As Thailand begin preparations for next month’s World Cup 2022 qualifiers, an injury to talismanic striker Teerasil Dangda has given head coach Akira Nishino a headache.
Since his emergence in the late 2000s, the War Elephants have depended heavily on one player as the focal point of the attack and as a reliable source of goals.
Teerasil, who turns 33 in June, has suffered a series of injury problems in the last few years and it is clear that Thailand must move on without one of their best players of all time.
But the country has struggled to produce quality strikers in recent years. Those who have threatened to rival Teerasil or become worthy successors have often seen their development hampered by fitness issues or loss of form and/or focus.
As Nishino’s side gear up for the three fixtures that will determine whether or not they progress to the final stage of qualifying, the absence of an experienced, in-form striker has to be one of the biggest concerns.
Four strikers were named in the preliminary squad for the Group G matches against Indonesia, United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. However, it is far from certain how Nishino will choose to employ them in a team that boasts considerable depth in attacking midfield talent.
Here is a look at the four front men that Nishino has selected.
Adisak looks the safest bet from the point of view of his international experience. His record of 16 goals in 36 caps is respectable. However, when you factor in that half of those goals came in three AFF Suzuki Cup fixtures in 2018, including six against hapless Timor Leste, it looks a little less impressive.
Adisak’s career has been stop-start due to persistent injury problems, most frustratingly during his time at Muang Thong United where he generally played second fiddle to Teerasil and an assortment of foreign strikers.
He finally managed an injury-free campaign at Port FC in 2020-21 but saw his game time limited due to the preference for the likes of Nelson Bonilla and Yannick Boli. Nevertheless, 11 goals from just 1393 minutes on the pitch was a decent return.
The truth is that Adisak often looks better coming off the bench with his physical presence and directness upsetting the opposition defence. Nishino is likely to be looking to play a lone striker in front of Chanathip and possibly Supachok and another mobile attacking midfielder.
Adisak may be better suited to the role of impact substitute rather than leading the line.
Supachai burst onto the international scene at the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup, netting three times in the tournament while still just 19 years old. He then impressed as a lone striker in the AFC Asian Cup Round of 16 clash against China, giving Thailand the lead in a match they eventually lost 2-1. Substituting Supachai during that match against China was considered a naive tactical error, as the striker had been posing significant problems for the opposition defence.
But it’s fair to say that the Buriram United man hasn’t looked like the same player since. He seemed to suffer a crisis of confidence after being red-carded for lashing out in a humiliating 4-0 defeat to Vietnam in the AFC U23 Championship in March 2019.
Supachai scored just two league goals in 2019 and netted just five times in 28 T1 appearances in the 2020-21 campaign. Now 22, it is apparent that Supachai is becoming more of a supporting striker rather than developing into the new Teerasil.
It might help if he was given more opportunities to play as a central striker but Supachai does not currently look like he is going to be the player Thai fans hoped he would become when he demonstrated unusual confidence as a 19-year-old.
For several years, Suphanut has been considered the great hope for Thai football. He made his debut for Buriram United at 15 years old and became the youngest ever scorer in the AFC Champions League when he netted against Jeonbuk Hyundai at the age of 16 in 2019.
His game time was managed carefully by Buriram that year but he made some key goalscoring contributions, though he missed out on a league winner’s medal after Chiangrai United’s dramatic title triumph.
It was expected that we would see more of Suphanut in the 2020-21 campaign, but there was little to suggest that his career was moving in the right direction. Partly due to injury problems, he made just 16 T1 appearances, managing just 544 minutes of game time and scoring just two goals.
It might seem too soon to be worried about such a lack of progress given that he is still only 18 and has just been through a season disrupted by Covid-19, a change of head coach and multiple changes in squad personnel. However, it must be hoped that we soon see the striker looking again like the player not just expected to be a worthy successor to Teerasil, but one who has the potential to surpass him.
The emergence of Nattawut was one of the few highlights of another disappointing T1 campaign for Bangkok United. Despite being one year older than Supachai, he was very much under the radar, having made few appearances for his club before a loan spell at FC Tokyo U23 in the third tier of the J.League in 2019.
But Nattawut ended the 2020-21 season as the top scoring Thai striker in T1 on 12 goals. The only Thai player who scored more than him was wing-back Philip Roller, whose 15 strikes included eight penalties.
While there is much room for improvement in his all-round game, Nattawut has demonstrated the willingness to work hard that will be necessary if he is to come close to the same level as Teerasil. The variety of finishing in the goals he scored last season suggest there is certainly more to come from the 23-year-old.
For Nishino, however, there may be concern about the absence of international experience. While Adisak, Supachai and Suphanut can all boast AFC Champions League experience in addition to their caps for Thailand, Nattawut can only really point to one promising league campaign.
But Nishino has been known to take risks with his team selections and if Nattawut impresses in training, he may just play himself into the starting lineup in the UAE.