Football coaches are wont to state the obvious that to win a match, their players must score goals. What they do not say often is that to avoid defeat, the team cannot afford to concede them.
This has been the niggling problem for Singapore’s SEA Games under-23 football squad during their preparations in the past six months.
Their losing streak includes a 5-0 drubbing by the Hamburger SV’s under-23 team, 3-0 to Yemen, as well as 8-1 and 3-1 defeats by the respective Japan and Cambodia under-22 teams.
Three key weaknesses surfaced from those matches: The haphazard organisation of the backline, a lack of effective communication and players being intimidated by rivals who were faster and bigger.
A tight defence inspires confidence in a team attempting to move forward in search of goals, and as the players prepare for their opening Group A match against the Philippines at Jalan Besar Stadium today, midfielder Anumanthan Kumar is confident that the defensive problems have been fixed.
The 20-year-old has been fielded in central defence along with Amirul Adli by coach Aide Iskandar in recent matches, and he said assistant coaches S Subramani and Kadir Yahaya have helped them learn to cover each other more effectively.
“After the string of losses, the defenders came together and worked with the coaches on ways to improve the defence and what we needed to do,” said Anumanthan.
“We worked in the training sessions and found a lot of new ways to defend. Previously, our backline tended to get bullied by bigger and taller strikers, but we have come up with new strategies to handle them, and these seem to be working in our past few games.”
During the team’s training tour in Japan last month, they lost 2-1 loss to fourth-division side Azul Claro Numazu, but bounced back to notch a 3-0 victory over Shinzuoka Sangyo University.
They also beat Laos 5-1 and Timor Leste 3-0 in warm-up matches in the past week.
Said Amirul: “The coaches have worked on the defensive organisation and how we move and gel as a unit. During the past few weeks, we worked on this area, and I think we are much better than we were previously.
“We are also more compact, better organised and comfortable with one another in defence. There is confidence now that we have one another’s back and the belief that we can help the team get results.”
Communication among players is key, and keeper Syazwan Buhari will play a crucial role in organising his backline to check looming dangers.
“The coaches spotted areas on which I had to improve, and one of these is to talk more to the defenders to stop the shots at goal,” said the team’s No 1.
“We worked on this in training, and in Japan, we performed better when we came under attack.”
Singapore’s under-23 side are itching to get their first group fixture out of the way as they kick off their gold-medal campaign against the Philippines today.
The Filipinos did not compete in the 2013 SEA Games in Myanmar, and they return to the biennial event this time with a squad comprising a mix of players who either turn out for university or the country’s United Football League teams.
They have three foreign-born players, including Enzo Cheng and Dominic del Rosario, who were raised in Australia, Kennedy Uzoka from Nigeria and Filipino-British Connor Tacagni.
Thirteen players also featured in the AFC U23 Championship two months ago in Bangkok, where they lost all their matches against Cambodia (3-1), Thailand (5-1) and North Korea (4-0).
In their final tune-up for the Games, the under-23 Azkals last week trained in Blacktown, Australia, notching two wins and three losses in their friendly matches.
The Filipinos, led by head coach Marlon Maro, are an unknown quality, but Aide cautioned against underestimating them.
“In any tournament, opening matches are never easy, because everybody starts on the same level,” said the coach.
“We are trying to settle down as quickly as possible to get our rhythm, and for the Philippines, they have nothing to lose playing against the home team.
“We have a game plan and we just have to focus on what we need to do.”
With the defensive leaks having been sorted out, Aide said everyone on the team could rely on one another to get the results, and he was going into the SEA Games more confident of their abilities.
“We have been working hard in every department and it is paying off. Everybody now knows their role and I believe we won’t be conceding silly goals anymore,” he said.
Football at the SEA Games
When: June 1 to 15
Where: Group A (Jalan Besar Stadium), Group B (Bishan Stadium), semi-finals and final (National Stadium)
Number of medals: One (men’s football)
Ticket prices: S$10, S$20
*Tickets to the Singapore v the Philippines match are sold out.
S/N NAME POSITION CLUB
1 Syazwan Buhari GK Courts Young Lions
2 Rudy Khairullah GK Courts Young Lions
3 Shakir Hamzah DF Courts Young Lions
4 Al-Qaasimy Rahman DF Courts Young Lions
5 Sheikh Abdul Hadi DF Courts Young Lions
6 Fadli Kamis DF Courts Young Lions
7 Amirul Adli DF Courts Young Lions
8 Ho Wai Loon DF Balestier Khalsa
9 Faris Ramli MF LionsXII
10 Safirul Sulaiman MF Courts Young Lions
11 Stanely Ng MF Home United
12 Anumanthan Mohan Kumar MF Courts Young Lions
13 Adam Swandi MF Courts Young Lions
14 Suria Prakash MF Courts Young Lions
15 Pravin Guanasagaran MF Courts Young Lions
16 Shahfiq Ghani FW Courts Young Lions
17 Sahil Suhaimi FW LionsXII
18 Shamil Sharif FW Courts Young Lions
19 Irfan Fandi FW Courts Young Lions
20 Amy Recha Pristifana FW Courts Young Lions
THE PHILIPPINES’ SQUAD:
1 Florencio Badelic Jr GK Global FC
2 Jaime Cheng GK Global FC
3 Ace Villanueva GK UP and Pachanga Diliman FC
4 Nathaniel Alquiros DF DLSU and Stallion FC
5 Mark Besana DF UP
6 Ian Clarino DF UP and Global FC
7 Neil Dorimon DF SBC and Mendiola FC 1991
8 Shirmar Felongco DF Stallion FC
9 Francisco Santos DF UP and Pachanga Diliman FC
10 Ronnie Aguisanda MF Green Archers United FC
11 Arnel Amita MF FEU and Manila Jeepney FC
12 Fitch Arboleda MF Stallion FC
13 Paolo Bugas MF FEU and Global FC
14 Dominic Del Rosario MF JP Voltes FC
15 Daniel Gadia MF UP and Pachanga Diliman FC
16 Paolo Salenga MF NU and Global FC
17 Richard Talaroc Jr MF Global FC
18 Connor Tacagni FW SBC and Mendiola FC 1991
19 Kennedy Uzoka FW Green Archers United FC
20 Jinggoy Valmayor FW UP and Pachanga Diliman FC