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Ugly Football vs Kuwait Will Be Beautiful!

Before leaving for Bahrain, Philippine National Team Coach Michael Weiss intimated to news crews that the way the Azkals will be approaching the Kuwait game will be far different from the Sri Lanka encounter in the first round of World Cup qualifiers. In fact, he went so far as to state – as reported by one of the local Internet news sites – that we will probably be playing the 4-5-1 formation. To those new to the game, that means a formation that has four defenders, five midfielders and just one attacker.

This is good news! Weiss recognizes that Kuwait has better technical players – i.e. more skilful with the ball – and hopes to negate their technical abilities by limiting the space for them to use these technical skills in. In other words, we will probably not see the flowing open type of game we played against Sri Lanka but, instead, the more tactically savvy McMenemy-esque game we all saw in Hanoi last December.

The key to this game is not so much to for our boys to play but to prevent the Kuwaitis from playing. Space will be at a premium in the middle of the park; and ball possession will be given away by both sides frequently. In other words, it will be ugly. However, if our intention is to gain a creditable draw to bring home to Manila, then the uglier it is the better for our chances in the return leg!

For those who are new to football, here are some things that the Philippines will probably have to do to keep out Kuwait:

In a manner of speaking, a team is in perfect shape at kick-off, when there is almost symmetrical distance between all the players of a team. In the old days, such compactness of the formation was called balance. This shape is important whether a team is attacking or defending. When attacking, the relative closeness of team-mates to the one who is in possession of the ball means that they are able to support him – and, therefore, the team’s attacking play.

In defence, it is the same. The physical closeness of team-mates allows them to narrow the passing lanes through which the dangerous “through” balls may be threaded. These are those forward passes that allow attacking players to get between and behind defenders and to therefore get a shooting sight at goal. Likewise, the closeness of one team-mate to another enables him to lend defensive support in harrying an attacking player, pretty much what is called double-teaming in basketball.

It goes without saying that the natural ebb and flow of the game draws players out of position, resulting sometimes into a team losing its shape. For instance, if the midfielders all move up in support of the strikers but the defensive line stays behind deep in its own half, then the shape of the team is momentarily lost. This is not to say that there is immediate danger in this momentary loss of shape. The danger materializes if the opposing forwards and midfielders are able to exploit the bigger space between the midfield and defensive lines. It goes without saying that for a team to maintain its shape for most of a game, what is required is a very high degree of fitness and concentration in each and every player.

For all its shortcomings, Sri Lanka – at the Rizal Memorial – managed on one or two occasions to get behind our defensive line with well thought out over the top long balls. Better players would have punished us. To begin with, the dangerous long balls were made possible because both Robert Gier and Aly Borromeo were playing a higher defensive line than we saw last year in Hanoi against Vietnam at the Suzuki Cup. It must be pointed out that it is never to a defender’s advantage to have to face his own goal.

Against Vietnam, both central defenders seldom strayed far from the penalty box. This meant that any balls played over the top were bread and butter for Neil Etheridge, since the space was narrow between him and the entire Philippine defensive line. It takes a very special pass to get a striker behind such a well-set defence, even at the highest level. Thus, most of Vietnam’s strikes were from deep in midfield. In basketball, these are called the low-percentage shots. With a goalkeeper of the size and skill of Etheridge, most of the time these shots will not be dangerous.

Against Sri Lanka at the Rizal Memorial, of course, we were not only the home team but we were also the stronger team. Our attacking play dictated that both central defenders move higher up, else we would have lost our shape. Everyone knows that we subsequently won the match comfortably. Had we not scored our goals when we did, such a high defensive line would have been tantamount to playing with fire. In football, just because a team is enjoying most of the attacking does not mean that it is actually winning. As it happened, when the Sri Lankans got behind our defence, they also exposed a glaring lack of pace in both of our central defenders.

This was further reinforced in the warm-up games against the Bahrain Olympic Team. To be perfectly honest, I only saw the match highlights. But a few of the Bahrain goals were scored when we were being hit on the break, with wide open spaces between midfield and defence. We were not at full-strength; that said, it was not Bahrain’s full international team, either.

I have seen Kuwait play in the Asian Cup 2011; and suffice it to say that they have marginally better players than both Sri Lanka and Bahrain’s Under-23 squad. It will be foolhardy for our boys to leave Etheridge by his lonesome.

I think most of us will be thinking that, compared to Kuwait, Manila’s climate will feel like a fully air-conditioned mall. However, I have checked a weather web site that says Kuwait’s average temperature at this time of the year is roughly 30°C. The same web site says Manila’s is 31°C, with humidity substantially higher. I do not know how reliable the web site’s figures are; if they are, then the heat in Kuwait should be as much a factor – and not more – as the Manila leg. I believe the Kuwait leg will be played under floodlights; so that in itself is a relief. That said, some of our players will be coming from all over and all that travelling and being out of one’s normal time zone is bound to have one effect or another on these players. The Bahrain acclimatization visit will have helped those who flew in early; but only just.

To illustrate, Etheridge will be coming from the UK, where the average temperature at this time of the year is pegged at 11°C. Manny Ott and Stephan Schrock, meanwhile, will be flying in from Germany, where it is 11.5°C. Finally, Ray Anthony Jónsson will be coming from Reykjavik where it is 9°C.

Therefore, it will help our cause no end if our boys do not extend themselves more than is necessary. Top class football is often played at trotting pace. This is because top professional teams collectively protect space and players seldom have to break into sprints when defending. In fact, you can frequently tell which player has been drawn out of position or has lost the player he is tasked to mark in his defensive zone because he has to sprint back to regain position.

Even top pros, no matter how fit they are, if subjected to heat and humidity, become prone to losing concentration when fatigue sets in towards the end of the match. That is why, when league seasons begin in the summer sunshine even in temperate zone countries, matches are played at a slower pace than during the winter mid-season or in spring when the season is about to conclude. For the average fan, slow games can be frightfully boring to watch. But if a team is after a result, who really cares?

Playing conservatively, therefore, will enable our players to maintain their concentration particularly through that critical period when the match is about to end and players typically just crave the comforts of a bench and a glass of cold water. All teams are vulnerable in this critical period; and we do not want to be able to hold Kuwait then concede a goal in the dying minutes of the match. As it is said, it only takes a second to score a goal!

Composure in the game’s context does not mean to stand by the corner flag and sip at a glass of iced lemon tea. Contextually, composure is needed in two main aspects of how our boys play the coming game. First, to actually slow down instead of being frantic. Against the UFL All-Stars and in the first leg against Sri Lanka, there was an over-eagerness to the way the team played that would have played right into the hands of more sophisticated teams. It takes composure not to play like this.

Normally, this sort of composure takes years of experience in the game. That said, there was an abundance of this in the recently-concluded FIFA Under-17 World Cup; so age alone cannot be the main prerequisite. Also, we all saw this in our own team against Vietnam in Hanoi; so we can all deduce that a lot will have to depend on what Michael Weiss says to the team and how he sets up the game plan.

In a previous post, I have mentioned that – in international football – sometimes less is better than more. It takes composure to not hurry; to move the ball around when we do get it; and for players to stay on their feet and hold onto their assigned spaces instead of diving into tackles unnecessarily. Remember that momentary indiscretion by Aly Borromeo at the Rizal Memorial that cost him this coming match?

In another context, composure will mean literally what it means: to not react as Schrock did in the Sri Lanka game. The Middle Easterners are passionate – and not just in football. For any of our boys to be unnerved by petty fouls and gamesmanship will only be counter-productive. You can be the best player in the world; but you are of absolutely of no use to your team if you are suspended on account of a red or two yellow cards. Heart is needed in any endeavour; but brain even more so.

For all we know, Weiss will set the team up to play an all-out attacking game. Then you can all forget everything I have written before you got to this point; thank you very much for reading this post! Who knows? He is the coach and he knows his team better than certainly I do. On the other hand, whether we are gung-ho going forward or we will sit back and absorb everything that the Kuwaitis can throw at us, what should be drilled in each and every player’s mind is that this is a two-legged affair.

A 2-nil away win for us can only mean that it was Michael the Archangel in the body of Emelio Caligdong playing for us; 1-nil will still be sensational even if we will all be nervy going into the Manila leg; a 1-all or a scoreless draw is probably the most realistic thing we can achieve, all things considered.

We can even lose the match; and this is where tactical savvy has to be drilled into the lads. If Kuwait scores, instead of chasing the game, it is actually time to close the shop up even if it means kicking every ball all the way to the dunes of the desert. Two goals, realistically, is probably the most we can afford to be down, if it means we all have to pray fervently to Our Lady of Perpetual Help so that the deficit may be overturned in Manila. 0-3 and we will have to ask Jesus Christ Himself to suit up in a Mizuno blue at the Rizal Memorial.

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