On The Azkals win vs. Bahrain in The 2018 World Cup Qualifier

On the eve of the country’s 117th Independence Day from Spanish rule, the Philippine Azkals broke free from their dependence on the long-ball strategy against seasoned opponents and instead relied on smart passes to carve out chances in a 2-1 victory vs. higher-ranked Bahrain in their opening Group H match.

But Spain still has its influence as the Azkals Javier Patino, who hails from the Madrid area, scored what proved to be the winning goal off a goal mouth scramble after Munich-born Manny Ott whipped in an inviting free kick cross into the heart of the Bahraini defense who could only clear the ball towards the lurking Filipino-Iranian Misagh Bahadoran whose shot was blocked only to find its way into the shooting boot of the Filipino-Spanish forward.

The 6,000-strong home fans inside the new Philippine Sports Stadium, hosting its first-ever Azkals game, went into uproar inside the 60th minute. They sensed that: finally the Azkals have arrived to challenge the big boys.

Ten minutes before that, it was Bahadoran who, latching on to a Phil Younghusband wicked cross behind the Bahraini defense to open the scoring, gave the Azkals a sense of hope that the Philippines could challenge for the top spot in a group that also contains Asian 4th-rank Uzbekistan (behind only from Iran, Japan, and South Korea) alongside 2010 World Cup qualifier North Korea and Asian 37th-ranked Yemen.

(Note: All photos were taken from the web)

And we're up...1-0. Misagh Bahadoran wheels away after scoring  Azkals first goal of the night. The crown roars!

And we’re up…1-0. Misagh Bahadoran wheels away after scoring Azkals first goal of the night. The crown roars!

Although there are 7 more games to go in the group stage, the win gives the Azkals the belief that it can hold its own in this tournament level where the country was previously seen as perennial whipping boys.

Not anymore.

So what were the changes? Here are some key changes which I think contributed to the win against Bahrain (and the progress of the Azkals in general):

  1. Reinforcements…. from abroad

It’s no secret that the recent success of the Azkals was fueled by the influx of foreign-trained players with the likes of the Younghusbands and Greatwichs ushering in the new breed of players who were practising and competing with more technically skilled footballers abroad. Then came in the likes of, among others, Filipino-German Stephan Schrock, Filipino-Danish (with Spanish lineage) Jerry Lucena, Filipino-Swiss Martin Steuble who now composes the starting XI.

A big thanks to more than 2.3 millions Filipinos abroad who have contributed significantly, not just to our economy, in providing an adrenaline pump to Philippine football. Without them, we could easily be losing 0-5 against Bahrain.

Now a new batch of Azkals emerge with two new faces: Filipino-Australian (with Scottish lineage) left attacking midfielder Iain Ramsay and Filipino-Austrian left-wingback Stephan Palla who both gave Bahrain headaches from the Azkals left flank.

Iaian Ramsay (right) lurks behind a Bahraini defender

Iaian Ramsay (right) lurks behind a Bahraini defender

Stephan Palla contests for the ball vs. Bahrain.

Stephan Palla contests for the ball vs. Bahrain.

A look at the starting XI shows a picture of where the Filipinos (and foreign influences) have been in the past half-century or so:

  1. GK: Neil Etheridge (England)
  2. Right CB: Jerry Lucena (Denmark)
  3. Central CB: Rob Gier (England)
  4. Left CB: Daisuke Sato (Japan)
  5. Right WB: Martin Steuble (Switzerland)
  6. Left WB: Stephan Palla (Austria)
  7. CM: Manny Ott (Germany)
  8. CM: Phil Younghusband (England)
  9. Right AM: Stephan Schrock (Germany)
  10. Left AM: Iain Ramsay (Australia)
  11. Center FW: Javier Patino (Spain)

Add to these the supporting cast from the bench (1st 3 come in as substitute):

  1. Misagh Bahadoran (Iran)
  2. Juani Guirado (Spain)
  3. Simone Rota (raised in Italy)
  4. Patrick Reichelt (Germany)
  5. Luke Woodland (England)
  6. Kevin Ingreso (Germany)

It’s no wonder why long-time Azkals James Younghusband was left out of the squad. Phil’s brother needs to work hard to get back into the team.

Why this works? It comes down from the training facilities, technical know-how, and the large pool of talent (compared to the Philippines) that our returning footballers have competed against that makes them a better footballer than the Filipino counterpart.

The Azkals starting IX vs. Bahrain. Arguably the best eleven assembled.

The Azkals starting XI vs. Bahrain. Arguably the best eleven assembled.

You can also say that about Lionel Messi, the world’s best footballer (and probably of all time), who was taken in by FC Barcelona at the age of 11 without having played professional football in his native Argentina. And we would not look far. Coach Dooley was born and trained in Germany before being discovered by USA just in time for the 1994 World Cup which they were hosting.

And hoping our very own 11-year old Sandro Reyes, who is now training in FC Barcelona’s youth teams, could follow the likes of Messi and Andres Iniesta to become one of the greats. The future of Philippine football is bright if Sandro fulfills his potential.

  1. Starting Over Again: Dooley reconciles with returning Schrock and Etheridge

In a scene somewhat similar to Tevez in Manchester City where the Argentine and then coach Roberto Mancini had a misunderstanding over substitution issues that was resolved when Tevez issued an apology, coach Thomas Dooley had a falling out with the team’s arguably best player Stephan Schrock and its most recognized keeper Neil Etheridge.

Coach Thomas Dooley celebrating with the Azkals vs. Bahrain

Coach Thomas Dooley celebrating with the Azkals vs. Bahrain

The issue is now put to bed with both sides reconciling for the benefit of the team with Dooley selecting the duo to start against Bahrain. The two definitely brings in a lot of quality and international experience to the team. Moving on was definitely a priority for the Azkals to move forward.

  1. Dooley’s new tinkering: The 3-4-3 Formation

This formation, somewhat a slight variation of Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation sans the attacking wingers that shackled Spain in last year’s World Cup but was abandoned in Manchester United, can be usually seen in Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side with the speedy Austrian-Filipino David Alaba usually manning the left center back role similar to what Dooley did to Sato (see below) in the formation.

With the players at his disposal, coach Dooley opted with a back three with Jerry Lucena on the right, Rob Gier on the center, and Daisuke Sato on the left. It was crucial that at least one of the three, Sato, has pace especially that Lucena and Gier are in their mid-30s. Bahrain obviously saw this weakness as evident by their over to the top balls which were fortunately dealt with by the backline and Etheridge, who came off his line on numerous occasions.

The center backs was supported on the flanks by wingbacks Martin Steuble and new-boy Stephan Palla. The wingbacks also support wingmen Ramsay and Schrock/Bahadoran when the Azkals are in attack while central midfield Manny Ott dropping deep to protect the back line while his midfield partner…

  1. Man in the Middle: Phil Younghusband’s new role as a midfielder

For the first time in an international match, Phil Younghusband was given the central midfield role partly because of the available talent upfront and partly to exploit his passing vision. This is similar to what Van Gaal did to Rooney for a time when the Red Devils were spoilt of choices (or so they thought?) with van Persie and Falcao leading attack.

Phil Younghusband moved to midfield to accommodate the Azkals more attacking players, similar to what Van Gaal did to Wayne Rooney.

Phil Younghusband moved to midfield to accommodate the Azkals more attacking players, similar to what Van Gaal did to Wayne Rooney.

And the former Chelsea youth team member made the position his own, linking well with teammates to keep hold of the ball (stats shows possession is close to 50-50 vs. Bahrain) and supplying through balls and crosses into dangerous areas with one leading to the Bahadoran opening goal.

Phil Younghusband in his new midfield role

Phil Younghusband in his new midfield role

Will this be a permanent setup? If Dooley sticks with the 3-4-3 formation, I believe it will still depend on the availability of the front three. Phil’s abilities can be better optimized in central midfield rather than in one of the flanks of the front three or even as a center forward where he has labored against quality oppositions.

What now?

There is still a long way to go in the group stage. Yemen beckons in a few days and top-seed Uzbekistan and North Korea wait in the wings to compete for Group H’s top spot. It’s a tall order and considering that there are only 4 automatic slots for Asia in the World Cup, the Azkals have to also get past Asian powerhouses Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia to get a ticket to Russia. The chances are slim but it’s the one worth taking especially that the country now boost its strongest squad so far.

Kudos to the Azkals management led by Dan Palami and coach Thomas Dooley, who got out the best from the players and dealt with the internal conflicts that could have disruptive the team cohesion.

Still the current model of getting foreign-trained players may not be the long-term solution (as pointed out by many football observers). Grassroots development is still the way to move forward. How to do it depends on the commitment of our football federation and local government (one observer suggests putting up futsal courts in majority of our towns).

We hope our football officials can take advantage of the Azkals progress to encourage children to at least try the sport to know if they have the talent for it. Sayang naman ang 100 million population ng Philippines, there might be a Messi (Argentina, 44M population), Ronaldo (Portugal, 11M), Suarez (Uruguay, 4M), Hazard (Belgium, 12M), or Ibrahimovic (Sweden, 10M) waiting to be discovered.

If not, the future of Philippine football rests heavily on Sandro Reyes (who currently hones his footballing skills in Spain)

Sandro Reyes at Barcelona's Camp Nou

Sandro Reyes at Barcelona’s Camp Nou

and the children of our fellow Filipino abroad.

 

For now, we can thank our heroes for fighting for our freedom so that we could have our own football team and thank our migrant Filipinos, our modern-day heroes, for supplying the team with quality players.

Happy Independence Day! From foreign rule and long ball strategies.

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