2012 AFF Suzuki Cup Azkals Stint Reflections

As the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup ends, it is time to reflect on the Azkals’ stint in the most prestigious regional tournament in South East Asia. One could say that the Suzuki Cup is truly the “World Cup” of South East Asia as each major member country in the region really gets involved in the tournment. It is also the most competitive tournament the Azkals have played in throughout the year, more prestigious than the Peace Cup or the AFC Challenge Cup.

Coming into the tournament, the Azkals had a fantastic preparation in terms of the number of games played. They played a total of sixteen International FIFA “A” games, and this is not counting the non-FIFA “A” games they played against like the Football Clubs in the Middle East. Its true, the team’s composition tend to vary, but I feel that the sheer number of games (including practices) enabled the players to have good familiarity with each other.

In contrast, I don’t think any of the other teams had quite as many games within the year to prepare for the tournament. Certainly not Singapore, or Thailand, who played in a lot less FIFA “A” games this year. True, the Singaporeans and Thais play a lot against each other in their local leagues, but so do the Azkals in the United Football League.

‘Tournament Accomplishments’
The Azkals finished fourth overall out of ten countries in the tournament. For the first time in its history, it also qualified for the second straight tournament in the Semi-Finals. This is quite a solid accomplishment, especially in the light of the team’s performance against the eventual champion of the region, Singapore.

In the two Semi-Finals games against Singapore, the Philippines drew once, and lost once. They drew a clean sheet against Singapore in the first game, while losing only by a single goal in the second game. Even more impressive is our overall performance against the 2012 Suzuki Cup Champion throughout the year, below of which is the summary of their performance:
– Four games in total, broken down to two International Friendlies and two Semi-Finals games in the Suzuki Cup
– We won twice, drew them once, and lost once
– Aggregate score over four games is 3-1, with us giving them a clean sheet in three out of four games.

The tournament also exposed the team’s strengths, and glaring weaknesses. Here are my opinion of those regarding the team.

‘The Good News – Defense’
The Azkals best quality is definitely its defense. Over five games, we can summarize our defense using the following points:
– Conceded only two goals in five games
– Maintained a clean sheet in three out of the five games
– Lost by no more than one goal difference (2-1) to Thailand

Our Backline of Rob Gier, Juani Guirado, Ray Jonsson, Carli De Murga and Dennis Cagara are the best players of the team compared to the rest of South East Asia. Special mention to our Defensive Midfielders in Jerry Lucena and Jason De Jong, who all have had their moments in the tournament on defense.

The all remained steady, commiting very little mistakes, and their quickness to get back down on defense forced opponents to hurry their shots, causing them in turn to make mistakes on offense.

‘The Bad News – Offense’
Our weakness as a team is definitely on offense. While our defense are able to hold their own against the best of South East Asia, our offense fell flat on its face. Consider the following facts:
– The Azkals scored only four goals in five games
– In the two Semi-Finals games, we were unable to score a single goal against Singapore
– The four goals were scored by four different individuals, and none of them scored more than one goal in the entire tournament

The Philippines were only a single goal away from reaching the Finals: If we had scored one goal in our home game in the Semi-Finals, we would’ve forced the Singaporeans to extended time and perhaps a Penalty Kick-Off. If we had scored a single goal in our Away game against them, we would’ve moved on to the finals. But we didn’t. More frustrating is the fact that we could not even score that single goal and win at home, despite the support of the crowd that turned up.

‘Limited Arsenal’
I think the main reason for our weakness on offense is our very limited arsenal. If you watch those four goals made by the Azkals in the tournament, they are all very similar: A good pass in or around the box, followed by a good finish. There is no VARIETY on our offense, making us very PREDICTABLE and easy to defend against.

Our offense is anchored mainly on two things: Players making individual or passing runs in the flanks or the middle, followed by a good Cross or pass into the box. All our opponents like Singapore then has to do is contain those runs, and keep those passes from happening, and our offense stalls down big time, as shown in the Semi-Finals.

The Azkals have forgotten that there are other ways to score in Football, too. And unfortunately for us, we have been unable to use any of them.

‘Mid-Range Shot’
Another way to score in Football is off Mid-Range Shots, or shots from outside of the box into the goal. This is difficult to do as the shot has to be both FAST and ACCURATE. It cannot be either just one of them, as a slow but accurate shot is easily caught by the Goalkeeper; On the other hand, a fast but inaccurate shot is useless.

Philippined Football does not have this kind of shot in its arsenal, whether in the local leagues, or with the Azkals. You see them happen every now and then, but if the goal is scored it is mainly due to chance, or ‘tsamba’. The players need to realize that this is an important shot to have in our arsenal, that ability to score a goal from afar.

Sometimes, such a shot is the only shot we can take when the opponents crowd the box. A strong and accurate Mid-Range Shot will either test the Goalkeeper, or perhaps bounce off him and another chance comes up off a rebound.

The U23 Uzbekistan team used this against us when we parked the bus against them, and resulted in a couple of good chances for them. Singapore’s lone goal against us was from such a shot, taken from a couple of yards outside of the box by Khairul Amri. Amri is their designated “shooter”, taking shot after shot from Mid-Range. If this were Basketball, he would be their Three-Point Shooter, their “Gary David”, or “Jeff Chan”. We don’t have “shooters” like him on the team right now.

‘Set-Pieces’
Another area the Azkals need to improve on is the Set Pieces. Each Set Piece should be treated as SACRED, as a way to possibly score off our opponents. But in the tournament, we were very WASTEFUL of our Set Pieces. They were either way off, and the ones that were on target never resulted in a goal.

Normally during a Set Piece you would want your shorter players to take them, while leaving your taller players as targets. However, in this regard the Azkals is in a bit of a quandry: Our shorter players like Chieffy Caligdong and Dennis Cagara normally takes the shots, but they have been mediocre at best with their chances. On the other hand, our taller players are the best players for these Set Pieces: The 6’3″ Anghel Guirado scored off a Free Kick against Guam, and the 5’11” Phil Younghusband has the power and accuracy to hit targets from afar.

In this regard, the Coaching Staff has to put its foot down: If the players cannot deliver good balls on target, then they should not be taking those Set Pieces. Better to have a shot on target to shorter players, than to miss shots to taller players.

‘Headers’
The Azkals is one of the tallest teams in South East Asia, probably only next to Singapore. And despite this, we are not heading shots into target or into the goal. The ESPN Commentators noted this down, that despite the Azkals height they are wasteful as they don’t really attack the ball as much as they should.

What is funny is that you have shorter players from the other South East Asian countries like Thailand’s Theerasil Dangda, or Malaysia’s Norsharul scoring off headers, while our taller players could not produce a single one in the entire tournament despite playing against shorter teams. This is one glaring weakness that has to be addressed, we cannot waste our team’s height like this.

‘Long Throw-Ins’
And lastly, we miss the long Throw-Ins which we used to have in our arsenal. Our arsenal is already very limited, and we had this within our capability, but did not use it anymore in the tournament. True, one of our players capable of doing this, Jason Sabio was injured and had a bit of run-in with Coach Weiss, but we still had Juani Guirado.

Juani was making those long throw ins in the AFC Challenge Cup, but towards the later half of the year, it was gone from the teams’ arsenal. I can’t explain why it disappeared, maybe Weiss didn’t think it was worth it anymore. That long throw-in could’ve helped the team vary its offense, and give more chances of scoring a goal. In the times we used them in 2011 and 2012, I can remember one occassion where we scored off it directly (Dennis Wolf’s header against Malaysia), and a couple more times where it indirectly resulted in a goal.

The long Throw-In is not something most of the other countries use. In fact, none of the other SEA countries use it. But its what makes the Azkals unique, giving the team an advantage the others didn’t have. Who knows, perhaps it could’ve helped give us that single goal that we needed in the Semi-Finals. It is time to bring it back, and make it a PERMANENT part of the Azkals’s arsenal. Juani can make it, and we need to look or develop other players to be able to make it also.

‘Parting Shot’
If the Azkals were to choose an Most Valuable Player of the Year for the Azkals, it should come from our Backline, instead of our more glamorous offensive players. And my vote would be for Rob Gier for marshalling and owning the Azkals defense. The biggest concern for the Azkals now is our AGING Backline. Both Rob Gier and Juani Guirado are already nearing their mid-thirties, and I severely doubt that they can maintain their competitive form in the next Suzuki Cup two years from now.

Even worrying is the fact that we do not have any replacements for them as of now. Carli De Murga could be that guy, but he is not as tall as Rob, and neither is Dennis Cagara. In fact, none of our younger Backline are as tall as Rob or Juani, like Demit Omphroy, or Jeffrey Christiaens. This early, this should be the priority of the Philippine Football Federation: Finding the next generation of Central Backs. Our defense is what makes this team competitive. Without them, we are nothing.

As for offense, despite the European pedigree of some of our Azkals, it is clear that they need a lot of work in that area. Perhaps it is time for the PFF to focus on finding ways to improve the Azkals individually, rather than just spending money for games again and again. That is the only way for the Azkals to move from the plateau that it has found itself now.

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