goal to lend support.
Chris’ brother Simon, on the other hand, is more of a deep-lying central midfielder, a typical number 10 – in American football terms, a quarterback. With grace and vision, he continually tries to unlock the opposing defense via a splitting pass or the through ball.
This was evident in the second half of the Mongolia game, where he linked up well with Ian was through on goal only to be adjudged offside by the assistant referee.
Chris Greatwich himself is aware of his differences with his brother. “Simon is more of a ‘get it and give it’ player in a deeper position, whereas I have no interest in getting the ball deep,” he says. “I want to link up with our forwards and wide players and get into the box.”
Anton del Rosario preparing for a monster throw.
A telling substitution during the Mongolia game was Jason Sabio coming in for Anton del Rosario at right back. At the time, Anton was having a good game, despite Panaad’s advertising boards getting in the way of his monster throw-ins. By giving Sabio his first international cap, Coach Weiss is gearing up for the future, which may include the youngster replacing Rob Gier in central defense.
Sabio certainly did not fail to impress in his first stint. After some initial jitters, he settled in very well. He had the presence of mind to pick out the pass to Phil deep in injury time for the Azkals’ second goal.
His long throw would also certainly be an asset to the team, much like Anton’s. In an interview, he said he could throw the ball just like a cross, to about 40 yards. This would be almost the equivalent of a free kick to the box from the sidelines.
The long throw was actually the de facto Plan B for the Azkals against Indonesia in the Suzuki Cup semifinals. Since the Indons knew that our plan was to hit them on the counter-attack, they made sure they left enough personnel in the back field to hold off Phil and Ian, our only remaining threats.
In the late stages of the second game in Jakarta, we tried to play for a throw in our area. Phil hugged the touch line waiting for defenders to get the ball out, to set the stage for Anton’s long throws.
Another thing to watch out for is team captain Aly Borromeo in an attacking role. Few know that Aly started his football career as a goalkeeper who became a striker, before finally being converted to his current role in central defense.
Versatility is one of the aspects of his game, and his size and predatory instincts make him an option for the Azkals attack, if we are chasing the game. In fact, Former coach Simon McMenemy used Aly in an advanced position before. Against Singapore, when the team was down by a goal, he was sent to attacking third to mix things up.
It would have been interesting for if Coach Weiss had substituted Jason Sabio for de Jong instead. We would have had this formation:
DEL ROSARIO – SABIO – GIER – JONSSON
J. YOUNGHUSBAND – S. GREATWICH – CALIGDONG
P. YOUNGHUSBAND – ARANETA
J. YOUNGHUSBAND – S. GREATWICH – CALIGDONG
P. YOUNGHUSBAND – ARANETA
In this formation, Aly would have played ‘in the hole’ to support the attack. Note that this lineup is very offensive minded, with no holding midfielder, and with del Rosario continually offering support in an attack. Against the ten men of Mongolia, it would have been worth a try if this formation would pan out.
But either way, these are truly exciting times for the Azkals and their fans. Take note, Fil-foreigners with genuine European pedigree such as Jerry Lucena and Dennis Cagara are due to link up with the Azkals, pending passport issues. Jerry plays in the first division in Denmark, for the side AGF Arhaus.
For us Filipino football fans, who have waited for football to bask in the spotlight, we can’t have it any better.