Thailand kicked off their AFF Suzuki Cup campaign with a 2-0 win over Timor Leste, in what was head coach Mano Polking’s first game in charge. Here are five things we learned from the War Elephants’ opening encounter.
Timor Leste Aren’t Pushovers
Three years ago, Timor Leste conceded seven goals against Thailand in the opening match of the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup, and went on to finish bottom of the group with no points. However, the ‘Rising Sun’ look a very different prospect this time out – with a more experienced squad and a new head coach, the side were disciplined and organised out of possession, making things difficult for Thailand. Based on their showing yesterday evening, it looks quite possible that Southeast Asia’s youngest nation could pick up their first ever AFF Cup points in this year’s competition.
Experience Comes First
With one notable exception, Mano Polking fielded a highly experienced squad in his first match as Thailand boss. Veteran Teerasil led the line, Sarach, Thitipan and Phitiwat made up the midfield, and Tristan Do was shifted across to left-back to start in place of Suriya Singmui. Stars from the recent U23 campaign were forced to wait; Thanawat’s role was limited to a cameo and Jonathan Khemdee was excluded from the match-day squad altogether. Whether these decisions were tactical or more about squad management, it will be interesting to see how Mano’s selection order evolves over the course of the eight-game competition.
Excellent Debut from Center-back Kritsada
One of the biggest questions coming into this match was Thailand’s pairing in central defence. None of Manuel Bihr’s regular partners under coach Akira Nishino (Tanaboon, Suphan and Pansa) have travelled to Singapore, and Mano picked only four ‘natural’ central defenders in his 30-man squad. The answer, it transpired, was to move defensive midfielder Kritsada Kaman back into the position he occupied earlier in his career, clearly with the idea of dominating possession in mind. The 22-year-old excelled on his senior competitive debut, completing 73 of 75 attempted passes, and was no slouch defensively either, winning all of his aerial duels and making 10 recoveries.
Rhombus shape helps protect against counter-attacks
As many predicted, Timor Leste’s game plan was based mainly on them being solid defensively before looking to pounce on the break. Hence, Mano and the team had develop countermeasures to negate Timor Leste’s attacking transitions. One notable tactical point on Sunday was how Tristan Do remained centrally when Thailand was controlling possession, thus forming a rhombus shape at the back together with Kritsada Kaman, Manuel Bihr, and defensive midfielder Phitiwat Sukjitthammakul. This meant Thailand would often outnumber the opposition forwards and easily force their counter-attacks out wide into less threatening areas.
Plenty of goals from the bench
With the score level at 0-0 after 45 minutes, Mano Polking didn’t hesitate to swap defensive midfielder Phitiwat for the more creative Thanawat. Pathomphon, who scored the vital opening goal, was also brought on during the half time break. Are these quick substitutions a glimpse of Mano Polking’s bravery and willingness to take risks? Perhaps it’s too early to say. Still, for the national team to bring on the likes of Worachit, Supachai, and Adisak goes to show the extent of attacking talent available to turn the game around when needed.