The Azkals are still on track to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup. They are still top of their group, still unbeaten and still on a high. Yet, there is a lingering feeling that the 2-2 draw in Panaad against Yemen exposed the weaknesses of the Azkals. Now that they face the Red Devils again, this time in Qatar due to the local unrest, this is the perfect time to rectify these achilles heels. This first part aims to rectify the biggest concern for the Azkals right now: defence.
As the 23 man lineup was unveiled a few days ago, we know for a fact that the Azkals are very, very light on defence with the continued absence of Amani Aguinaldo. Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge was unusually quiet the last time, far from the barking dog we usually see when his defence makes errors. Now that he regularly plays at the highest level of anyone in the squad (The English Championship), it is expected that he should command more of his defence.
This is crucial since the overloaded attack the Azkals have could be undone by that weak defence. Last month, Yemen terrorized the Azkals with their fast counterattacks at the wings, mainly through Ahmed Al Sarori. This was not helped by the fact that the Azkals pushed up in attack and played possesion football to unlock the compact Yemeni defence. Yemen’s 2nd goal in the last game was the perfect example of this. After stealing the ball, the Yemenis launched direct passes to their winger, forcing our defence to close in to the touch line. The high line of the Azkals, coupled by the defenders forced to defend the sides, left the middle space wide open for Yemeni strikers to run into. A simple cross would then finish the job.
In the absence of our only reliable stopper, the Azkals need to turn to gang defending and focus more on defending space rather than particular players. I propose that for this game, they should lineup in a 3-5-1-1 formation.
On the defensive side, the team must defend as a 5-3-2 with the mids, wingbacks and forwards dropping to congest the Yemeni space. Home games mean that the Home team will look to dominate the play. However, the Yemenis would think that their counterattack is the most effective tool against us, as seen in Panaad. Therefore, the defensive scheme must be best suited at foiling their counters.
First off, formation above would obviously exhaust our defenders at the get-go, with no one left on the bench. This is needed so as to stifle Yemen’s attack effectively, and we need all the help we can get, and it starts with putting the right people in suitable places.
Dennis Villanueva is not a defender. That pretty much is clear. He excels in patrolling the defensive midfield area at Global Cebu, and not as an actual defender. It is therefore imperative to use his skillset in the area where he excels. His defensive lapses are down to the fact that he is more adept in marking a specific man, or tracking a runner that has not hit his full stride yet, as opposed to guarding space. He should be placed at the base of the midfield to act as primary screen, and more importantly, clog the middle space when Yemen counters before the action becomes too late to defend.
The 3 man defence of De Murga, Palla and Rota are as makeshift as it can be. However, it is noticeable that Rota and De Murga, in particular, have good understanding of how to defend space. In conjuction with the wing backs’ defensive movement, particularly Sato and Muñoz, this allow the 3 man backline to concentrate in sweeping loose balls and help secure the middle space from secondary runners. In particular, the middle centre back would be tasked to provide help defence for Villanueva at the middle, and nullify the potential goalscorers.
Sato and Muñoz would be the crucial people in the entire setup, as they would be tasked to heavily contribute in attack and defence. They would be the primary trackers of the Yemeni wingers, owing to their speed and position, and would act as the primary shield from the Yemeni attack.
Hopefully, the Azkals would be able to minimize the opposition’s breaks and concentrate on dictating the game’s flow. Tune in to part 2, where we will discuss how the attack would be maximized by the 3-5-1-1 and how it fits the new callups and the inexperienced Azkals.