Parking the bus long-term does not match Vietnam’s football DNA

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden reckons Vietnam’s South Korean coach needs to find a balance between an improved defence and the free-flowing, attacking football of the past.

It has been a good few days for Vietnamese football. The senior national team moved up the FIFA rankings to become the highest-placed of any in Southeast Asia, replacing the Philippines. And then on Sunday in China at the AFC U-23 Championship, there was a result to savour.

Vietnam defeated Australia 1-0 in the second round of matches in the group stage. In the opening game, the Golden Stars took the lead in their opener against South Korea only to see the young Taeguk Warriors come back to win 2-1. On Sunday Nguyen Quang Hai gave his team the lead for the second successive game but this time, there was no reply. The Reds hung on for a famous victory.

It was backs to the wall stuff from the Southeast Asians for much of the game. They defended deep, in numbers and with dogged determination. Australia had an amazing three-quarters of possession but did not do a great deal with it, passing it around in front of the opposition defence with not much idea of how to break through. Vietnam were much more incisive, having the same number of shots on goal as the Olyroos and 10 shots in total to 13.

As coach Ante Milicic trudged off the pitch in Kunshan, he had the look of a man who knew he was going to come in for plenty of criticism in the Australian media. There were complaints in some quarters down under that the A-League clubs were losing talent for an Asian youth competition. Perhaps worse than losing players to a youth tournament that is seen by some as a waste of time is performing badly in a tournament seen by some as a waste of time. Even those who do consider a continental championship to be a worthy event would usually expect to defeat Vietnam whenever and wherever they meet.

But perhaps they shouldn’t have. After all, in October 2013, Vietnam tore Australia apart in the AFC U-19 Championship qualification and won 5-1. Nguyen Cong Phuong scored twice that day and was unplayable, just one of the players to star then and now. There has been talent in the country for some time. In terms of technique, the likes of Chong Phuong rank alongside any in the continent and there are plenty more where he came from as we will all see at the 2019 Asian Cup, a competition which Vietnam qualified with some comfort.

What has been lacking up and down the ‘S-shaped nation’ is a little confidence when playing the bigger boys in Asia. There is plenty of ability on the ball but the same ability to dig in and get the result when necessary has not always been demonstrated. The addition of Park Hang Seo as head coach last year was an interesting move. The South Korean can be a prickly and stubborn character but has plenty of experience in the K-League and also with the national team. This is not a man with a reputation for playing free-flowing football and puts pragmatism above prettiness.

But a little pragmatism was in order. Vietnam have been short of ruthlessness in the past. There have been times, for example that semi-final against Indonesia in the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, when the result did not match the standard of the performance. Pressure was placed on opposition but possession and chances were wasted. This became more acute with the retirement of legendary goalscorer Le Cong Vinh at the end of 2016.

This Vietnam display showed the improved concentration, work-rate and discipline under Park but he has to find a balance between making the team hard to beat without sacrificing the silky skills, the Vietnamese pass and move groove. After all, Vietnam have fine players who are capable of playing a much more easy on the eye game.

It remains to be seen if he can pull it off. Playing so deep and defensively can be swallowed against a team like Australia with a couple of conditions. You have to win, or at least not lose, and then it has to be a step in a journey. If this result improves confidence and gives the Reds the belief that they can go and beat anyone in Asia then a little negativity will be tolerated for now. Park may not be the right long-term choice but could be Mr.Right. Now, the coach to take the team to the next level even if not the man to go all the way to the top.

There is delight at the result but some concern about whether Vietnam will become a boring and negative team. That would be counter-productive in the long-term.

Parking the bus can work for now, but Vietnam are capable of driving the bus very fast indeed and to some great places.