Malaysia 1-0 Thailand: AFF Cup Semi Final 1st Leg Tactical Review

Article by Lee Chun Hang

Kita Selalu Ada

It may not be a Jay Chou concert, but the performance had the fans belting out “Harimau Malaya kami selalu ada” (Our Malaysian Tigers will always be present) in unison as they illuminate the night with flashlights of their own.

A performance so good it had its own stage set up for the occasion. Notwithstanding the regular controversial decisions by the referees, this was a feisty affair between two rivalling nations that saw the best of what Southeast Asian football had to offer. An affair that saw us Malaysians battled out a 1-0 win against defending champions Thailand, as the Thais march off the god forsaken pitch as losers once again since 2014.

Nevertheless, the score line doesn’t entirely reflect the game, with Thailand assuming absolute control over the midfield and dominated throughout. What Malaysia showed, was a battle of resilience and a willing determination to carry their bodies over the line, giving the nation a precious yet precarious 1 goal advantage at Bangkok. There were some key battles I’d like to point out and perhaps some tweaks that would hopefully make the second leg a less entertaining affair than this one.

Malaysia’s Shape In-Possession

It has become obvious that the current squad lacks a natural playmaker (or traditionally, a No. 6) that can sit deep and dictate tempo, whilst playing glamorous Hollywood passes with one touch. As much as I enjoy Stuart Wilkin’s involvement in the national team, he does his best work as a box-to-box midfielder and is generally more influential with his runs up the pitch. Brendan Gan is the other starting midfielder but been given an unusual role as a defender, mostly spending his time tucking in the centre of the two CBs (Sharul Nazeem and Dominic Tan) acting as a sweeper between them and being the point of reference when building up from the back.

The two fullbacks in Quentin and Ruventhiran were given the roles as the sole width provider for Malaysia, with license to bomb forwards and be a threat offensively. Lee Tuck and Safawi tucks in to become the creative engine of the team with Faisal ‘Ronaldo’ Halim and Darren ‘road-runner’ Lok as the two furthest forward. That was the general idea behind Malaysia’s shape established early on in the game, also seen effectively used vs Singapore. Essentially, in build-up Malaysia line up in a 3142 formation.

The idea of progression therefore is not instructive of Wilkin to be a focal point from deep but to bypass the entire midfield by sending long passes from deep into the flanks. Sharul Nazeem’s been a revelation as a Ball-Playing Centre-Back and his long passes are often utilized to deliver long passes forward. That’s perhaps why Lee Tuck was included; Alongside Darren Lok, both players can play with their back to goal to receive the long ball under pressure. Both are great at linking up play with short, intricate passes as well.

Long passes are often a feature of Malaysian football due to the scarcity of a natural playmaker at the heart of midfield, but Kim Pan-Gon has coached the side to be more aggressive as the balls are played forwards. You will see passes being played into a certain zone where Malaysia will have the numbers to 1) receive the ball with many players as link-up options and 2) in the event of the opposition winning the ball, counter press them to regain possession high up the pitch.

This idea worked wonders against Singapore and Laos as you can see in the goals Malaysia scored against them. Results of an effective counter press/rest defence set-up by Kim Pan-Gon. And early on the game vs Thailand, it seemed like the plan and worked to a certain extent. The goal Malaysia scored is after all, a result of a long diagonal pass from Sharul Nazeem towards Ruventhiran inside the box.

But against a team filled with players of a different technical level than Malaysia’s previous opponents, winning the ball back via counter pressing is a very tough task to perform.

Malaysia Out-of-Possession

High pressing has been a feature of Kim Pan-Gon’s brand of football in Malaysia. Run back every goal scored with him in charge and you could make up an entire album of goals scored as a direct result of pressing opponents. But the opponents we’ve scored against didn’t have the technical ceiling of the defending champions. This Thailand squad are incredibly secure with the ball and very press resistant; Malaysia have applied their heavy pressing on them from the first minute, but the Thais never once looked intimated and always found a way through the press via dribbling past obstacles or having surrounded with passing options to progress the play.

It played into the hands of the Thais, as they would bait Malaysia to press them when they have possession of the ball. Thailand generally build-up with 3 at the back, and with 2 defensive midfielders ahead to act as passing options. You will see here Thailand will generally hold possession deep and wait around as Malaysia looks to pounce. Their patience baited Malaysia out of their shape, which opened up space for their midfielders to receive and carry it forward. It is one of the many reasons why Thailand were able to run through Malaysia’s empty midfield into the defensive third with ease.

With Malaysia’s press being completely nullified by Thailand, they resorted to maintaining a low block once around the 20th minute mark. The tide shifted into Thailand’s favour as they are now the one chasing a goal, which they have nearly done so on many occasions.

Thailand’s Defensive Structure

It is important to note that throughout the majority of the game, Thailand did not once pressed Malaysia aggressively when their opponents were building up. They have their lone striker up top (Theerasil Dangda) but not pressing player in possession much, but merely blocking the passing lane to Wilkin (Malaysia’s only pivot). And when the ball does arrive at Wilkin’s feet, they will engage in a press to force him backwards. The idea of this is to ensure Malaysia play long balls forwards instead of building it through midfield. They know that the likelihood of Malaysia regaining possession is very low through pressing and would force Malaysia to lump balls forward, so Thailand can recycle their attacks.

And from there, Thailand just progressed through Malaysia with ease through their player’s technical qualities and also a tactical setup to ensure they have numerical advantages in the attacking third, especially in the wide areas. They found joy attacking Malaysia’s right flanks, capitalizing on Quentin’s inexperience as he was constantly targeted. The screenshot below is just one of the many instances where Thailand had numerical advantages to outplay Malaysia, and ultimately creating a chance from there.

Theerathon in particular, deserves a special shoutout. He was the heartbeat of Thailand – dictating tempo with calm passes and intelligent movement to become passing options up the pitch. He was constantly moving in between defence and midfield during build-up phases to make sure the ball found its way into the attacking third. He is the cog that needs to be shut down if Malaysia were to stop Thailand from functioning entirely. Nevertheless, Lee Tuck and Stuart Wilkin found it hard to mark him out of the game and was chasing shadows throughout the game.

Thailand’s Wide Threat

Thailand’s main source of threat came from the wide areas. Both Thai fullbacks (Suphanan Bureerat #15 & Sasalak Haiprakhon #2) were capable of inverting infield to help the midfield as well as make overlapping/underlapping runs into the box. This was a massive feature in their game and constantly exploited the inexperience of Malaysia’s fullbacks and the positioning of Malaysia’s attackers.

Their wingers will usually position themselves wider to stretch the pitch, allowing space for players to make third man runs into the box. This was incredibly difficult to mark when Malaysia deployed a very low line of defence, which gives Thai wingers more space to work the ball into the box. Faisal Halim in particular, perhaps Malaysia’s most important player at the moment had left Ruventhiran and Dominic exposed many times as he failed to track runs through the half-spaces.

It was pretty much the same on the left with many combinations to open up space behind for Thailand to exploit. Pardon the quality but the usage of the winger to attract Quentin out of position, opened up space for them to exploit.

Their main goal is to simply deliver dangerous crosses into the box, in which their attackers can pounce on. They have created many opportunities through this channel but mostly overdid their crosses due to pressure from the rigid Malaysian defence. They did however, created a big chance from such situation in the second half when they hit the post.

How Did Malaysia Survive?

It was by no means attractive to the average viewer, but in the eyes of Diego Simeone, that 90 minutes of suffering was absolutely beautiful. Malaysia’s entire back line deserved plaudits for the concentration they’ve shown throughout the match. Brendan, Afro and Dominic were excellent when it came to ‘box defending’ – clearing every dangerous cross away, intercepting every loose balls inside the box and putting in crucial tackles when it mattered. The touch tight defending was applied with ruthless aggression, ensuring Thailand never had the chance to turn inside the box to get the shot away. Syihan Hazmi was brilliant as well when it came to it, with multiple crosses claimed and a massive save to deny Thailand.

The subs more than ever did their job. Hakimi provided the pace that burnt through Thailand’s tiring legs whilst Aguero’s work rate helped Malaysia saw the game out. Sergio Aguero in particular, was a masterstroke of substitution by Kim Pan-Gon. He held the ball up to buy time; wins fouls to relieve pressure at crucial times.

His unselfish run in the 93rd minute however is what endeared me to him. There are many criticisms of Malaysia’s neutralization policies over recent years, but Sergio Aguero can count himself as a rare success. There were questions over his commitment but hopefully these screenshots will do him justice in the eyes of many. Him tracking back with speed killed Thailand’s momentum as they were looking for his marker to make the run. Aguero made the pass impossible and forced Thailand to move inside and saw them loose possession, at a crucial moment of the game.

Ultimately, Malaysia followed a plan throughout the 90 minutes and shown great composure in moments where you’d think the adrenaline would escalate the situation further. From shouting at referees for giving away a penalty vs Myanmar, to keeping their heads cool when their goal got disallowed and just ‘keeping a positive mindset’ as described by Dominic.

They did not let any decision dictate their performance and maintained the momentum, and I’m proud to think of the growth these men representing the country have shown.

Team A/B?

What followed the victory was an atmosphere euphoric and symbolic of the war cries manifested through criticisms. Nobody gave this team a chance, with insulting remarks given to their status in the national set-up. ‘Team B’ was what they called it, and their abilities given greater scrutiny than ever before.

But this is exactly what pushed us forward; The narratives of ‘Team A/B’ as my friend Keesh (@keeshmatstats) rightly puts it, is the very driving force that is fuelling their desire to prove everybody wrong, dragging their bodies over the line in a painful yet fulfilling game. Not to mention the mental fatigue from overcoming an outrageous decision against them, at a crucial moment. These players know it’s hell but dragged their souls out of it, nonetheless.

“The great thing about this team is that we have been brought together, with the media saying this isn’t the greatest team. But we have come together as a team, and you have the feeling that we are good enough and deserve to be on the field representing the nation.”

These were the very words of Brendan Gan in the pre-match interview, and it encapsulates the togetherness of the group of men donning our national jersey. It’s made the team stronger as a group than ever before, with a great pride to represent Malaysia at every battle they encounter. Some of these players haven’t played with each other prior to the preparation friendlies, but they’ve bonded through sheer belief and pride, and in that manifested its very own identity – an identity we’ve struggled to resonate for a while.

Harimau Malaya kami selalu ada.

Make sure to follow Chun Hang’s Medium as well as his Twitter for more analysis.

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