Despite fielding a heavily rotated side against Singapore, Thailand emerged victorious, protecting their perfect record and securing the group’s top spot in the process. Here are five things we learned at the end of the AFF Cup group stage.
Strength in depth!
Before the game, we discussed the dilemma coach Mano Polking faced, between aiming to finish as group leaders and keep the squad fresh for the semi-finals. This turned out to be a false dichotomy, and Thailand came out on top despite fielding an almost entirely ‘reserve’ eleven. This definitively shows the strength in depth available for the Changsuek, and gives the entire squad a morale boost heading into the hectic, two-legged knockout stages. The decision to rotate not only keeps the first eleven fresh, but keeps the substitutes sharp should they be called upon in the knockout stage.
New players step up
Mano Polking’s heavily rotated squad featured debutant Weerathep Pomphan and a further five players with less than five international caps, including both central defenders Pawee Tanthatemee and Elias Dolah. Despite that, the side were able to calm themselves down after a shaky start, and it was the new faces who changed the game. Dolah’s opening goal completely shifted the tide of the match in Thailand’s favour, Pawee was arguably the standout defensive performer, while the axis of Weerathep and Worachit (who was making his fifth international appearance) helped set the tempo in midfield.
Kept our style
Despite changing the starting lineup, Thailand’s approach barely deviated from the one on display for the first four games. In the early stages, this meant that the more ‘conventional’ central defenders Dolah and Pawee struggled in possession, and were often vulnerable to Singapore’s intense press. However, they eventually grew into the game while the hosts’ energy began to wane. Furthermore, Mano again switched back and forth between the 4-3-3 formation seen against Timor Leste and the 4-4-2 diamond which has featured since, suggesting that the squad is used to his tactical tinkering within the familiar constraints.
This 2-0 win means that Thailand finished the AFF Cup group stage without conceding a single goal from open play – the War Elephants’ defence was only breached by Patrick Reichelt on the rebound from a set piece. Mano Polking’s Bangkok United side conceded an average of 1.28 goals per game from 2015 to 2019, consistently leaking more than their title rivals. However, so far the War Elephants have shown few signs of defence frailty, despite playing what many fans would consider to be an ‘attack-minded approach.’ The campaign thus far has shown not only that the two are possible in tandem, but they actually complement each other – by retaining possession staying on the front foot, Thailand have played to their strengths and limited the time they spend defending to great success thus far.
Who is our number 8?
Going into the knockout stages, Thailand have a few decent candidates for their ‘number 8’ spot on the right of the midfield diamond. Most people would have expected Thitipan to be the most obvious choice, not only because of his pedigree for the national team, but also because he plays a nearly identical role for club side Bangkok United. However, the energetic box-to-box midfielder featured in this rotated team, while Thanawat has impressed during the group stage in offering a more technical alternative. Unfortunately, Thitipan’s performance yesterday would have done little to change Mano’s mind about the pecking order. Will the 28-year-old be able to work himself back into the preferred eleven, or is the knockout stage set up for the Leicester man to shine?