Azkals Need to Sharpen Their Cutting Edge

First of all, my appreciation for Mr Jojo Malig of ABS-CBN News Bureau for the valuable link to a video live stream of the Philippine-Indonesia friendly match. Since moving to Lisbon, Portugal two and a half months ago, we have to start relying on the internet to be able to watch live Philippine football matches.

As for the match, there are no "ifs" and "buts" about it, Indonesia deserved their 2-0 victory against the Philippine Azkals. At first I was tempted to think that it was the quality of the video stream as our players seemed a bit sluggish, but it was very clear that the Indonesian players were quicker and livelier. They played more cohesively as well.

It was typical again of our team, a game of two halves. A slow start and a more improved performance in the second half. Still, even if fortune were on our side the most we could hopefully get would have been a draw basing on the quality of our game that evening. The Azkals had difficulty creating scoring chances while the Indonesians wasted a number of theirs. It was a fair result.

Anyway, this was a friendly match and the result isn't as important as the lessons and insights to be gained from the match. Let's keep that perspective and context in mind whenever we look back at this defeat. Of course not everyone will see it that way, but I am fairly hopeful that a growing number of Filipino football fans are developing a better appreciation of the sport in the sense that this defeat won't be seen as a sign that the sky is falling.

So what do we get out of this match? As I mentioned at the start of the article, our players seemed sluggish, especially in the first half. The Indonesians definitely looked more sharp and energetic. With the exception of a few such as Porteria, our players seemed out of sorts.

The number of misplaced passes by our team and the manner by which the Indonesians took control of the match shows that our cutting edge has dulled quite a bit. While the long ball has been an arsenal of our team, there was just one too many in this match and they looked more like wild clearances than deliberate attempts to get behind the Indonesian defensive line. Hardly any good and clear chances were created in the final third of the opposition half, especially in the first half where the lineup was filled by our seasoned veterans.  I think former Azkals coach Simon McMenemy best described our team's performance: "disjointed." It certainly looked that way.

Sure, it will be argued that if we had all our top players available such as Schrock, PatiƱo, Cagara, Juani Guirado, Jonsson and De Jong to name a few, the outcome might have been different. That is of course very possible, IF they were available. However, they weren't available and that is the reality of the game. Whether through injury, club commitment or any other reason, national teams always have to be prepared for the situation that not all key players will be available. This cannot be an excuse. Those running the team and Philippine football authorities should do all they can to ensure that there are enough quality, fit and in-form players available for call-up whenever there is a match. 

It's not as if there wasn't quality and experience in the team that lost to Indonesia. The starting eleven were seasoned veterans and regular fixtures in the team. While the decision of Coach Weiss to play some players out of position may have been a factor for the first goal against us, the adjustment made in the second half was more positive. 

Is this perhaps a question of fitness and form then? I think it was a significant factor in that match. The UFL where most of the players in the team for this match ply their trade ended its season several weeks ago while the Indonesian football league is still going on. While there may have been a few matches and training sessions here and there after the UFL season for our players, the Indonesian national team had several matches both official and friendly since the start of the year. A number of those were against top European clubs on their preseason training phase. It was apparent from this match that the Indonesians were more fit and in better playing form than our players.

Photo via Philippine Star

Considering that the Philippines will be competing in the AFC Challenge Cup and the next edition of the Suzuki Cup next year, our team and football officials should better start thinking of how to keep our players sharp and in top playing form by the start of those competitions. While the UFL has been doing a great job in providing our local based players with competitive match experience, the league is still small and there are not that many matches a season, even if we include the cup competitions. The entry of UFL clubs in the Singapore Cup and the AFC President's Cup is a good development. It will provide competitive matches for some of the players plus valuable experience against good clubs in the region. However, much more is needed to sharpen our team's cutting edge, especially for our local based players.

A quick look on Wikipedia on the list of fixtures of our national team provides a very significant insight. From January to August 15 of 2013, the Azkals have played only 5 matches so far, both competitive and friendlies. Now take a look at the competitive and friendly fixtures for the same period for 2011 and 2012, it is 17 and 15 matches respectively. In 2013, the Azkals have only played a third of the matches they played in a similar period in the past 2 years. Not only that, the team played against some pretty tough teams as well in 2011-2012. 

I think that data is quite revealing and team officials and the PFF better take note of that fact. It is good to hear that future friendlies are being arranged and the 2nd Peace Cup will be held. I also hope that rumors of an overseas training camp become reality. 

The Azkals need to regain the sharpness in their cutting edge. Sure, it may be possible in football to bludgeon your way to victory, but more often than not, precision is a more reliable approach to attaining success on the pitch. I do hope the team officials and the PFF take every opportunity to arrange matches for the Philippines. Time to get those Azkals' fangs and claws razor sharp once more.

15 August 2013, Moira G Gallaga©