The previous year was surely one to remember for Tanjong Pagar United. The club notched its first win in 2,361 days (obviously they sat out of the league for several years but they suffered a winless 2020 season). More importantly, we witnessed the Jaguars finally live up to their “Dark Horse” tag in the latter half of the 2021 campaign. Shakir Hamzah’s arrival during the mid-season appeared to be the catalyst that the Jaguars were missing. Once Shakir was deployed as the central defender of a three-man backline, which had Faritz Hameed to his right and Delwinder Singh to his left, the Jaguars appeared to be a different entity.
Zharfan Rohaizad’s mid-season acquisition certainly helped to shore up the Tanjong Pagar defence as well, but Shakir’s arrival truly stabilized the rearguard and the Jaguars possessed more of a bite moving forward. In the second half of the season, the club’s cohesiveness translated into tangible results as Tanjong Pagar only lost thrice and notched noteworthy victories against Hougang United and Albirex Niigata (S).
The club aimed to build momentum following their performances in 2021. However, several players left the team at the end of the previous campaign, and this has created many questions surrounding Tanjong Pagar’s performances and results during the 2022 campaign.
Thankfully, I had the opportunity to chat with Team Manager and national football icon Noh Alam Shah to understand the club’s overall goals and the rationale behind the various incoming transfers. This is what he had to say.
Overall Goals – Finishing Better Than Last Season
While critics would be quick to point out that key players like vice-captain Delwinder Singh, midfield dynamo Ammirul Emmran, “El Loco” Blake Ricciuto, and lethal finisher Luiz Júnior, have left the team, the majority of other players released were under the age of 23. Alam Shah was also quick to point out that almost three-quarters of last season’s squad was still around.
“We have retained about 75% of the first-team squad which allows us to build from last season,” mentions Alam Shah. “Last season, we focused on nailing our tactics and playing style and this year, we want to maintain the playing style. Last year, we did really well to finish in 5th place. This season, we need to do better and are targeting an AFC Cup spot.”
Qualification to the AFC Cup would be the natural next goal for the Jaguars. However, with essential players departing, the club needed to plug certain gaps in the team. Recently, the club has done so through certain acquisitions and Alam Shah explains the thought-process behind these moves.
Transfers – Plugging Gaps & Making Statements
Localizing The Strikeforce
In the striker department, Khairul Amri has remained and still has plenty left in the tank, but the club knew that they needed depth in the department and it was not going to be easy finding a replacement for Luiz Júnior. Nevertheless, the Jaguars believe they have found their man in Khairul Nizam.
“When Júnior left, we could have found another foreign striker but we decided against it,” shares Alam Shah. “The club has always believed in giving opportunities to younger players but also, senior players who have something to prove. Khairul Nizam is one such player. I personally believe that he hasn’t fulfilled his potential and we want to help him reach it this 2022 season.”
Some might label Tanjong Pagar’s acquisition of Khairul Nizam as a wildcard signing, but I think the move makes a ton of sense. Nizam barely got minutes at Hougang United last season and found himself beneath Tomoyuki Doi and Gilberto Fortunato in the pecking order. Given ample playing time, Nizam can become one of the most clinical forwards in the league.
Obviously, he would need some time to find his mojo again, but under the guidance of Alam Shah and newly appointed Striker’s Coach Indra Shahdan Daud, two of Singapore’s most lethal forwards, he may find it sooner rather than later.
With Nizam, the Jaguars are focused on the present but with Syukri Bashir, they have an eye on the future. Alam Shah believes in the talented forward has a lot to offer and is excited to see what the future holds for the 23-year-old. Nevertheless, Tanjong Pagar United’s bold decision to stick with local strikers is indeed a breath of fresh air in a league where other teams usually field foreign forwards.
Adding Depth To The Midfield
In midfield, the Jaguars needed to plug a gaping hole that Blake and Ammirul had left behind and have thus bolstered their squad with Faizal Raffi and Mirko Sugic. Both players offer something unique to the team to complement the current crop of players.
Alam Shah shares his thoughts on the midfield duo:
“Standing at 1.9m, Mirko [Sugic] offers us height and a commanding presence in the middle of the park. More importantly, he has settled in well with the team and he has adapted to our playing style. His forward passes will be critical for us this season.
“Faizal is an interesting player because his main strength is his ability to transition play from defence to attack. He has good vision and technical ability to pick out second balls and carry the ball forward. He also can dribble into the box and score – which is always nice to have in your arsenal. Of course, it will take time for him to learn our playing style but we are confident he will develop well under us.”
Shoring Up The Defense
In defence, losing Delwinder Singh was certainly going to be a blow for the Jaguars because they not only lose a solid rock in the back but also an important locker room leader. Yet, it was not only Delwinder that the Jaguars lost but also Shakir Hamzah. It was amidst this circumstance that the Jaguars scoured for players. Two players have been brought in to help with the defence and a possible third signing is in the works (more on that later).
After winning the 2021 SPL title with Lion City Sailors, Aqhari was released at the end of the season and is now a Jaguar. A versatile fullback, Aqhari would have been the perfect right wingback in the Jaguars’ 3-5-2 system with Shahkir occupying the central berth in that three-man backline. Shahkir’s season-long injury would have probably forced Head Coach Hasrin Jailani and Alam Shah to redraw their plans for the 2022 season.
“Aqhari brings a champion mentality and has many seasons under his belt,” states Alam Shah. “He is a senior player that younger players can learn from. His versatility is fantastic for us because he can play in any wide position but most importantly, he offers a good cover option for Shodai as well. We previously found it difficult to find adequate cover for the left-back position but Aqhari helps to add depth in that position.”
Joining Aqhari is Singaporean football veteran Daniel Bennett, someone that Alam Shah knows truly well.
“I personally wanted to work with Dan. We have a shared history together and we can easily work together. We value his input a lot and we are always discussing a lot of things. His return marks a full circle for him. After all, Tanjong Pagar is where he began his career in Singapore.
“He turns 44 this year but he is not done with football just yet. He smashed the yo-yo test recently and is still very fit. So, I am hoping to see him break many records this season.”
Besides Aqahari and Bennett, Alam Shah reveals that the search for the final foreign signing was geared towards finding a replacement for Shakir Hamzah – particularly finding someone who could add a significant presence to the team.
Alam Shah was unfortunately coy about who this player is. Rumours on the streets suggest it could be a former Jaguar, but until they unveil their fourth and final foreign player, that shall remain a mystery.
Alam Shah concluded our chat by focusing on the fact that the club has done well with off-field acquisitions. The aforementioned Indra Shahdan will be joined by Ridhuan Muhammad who hung up his boots for the second time in 2021. Alam Shah reveals that he is excited to have “more experienced kakis” in the technical team as these players bring immense experience.
Tanjong Pagar United have are clear goals and as Alam Shah puts it, everyone knows their roles in achieving the objectives that have been laid out. The Jaguars may once again be dark horses and, if the squad gels fast enough, an AFC spot may not be out of the realm of possibility.
Regardless, Alam Shah did share something at the end of our conversation that highlighted that the club is focused on playing football the right way.
“When we play, results are important but secondary. For us, it’s more important to fight for the result and win people’s hearts.”
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