Asian Football

A Tournament To Forget? Looking Back At The Lions’ 2022 AFF Championship Campaign

Scuffed clearances, mistimed tackles, and the ball hitting the back of the Singaporean net became the tune of the night as the Malaysians drove at Singapore with all guns blazing. With their backs against the wall, the men clad in blue tried their best to ride the relentless waves of Malaysian attacks but to no avail. 

As the referee blew the full-time whistle, the giant Bukit Jalil scoreboard made for grim reading – Malaysia 4, Singapore 1. Having just needed a point to qualify for the semi-finals, the Lions were sent crashing out of the tournament emphatically.

Image Credits: Football Association of Singapore

Before the decisive Causeway derby, the mind games between Malaysian coach Kim Pan-gon and Singapore coach Takayuki Nishigaya had already been in full swing – with the former labelling Singapore’s playstyle as “negative” and “reactive”, in contrast to how “energetic” and “proactive” his side aims to be. Unfortunately, this was the perfect game that Kim Pa-gon could have asked for to support his remarks – one that also summed up the Lions’ underwhelming tournament. 

Bar the Malaysia result, 7 points from three games certainly was not underwhelming by any means, with Singapore recording two wins and a goalless draw against powerhouses Vietnam. However, the points only papered over the cracks that were slowly growing more and more apparent throughout the tournament.

The warning signs were already there from the start, as the Lions put in far from convincing performances against supposed “minnows” Laos and an under-strength Myanmar side. Albeit a strong defensive performance against Vietnam, the team was still steam-rolled by a second-string Malaysian side, who were missing a dozen key players from Johor Darul Ta’zim and foreign-based key defender Dion Cools. For a large part of the tournament, Singapore’s opponents always seemed to be more aggressive, quicker, and hungrier than the Lions in all aspects. 

While the Lions have not been dealt an easy card after key players such as Safuwan Baharudin, Ikhsan Fandi, and Ilhan Fandi were ruled out of the tournament, it also exposed how reliant the team was on such players. Without their talisman and the lack of a leading figure up the pitch, the team had looked toothless going forward all tournament. 

Ball retention was also a massive issue, with players frequently resulting to ambitiously launching the ball up the field instead of stringing progressive passes together. Even when the Lions tried to hold onto the ball, they seemed to lack confidence in possession and were often found guilty of cheaply giving the ball away in dangerous areas, subsequently leading to quick opponent transitions. Three of the four Malaysian goals on the night came from careless giveaways in their half, while Myanmar also benefited from a mistake in possession to score on the counterattack. Although Singapore looked more secure defensively against Vietnam, they have arguably been let off the hook by some poor finishing, as they presented the ball time after time again to their opponent.

Image Credits: Football Association of Singapore

Worryingly, Singapore went into the tournament with the oldest average squad age at 28.6, which hints at how the squad is in dire need of refreshing. Hariss Harun, Shahdan Sulaiman, Hafiz Nor, Faris Ramli, Hassan Sunny, and Zulfahmi Arifin have been part of the national set-up for a long time, with many of them looking a shadow of their former selves that had previously made them a mainstay in the national team. It is without a doubt that these players have left a great legacy behind, but as each edition passes, Singapore’s squad does not seem to be getting any younger. With rivals such as Indonesia and Cambodia fielding promising young squads with a clear ambition for the future, it is about time that the old guard passes the baton on to the newer generation of players.

As part of the tournament post-mortem, Nishigaya’s tactics and credentials have also been called into question. His preference to set his team up with a defensive back-5 may have worked against superior opposition like Vietnam, but it also severely restricted Singapore’s offensive capabilities as Singapore sat back against significantly weaker teams. Many fans have also pointed out his tactical inflexibility, as he seems to lack a Plan B or C especially when the team is struggling on the pitch. 

Image Credits: Football Association of Singapore

There still is a never-ending debate surrounding Nishigaya’s initial appointment and more questions are being raised over how the Football Association of Singapore pinpointed him as the man to take Singapore forward. When former coach Tatsuma Yoshida left his post in December 2021, several promising candidates lined up to take the vacant role, with many showing keen interest in the job, such as India’s Stephen Constantine. However, fans were left disappointed as a long-drawn recruitment process eventually yielded a man whose limited coaching resume only consisted of clubs from the Japanese lower divisions, in addition to not lasting more than a year at any of his managerial roles. If results don’t take a turn for the better from here, Nishigaya might very well be in the hot seat soon. 

Despite all the disappointment, there are still silver linings that Singapore can draw from this tournament  Irfan Fandi has been an ever-present colossal figure at the back and has shown plenty of fight and rigour with his goal-saving block against Vietnam and many crucial tackles against Malaysia to prevent the game from turning into a rout.

Image Credits: Football Association of Singapore

Shah Shahiran looks to be one for the future, putting up some bright and industrious performances during his debut campaign despite his sole mistake against Malaysia. Ryhan Stewart has also impressed many with his energetic runs down the wings while remaining defensively disciplined. Besides them, there are still plenty of other promising young talents in the Singapore Premier League that should be gradually blooded into the national team to ensure continuity.

As the shocking result sets in, this can hopefully mark the start of a transitional phase for Singapore, which is similar to what Malaysia underwent a year ago after they too lost 4-1 to Indonesia in another do-or-die game. Changes need to be made on and off the pitch, and all stakeholders have a role to play and a responsibility to bear for Singapore’s football to progress.

Stormy days lie ahead for the Singapore football scene, but the Lions must find their feet even amidst the chaos and uncertainty. 

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