Asian Football

An American Watches the SPL

Vikram made me watch a week of Singaporean Football, and I have some thoughts…

So I watched this most recent match week of the Singaporean Premier League as part of my taking part in Vikram’s SPL Team of the Week series. Saturday evening’s entertainment was Tanjong Pagar’s remarkable 2-2 draw against Tampines Rovers, while on Sunday I caught up on Lion City Sailors’ 1-0 win over Hougang United from the previous day before then catching up on Albirex Niigata’s win over Balestier Khalsa and Geylang International’s win over Young Lions. I was in a bit of a rush, since I had to make sure I had my material ready for the Team of the Week article, but I did try my best to get the full experience of the league and soak up as much as I could from these games.

And you know what? I really did enjoy these games.

Obviously many of the games had plenty of goals, and more goals tends to mean more enjoyment for the neutral observer, but even the Sailors-Hougang game, which only ended 1-0, was quite an entertaining battle between two very good teams. It was honestly refreshing after years of following this sport to go into a situation completely blind, where I knew very little, if anything, about the teams and key players involved. It was a very enjoyable experience.

And, as the inner footballing analyst in me got to work, I gathered my thoughts on who should be in the Team of the Week, which you can read here, but also some general thoughts about what I saw. I thought you all would get a good kick out of me sharing my thoughts as an outsider.

Yes, they are going to be very knee-jerk, spur of the moment thoughts. I only watched one match week, after all. I have done some research into past games to try and support these thoughts but almost all of this is going to be based on what I watched this weekend. Just keep that in mind.

1) Albirex and Lion City Sailors are comfortably the two best teams in the league

I do not think this would be much of a surprise to anyone. The top two teams currently in the table are most definitely the two best teams in the league. Albirex made hard work of their game against Balestier, but ultimately their quality shone through in what ended up being a comfortable victory. Sailors had a much more difficult test against Hougang, but ultimately they did come through as deserved victors.

And the real difference between the top two and the rest is honestly quite simple: they are just better. From top to bottom, these are the two most talented and best composed teams in the league. When both teams were playing, you could tell that they were just better in every way. Even with Sailors playing a Hougang team that, as I will address later, are a very good team in their own right, it was just visibly apparent that Sailors were very good and probably the better of the two teams talent-wise. Now, the most talented teams do not always win the league. Injuries and suspensions happen. The ball does not bounce their way all of the time. There are definitely some teams that, should things go their way, could turn this into a multiple-horse title race. For right now, though, I would fancy one of these two to be on top come the end of the season. The first game between these two ended in a 2-2 draw, and I imagine the final two games between them will be as exciting and should probably be what decides the title at the end of the day.

2) I trust Hougang as a third title challenger a whole lot more than I trust Tampines

And now we get to the next two teams up. Hougang United and Tampines Rovers occupy the next level below the two main title challengers, the two teams that could be in that conversation should things go their way. They are (probably) the third and fourth best teams in the league (probably).

But when it comes to who I think could challenge the duopoly of Albirex and Sailors, I have a whole lot more faith in Hougang than I do in Tampines.

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

Both are good teams in their own right, do not get me wrong, but I felt more secure in watching Hougang against very dangerous Sailors team compared to watching Tampines against an admittedly not great Tanjong team. You could argue whether Tampines or Hougang are the more talented attacking team, both have some very capable players, but Hougang are clearly the more formidable team to play against, and they are able to be that because of a strong midfield and strong defense. Kaishu Yamazaki was great against Sailors, maybe the best performance from a player on a team that failed to win this weekend, and the center back pairing of Maksat Dzhakybaliev and Lionel Tan were also phenomenal. They were probably good value for the draw, and it is quite unfortunate for Hougang that the deciding moment was a simply unstoppable moment of magic from Diego Lopes. You can tell this team is good from top to bottom, and it makes sense that they are the only team to have beaten Sailors this season. I would not be surprised if they are able to make this a three horse title race, but if they cannot, I suspect they will have a large say in who wins the title.

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

Tampines are a good team, but you can tell something is wrong defensively. It felt too easy at times for Tanjong to cause them problems, as if there was too much space in front of the back line for the opposition to make things happen. I do question the quality of their center backs, but it did feel like having a second defensive midfielder, operating in a double pivot in front of the defense, would have made things much more stable and secure and would not have given the room for someone like Blake Ricciuto to operate. Once Tampines got going in attack, the talent would shine through, but their defensive frailties were still there. If they surrender some of the opportunities they gave Tanjong to a better team, they are probably not going to be able to save themselves. I know there is a transfer window coming up, so I feel doing something in that window will be crucial for Tampines if they want to regroup and push further up the table.

3) Geylang are better than their league position indicates

Hear me out, here. I know they have been smacked around recently.

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

Geylang are a talented team. If you watch them play, you will see there are definitely good players on that team. Barry Maguire was one of the biggest standouts of these games for me. He strikes me as a player that could at least be in the conversation to get into the team in most of the teams above Geylang in the table. Moresche and Amy Recha look like very capable attacking players in their own right. Their defense is a bit of a mess, I will say, but Faizal Roslan at least looks solid. This seems to be a team that is not performing to their capabilities, one that should be up near Tampines and Hougang instead of down where they are.

Now, yes, Young Lions did not necessarily give them too stiff of opposition, and the two goals Young Lions did score does reflect very poorly on Geylang’s defending, but there is very clearly something there with this Geylang team. They are definitely not in the same stratosphere as Albirex/Sailors, and they probably are not near Hougang/Tampines either, but this team has talent and should not be doing this poorly. Like Tampines, the upcoming transfer window will be crucial for Geylang to right the ship, and while the title is most definitely out of reach, they could find themselves in the role of kingmaker come the end of the season should they fix whatever is going wrong.

4) Balestier could be a much better attacking team if they really wanted to

Balestier had the unfortunate role of having to be going against the best team in the league this week, so I unfortunately caught them on a day that was always going to be difficult, but they were a very intriguing watch. From what I have read since watching their 4-1 loss to Albirex, Balestier have the reputation of being the team that is difficult to play against, and that is even more so when they are playing a team of Albirex’s quality. Apologies for the Premier League comparisons (because I will be making a few in this entry), but they seemed to give off a strong “Burnley/Stoke City” vibe. They wanted to frustrate their opposition by absorbing pressure defensively and scoring through counters and set pieces. They seemed like the fighting and scrapping team, the “can you do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke” kind of team.

And then I watch Šime Žužul and Kristijan Krajček, two talented attacking players, and I get reminded of Crystal Palace. They, collectively, remind me of Wilfried Zaha. They are players who are talented, maybe more so than the team they are on, who are sort of looked to as the ones who will come up with a moment of magic to carry their team through. But, like with Crystal Palace, the attack can often look rigid or lacking any real momentum because obviously one or two guys cannot do things by themselves. While yes, they were playing a great team, Balestier looked very disjointed going forward against an Albirex, that did not really hit fifth gear until the second half, because their plan was largely “let Žužul and Krajček save us”.

And then they subbed on Shuhei Hoshino at halftime, and things seemed to change. There seemed to be more of a pattern to attack. Their was movement, combinations, things were happening. There was some life up front that was not there in the first half.

Now Albirex also subbed on Kuraba Kondo, who was phenomenal and part of the reason why they really turned on the afterburners and pulled away in the second half, but there was still noticeable change in Balestier’s attack. It was the Hoshino-Žužul connection that led to the Tigers’ only goal, and while that change happened after the game was well and truly killed off, it still should be a sign of something so simple that could improve in this team. It is similar to when Crystal Palace was at their Premier League best when Wilfried Zaha had players like Yannick Bolasie and Glenn Murray to combine with in attack. I get the sense that Hoshino-Žužul is not the most perfect combination in the world, it seemed that sometimes they wanted to do the same thing or would get in the other’s way, but it is a sign that finding one player that is able to connect that attack can make a noticeable difference in this team. It will not make them world-beaters immediately, but it is a significant improvement for a club who likely wants to have higher ambitions than where they currently are.

5) The real difference between top and bottom in the league is in defense

I was informed before watching to not hold a high standard for defensive quality, as the overall quality of defending in this league is not that great. Admittedly, that ended up being true for the most part, and that explains the high-scoring games I saw when looking up past match results from this season. But, in a way, that also explains what I was watching.

There are a good amount of talented attacking players in this league, and most of the teams involved in the league have at least one attacking player that is at least fairly good. But the real difference between top and bottom in the league is in the defense. Albirex, Sailors, and Hougang were easily the three best defensive teams I watched this weekend, I would be comfortable enough to say that those are, in order, the three best defensive teams in the league (with some arguments that can be made between Sailors and Hougang). It is not a coincidence that those are the top three teams in the league and the three teams that I, as an outsider, think could be contending for the title by the end of the season.

It is also an interesting dichotomy between Sailors and Albirex in this regard. Sailors are a very talented team defensively, but based on what I have read, that was not always the case. Adding a player like Jorge Fellipe has made a tangible difference in that team, but it is not exactly the lasting memory I have of Sailors. Their calling card remains their attacking talent, and the trio of Diego Lopes, Gabriel Quak, and Stipe Plazibat might very well be the best in the league. Albirex are a talented attacking team, especially with a player scoring at the rate that Kiyoshiro Tsuboi is, but the strongest part of that team is easily their defense. Their back four was outstanding against Balestier, so much so that it was hard to pick one that stood out the most for the team of the week just because of how good all four of them were. The stats would back this up, as Sailors have scored significantly more than Albirex has but have also conceded twice as many goals. It is very much a “unstoppable force vs. immovable object” style of battle between the top two, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

6) That being said, Diego Lopes is the best player in the league

As he should be, given the amount of money that Sailors paid to bring him in and given the fact that he was literally starting in a Europa League qualifying playoff against Milan literally six months ago.

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

It is a sign of a good player when you slowly begin to realize throughout a match that this one player is shining brighter than the players around him. It is the sign of a great player when you realize almost immediately that the player you are watching is better than everyone else around him. The latter applied to my time watching Diego Lopes against Hougang. It almost looked easy at times, his ability to beat players off the dribble or combine with his teammates to form seriously dangerous attacking moves. Again, I thought Kaishu Yamazaki played very well for Hougang, but Lopes just caused so many problems all over the pitch. If it was not against the defensive midfielder, then he would move wide and harass the fullbacks. He was constantly in positions to cause problems. He was dangerous on the ball, he was dangerous without the ball. He immediately overshadowed Gabriel Quak, who I did not even know is a very talented player in his own right and was maybe the best player in the league last season.

Like I said before, defense is probably the difference between top and bottom this season, and it might make the difference in the title race. But Diego Lopes is very, very good, and he will also make his mark on the title race in whatever form it takes.


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