In front of a thin crowd in Sugathadasa Stadium, the Philippine national men’s football team battled the Brave Reds of Sri Lanka to an intense 1-1 draw in Colombo. Sri Lanka opened the scoring on the 43rd minute only to see debuting Azkal Nate Burkey equalize from a Chieffy Caligdong free kick five minutes from the restart. We draw five observations from the match.
1. A 1-1 draw is not a bad result.
Specifically, a 1-1 draw away from home is not a bad result, by all means. It is a testament to the growing expectations of Filipino football fans that we are now actually disappointed with a 1-1 draw. We had chances to score, but in the end a draw seemed a fair result.
However, in the grand scheme of things, it is literally only halftime in a virtual 180 minute match. First legs of a two-legged tie are usually cagey affairs, with both teams feeling each other out at the onset. This game was no exception.
We can even argue that we enter the game this Sunday with the slight advantage with an away goal in tow. We are going to play in a pitch better suited to our more technical players and our rabid fans, led by the Kaholeros, who are dying to throw their support behind the players at Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
2. Sri Lanka had a plan and a strategy against the Azkals, and they executed it well.
The Brave Reds Coach Jang Jung promised to give the Azkals a ‘torrid time’ in Colombo. He did not disappoint.
With a hastily formed team, Sri Lanka knew that if they played an open game against the Azkals, they would be bludgeoned by an avalanche of goals. Thus in the first half, they sat back and defended resolutely and used a physical style of play to frustrate the more technically-gifted Azkals.
On more than one occasion, the Brave Reds lured the Azkals with some tough tackles and clinical fouling, hoping to throw the Azkals off their stride. The Filipinos fell for it hook, line and sinker.
Some players lost their composure, leading to three Azkal yellow cards. It was obvious that they scouted us well, with Phil Younghusband, Angel Guirado and Chieffy Caligdong being the primary targets of their cynical fouls.
Players like James Younghusband should expect less-talented opponents to employ such tactics. They must keep their heads in the game and keep their cool, instead of falling into the trap of losing their tempers.
3. Coach Michael Weiss should sort out the left-back position ASAP.
Paul Mulders is a right-footed attacking midfielder by profession. He was signed two months ago by Dutch Eredivisie side ADO Den Haag, most certainly not for his ability to play left-back.
Barely 24 hours before his international debut, Mulders was tapped to play at the left side of defense by Weiss. Even if he has tremendous technical ability, it would be folly to assume he would mesh with the rest of the back four in such short notice.
Putting Paul Mulders at left-back could be a show of the attacking intent by Weiss, or it could be a damning snub for the rest of his defenders on the bench. The underlying message is crystal clear: an attacking midfielder making his international debut is preferred over the veteran defenders on the team.
In the first half, Sri Lanka made no less than five incursions on their right flank, attacking Mulders’ side. This forced Chieffy Caligdong to track back, hindering the Azkals counterattack. When Mulders did venture forward on the overlap, it left a gaping hole on the left side when the Azkals lost the ball.
To be fair, Mulders did settle down in the second half of play, using his size to shut down crosses. He offered tantalizing glimpses of his ability going forward, and Weiss would be wise to unleash him in a more advanced position in Manila.
4. Stephan Schrock is reputedly a good right-back; in Colombo he showed that he is also a good central midfielder.
The unanimous choice for Man of the Match was SpVgg Greuther Furth right back Stephan Schrock, and with good reason. Playing in central midfield, he bossed the area and almost provided an assist for Ian Araneta for what could have been winning goal.
His ability to dribble the ball and take on players is something previous Azkal teams did not have. With excellent close control, he will draw defenders to him allowing teammates more space on other areas of the pitch.
To be most effective, he needs to link play from midfield to the final third and involve wingers Caligdong and James Younghusband more. His interplay with strikers Guirado and Burkey who should drop deep to collect the ball is another enticing offensive set we should for.
From this showing, it looks like the 24-year-old Schrock will be the heartbeat in the Azkals midfield for many years to come.
5. The Azkals must ditch the long ball tactics and use short ground passing instead.
Hoofing the speculative ball downfield is the easy option, but a quick short pass to retain possession is oftentimes the more sensible one.
On far too many occasions in the first half, the Azkals attempted to play the high pass up the field with little or no success. Hard-earned possession was immediately lost and there was no rhythm or continuity to the Azkals attack.
On the firm and hard pitch at the Sugathadasa Stadium, the ball bounces higher, making it more difficult to control. Hopeful long balls pumped downfield often resulted in lost possession for the Azkals.
The long ball or a high pass is a strategy used by teams lacking in skill and tactical ability, terms which could hardly be used to describe the 2011 Azkals. Instead, we should concentrate on combination play with the ball on the ground and let the ball do the work.