When Thailand’s hopes of progress in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers were ended by a 3-1 defeat to the UAE on Monday, fans were left wondering where it had all gone wrong.
Five years ago, the War Elephants were indisputably the best side in Southeast Asia. They were defending AFF Suzuki Cup champions and the only side from the region to progress to the final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, having brushed aside Vietnam en route. At the end of 2016, they would retain the AFF title.
They are now clearly behind Vietnam and possibly Malaysia – the two sides who competed in the 2018 AFF Cup final. While Nishino was yet to come on board when Thailand relinquished that trophy, he took the helm for the start of the ill-fated 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Just two wins from seven Group G games sees them fail to progress and in the same type of rut they last experienced back in 2014. Things move fast in football and, looking back, it was incredible that Thailand rose from a disastrous 2015 Asian Cup qualifying campaign (six defeats out of six) to the heights they reached in 2016 in just two years.
As the Thais now appear to be moving backwards again, it is time to take stock of Nishino’s performance since he took over in 2019.
The decent start
In Nishino’s first competitive game in charge, Vietnam held Thailand to a 0-0 home draw to open the 2022 campaign. Failing to beat one of their main rivals at home could not be considered a success, but they were up against a team that had pushed Japan all the way in the Asian Cup quarter final earlier in the year. In what was to become a feature of the Group G matches, one of their top players, striker Teerasil Dangda, missed out.
They put that behind them and coasted to a 3-0 victory in Indonesia the following week. Nishino’s selection of three creative attacking midfielders paid off as Ekanit Panya, Chanathip Songkrasin and Supachok Sarachat started, with Supachok grabbing a brace. Teerasil missed out through injury again.
The next game was at home to the UAE and this saw Nishino’s finest triumph as head coach. Chanathip was the star name that missed this one, but Teerasil was back and scored the opening goal in a 2-1 victory, Ekanit netting the winner. The scoreline failed to reflect Thailand’s dominance as they made it seven points from three matches.
Sadly, things never got better.
Thailand’s hopes of progress may have officially ended in June 2021, but the real damage was done in November 2019. The War Elephants should have been full of confidence following the win over the UAE, and when Chanathip gave them an early lead in Malaysia, things looked very bright.
But the home side recovered and their opponents fell apart as, without the suspended Theerathon Bunmathan, there was a lack of leadership on the pitch. Malaysia hit back for a 2-1 victory as Thailand’s victory over the UAE was exposed as a false dawn.
There was an opportunity for redemption the following week but another goalless draw with Vietnam was the result. For the first and only time, Chanathip, Theerathon and Teerasil all started a Group G match, but their combined talents weren’t enough to edge what would have been a deserved three points, as Theerathon missed a penalty into the bargain.
Eight points from five matches was not an impressive return.
The end of the road
Covid-19 put the brakes on the qualifiers for 19 months, leaving everyone in the same boat. The bad news for Thailand was that two ‘home’ games would now be played in the neutral UAE.
There was then a training camp that was disrupted by a couple of Covid cases. And then it got worse. It had already been confirmed that Teerasil was unfit to travel when Theerathon withdrew from the squad for personal reasons. Bad news came in a three as Chanathip was ruled out of the first game at least due to injury.
The Thais traveled to the UAE without their three most important players, yet Nishino bizarrely opted to take a squad of 41. This either suggested a head coach lacking confidence in his best players or taking extra care in case a few players were lost to a Covid cluster. Whatever the reasons, it backfired and serious questions must be asked of those who allowed Nishino to get his way on this. Not only did it not work out in a football sense, it was also a spectacular waste of funding that could be much better spent elsewhere.
The tyranny of choice seemed to be in action with some eccentric selections in the three warm-up matches. It was expected that the lineup for the match against Indonesia would be more in line with what was widely considered the strongest available XI. But Nishino thought differently and made some baffling decisions, including handing Ernesto Phumipha a debut at left-back, while Sasalak Haiprakhon was available, and pairing Tom Bihr with Suphan Thongsong at centre-back, when Pansa Hemviboon had previously looked a better partner.
The resultant 2-2 draw against an inexperienced Indonesian side that had failed to pick up a point in five games effectively killed off chances of topping the group and qualifying automatically. Some of the same errors were repeated in the lineup against the UAE and the 3-1 defeat was as predictable as it was deflating.
Nine points from seven games was unacceptable.
It has already started. The social media calls for Nishino to leave are slowly building in number and Witthaya Laohakul added fuel to the fire by crassly claiming that Nishino was only interested in money when recruited. Witthaya’s memory was clearly selective as he was on the selection committee that got him on board.
Nevertheless, Witthaya’s comments are a sign of what is to come. There will be backstabbing, finger pointing and a blame game as people try to distance themselves from the results. A similar scenario played out at the end of Milovan Rajevac’s reign and a repeat showing is on its way.
Only a convincing victory over Malaysia in Tuesday’s dead rubber can reverse this trend and perhaps give Nishino a chance of staying in his position. A second successive defeat would see the calls for his head reach fever pitch among the fans and other observers.
It should not be social media hysteria and underhand comments from former allies that decide Nishino’s fate, but results on the park, and they have simply not been good enough. Bringing in a 64-year-old whose best days were over a decade in the past was a big gamble and so far it hasn’t worked out.
The mitigating factors
Coaching during Covid has been a challenge for all and Nishino was particularly unlucky in losing three vital players for the crunch games in the UAE. Thailand’s three outstanding talents over the past decade have played for a combined 10 seasons in the J.League. Their loss should not be underplayed.
There are anomalies in that Thailand did not concede (nor score) against Vietnam and would probably have been happy with three points from their two matches against the UAE. The head-to-heads with these two teams indicated that they were a match for both. Arguably, they were the better side in three of these clashes.
It is also important to remember that the rot in Thai football had set in before Nishino took over. Kiatisuk Senamuang’s reign was brief and exhilarating but ultimately many of the players who bonded so well as a unit between 2014 and 2016 have not improved since. That is not the fault of any national team manager.
The defending in Thailand’s team was also an Achilles heel during Kiatisuk’s time in charge and even the best coaches in the world might struggle with the options available.
Nishino has tried to bring an attacking style to the team, playing to the strengths of the midfield flair players. This was basically what the fans wanted after the unpopular pragmatism of Rajevac.
It might be reasonable to suggest this should be the end of the road for Nishino based on results, but it is equally reasonable to ask if there is someone out there who can do a better job with the players available and a working environment that always seems focused on the short term.