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The Philippine Azkals: Rebuilding after the AFF Suzuki Cup

Image credit:  AFF Suzuki Cup official web site.

Before Sunday football yesterday, the first after the disappointing exit of the Philippine Azkals from the 2016 AFF Championships, inevitably I was asked what I thought of the national team’s performance in the tournament. This is a tricky one since I was not privy to the behind-the-scenes thinking among the team’s coaching staff.

Admittedly, my previous two articles on the tournament were written in supporter mode. That the national team had issues to contend with was there to see for all and sundry through the October and November friendlies. However, it has always been my position that once a tournament starts, since I am not privy to team affairs and in no position to influence team performance, it is best to just stand behind my team through the thick and thin.

For yesterday’s discussion, though, I had to chuck fan mode and put back on the coaching hat I wore for three decades. While I am not privy to Thomas Dooley’s thoughts, since I worked in high school and college football, I am only all too familiar with the relentless cycle of breaking up and rebuilding football teams.

To my mind, I told the gentlemen I was in discussion with yesterday, the most significant reason for the national team’s failure in the AFF Championships was that Juani Guirado and Jerry Lucena retired a tournament too early. The two were still active in the recent World Cup qualifying campaign. Guirado is 37 while Lucena is 36. A tad too old, perhaps, for the top leagues in Europe; but arguably still capable of a last hurrah in the fields of Southeast Asia.

Retirement, of course, is a player’s prerogative. I merely cited the two to point out our inability, at least in the AFF Championships, to seamlessly transition from the defensive old guard to the new. Precarious as the situation was already when the two called it a day as far as international football was concerned, further complications regrettably came in an ACL tear that Simone Rote would suffer last August and Romanian club Politehnica Iași’s refusal to release Daisuke Sato for the tournament.

As a direct consequence, Dooley faced the task of rebuilding at the very least the defensive line, with only Amani Aguinaldo and Martin Steuble among the starters definitively available for the AFF Championships, assuming neither suffered injuries. The situation for the Philippines is peculiar in that the national team is not exactly representative of the nation’s football league. Hence, for any national team coach, the task of replacing players who are unavailable for one reason or the other is not as straightforward as simply calling up the next in line, as the case often is in established footballing countries. There, options abound for every position.

Dooley has my sympathies. The situation he was in heading into the AFF Championships was similar to that I used to face particularly in the eighties and nineties when we had no elementary teams to feed our high school football program. Then, I had to make do with whoever showed up for try-outs; and frequently, I could not even complete the 20 players allowed in our school league.

The greatest obstacle was always time: time for the players to develop technically and absorb a coach’s ideas till they no longer have to consciously think of these; time for a coach to find the players best for each position; and time for the players to gel as a team so that they play instinctively after having learned to anticipate each other’s movements.  Time, it has to be said, that Dooley just did not have.

This is probably why, in our recent friendlies against Bahrain, DPR Korea and Kyrgyzstan, the Philippine Azkals looked decidedly off-color. The squads we mustered for these three matches were pale shadows of the teams that represented us in World Cup qualifying. Most knowledgeable Azkals fans, while trying to stay positive with a tournament looming, probably knew deep inside after watching these friendlies that the AFF Championships would be difficult.

In fact, the only consistent thing to these friendlies and our three matches at the Philippine Sports Stadium was the frequency with which Dooley chopped and changed. In fact, I do not think he knew his best eleven until the second half against Thailand, when we arguably played our best football in the entire tournament. Finding the best eleven is easier for club coaches who get to work with the same set of players on a regular basis.

I do not say this to be critical but merely to illustrate the process of building football teams, particularly the aspect of experimentation. With my teams, I always pragmatically knew what chances we would have in tournaments. If we were participating in one whilst rebuilding, then I always used that tournament whatever the results as preparation for future ones.

Dooley is no novice to the game and has more knowledge and experience in it than I ever had. In other words, he likely knew that his squad for the AFF Championships was not AS YET good enough to win it; but was prepared to use it as a platform for future ones. Throwing young Marco Casambre at the deep end, as he did with Aguinaldo a few years back in the Challenge Cup, to my mind is evidence of this thinking.

Of course, there were complications in that we were playing on home soil and expectations were admittedly high after some sensational results in World Cup qualifying. Having said this, four-time champion Singapore finished dead bottom of our group while another former champion, Malaysia, could not get out of Group B either. As Bob Guerrero correctly pointed out in his Rappler article, we do not really own a birthright to being in the semi-finals.

There was one thing, though, that I wish Dooley could have done differently. I understand that, long term with the inevitable loss of pace brought by age, it may be better to play Phil Younghusband deeper. However, at least just in the second half against Singapore when the Lions were completely devoid of ambition other than keeping us out, I wished Dooley had gambled and sent Younghusband forward to lead the line.

The captain’s nose for goal is proven; and all the little men we had scampering upfront were not making any real impression on Singapore’s towering central defense. Younghusband would have provided a bit more physical presence and somebody else could have taken over the holding role since Singapore rarely ventured forward, anyway.

While I am all for planning ahead and using a tournament as investment for the future, there are also plenty of benefits to be had from trying to win where and when you can. And that match against Singapore was very, very winnable.

At the end of the day, the draw for the groupings was also not kind to us. I also watched the matches in the other group, with envy if I might add. Cambodia is an up and coming team, but had it been in our group, I imagine we would have made the semi-finals with plenty to spare. I pray that we get a more favorable draw next time around; and the beauty of the AFF Championships is that we do not have to wait an eternity for it to come around again.

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