Scott McIntyre argues that Vietnam need to quickly switch back to their total football roots despite recent successes as the AFC U23 Championships.
Last month I spent 36 hours rattling up the coast of Vietnam on local trains from Saigon to Hanoi, stopping at various points along the way to meet, watch and talk football with coaches, players, administrators, journalists and fans.
I was in the country watching, talking and dissecting football the year before and the year before that and for many years prior.
From my end, there’s a deep respect and admiration for the development work that’s been taking place in the country and which has produced a fine generation of players, arguably the best the nation has ever had.
Those at HAGL, PVF and Hanoi FC in particular deserve nothing but the highest praise for the tireless work they do and it’s little surprise that more than the half of the Vietnam squad are drawn from these systems.
Equally I’ve devoted the past decade and a half of my career to endlessly travelling the vast mass of Asia shining lights on the less salubrious elements of the game and celebrating those – and there are many – worthy of doing so.
This was (and which continues to be) at a time when Asian football is still looked down upon by huge swathes of not just the broader football planet but by many within the continent itself.
I’ve seen mercenary foreign coaches and players, the crooked and criminal local elements, violence, joy, heartbreak and a large number of administrators who care far more about their own careers, bank balances and political adventures than they do about the players and the game.
All of this in reporting from the ground – not the desk – from more than 40 of the AFC’s 47 member nations so when I speak I do so for what I see – and we can argue and debate whether that’s right or wrong – as reasons that will benefit the long-term health of the game.
I do that as a journalist aware of the responsibilities of my craft and not as a media cheerleader as, regrettably, the bulk of the industry has become.
So, it was with little surprise after I argued last week on FOX Sports Asia that results matter not an iota (but rather it’s performances that count) at this, non-Olympic edition of the U23 Championships that I was bombarded with all sorts of abuse – accused of not supporting the game, belittling the ‘historic’ achievements of the underdog and with all sorts of racist epitaphs thrown in for good measure.
Not only do I stand by those arguments but it’s time again now that Vietnam have reached the final to continue to ask whether the manner in which they’ve done so is one that will hinder or aid their long-term development, as ultimately that’s what it’s all about.
Here are the cold-hard facts: in the group stage Vietnam scored a sum total of two goals in progressing where they had 28% possession against South Korea, 24% against Australia and 41% against Syria.
A penalty shootout win against Iraq where they enjoyed 46% possession was followed by more success from the spot as they toppled Qatar with 36% possession.
Combine that with the fact that in the group stage Vietnam had the lowest completed passing percentage of all 16 nations – there’s a link between the exhausting mental and physical work they did in consistently trying to close down opponents – and it’s little wonder there are parallels being drawn to Greece’s brutal 2004 European Championship title.
After the semifinal victory I had an exchange with a Vietnamese football fan that began with him noting that “I guess we are now Greece” and which ended with him noting that the European side have been in an eternal slide into mediocrity since that point – perhaps not quite everyone in the nation is celebrating results over style especially given it comes at youth level and with nothing on the line.
At the risk of running over old ground it’s worth repeating that this is a brand-new tournament – in just the second edition in its current format – constructed purely for Olympic qualifying and which my colleague at the BBC, Mani Djazmi, noted on Twitter has as much ‘history’ as a forgotten jar of jam.
It’s also worth again repeating that just like a young boxer who beats up on a faded veteran there’s absolutely no sense of equality between the nations present and hence drawing any conclusions based purely on results is a serious folly.
Firstly, Asia’s best nation, Iran, aren’t even present as they had all sorts of issues in having players released from their club sides for qualification, then there’s the nation with the greatest pedigree in Japan sending their U20 team, plus a vast collection of others countries (primarily from west Asia) whose best players were also not released for the event, and finally not one of the three players nominated for the AFC’s Youth Player of the Year are here either.
So spare me the historic achievement narrative that we’ve been forced to endure.
You want a historic achievement?
Last year’s qualification for the FIFA U20 World Cup by Vietnam – when all nations had their best players present – that was a genuinely historic moment.
Not just for the nation but also for Southeast Asia as it was one where they proved that style can be married with results – this ‘off’ edition of this brand-new tournament is designed to expose, educate and enhance the next generation of Olympic talent not to chase results at all costs and in whatever manner deemed necessary.
Let’s consider then some of the other approaches taken by the 16 nations.
Speaking ahead of their final group stage match where victory was needed to ensure progression the Australian coach, Ante Milicic, was asked how crucial that would be to which he responded that winning was important only in so much as it presented the opportunity for further matches yet only if it was done in ‘the right way.’
Japan was the only nation to send a squad comprised entirely of the next cycle of Olympic talent as they understand that’s the end game – and it’s worth noting that the knives weren’t out for coach Hajime Moriyasu on his return to the country this week rather a quiet respect that they’re on the right path long-term.
This is and continues to be my point about the manner in which Vietnam and Malaysia achieved their ‘historic’ qualification where results have clearly been prioritised over performance.
In one sense I understand why the respective coaches are approaching things in that manner, as there’s every reason to believe that should they have ‘failed’ to progress (even if that came with upbeat showings) that they would have been at risk of losing their jobs, but that speaks volumes to the short-minded approach at many FAs across the region who are largely run by men who couldn’t explain the difference between the offside rule and offshore tax evasion.
In the specific case of Vietnam I fundamentally disagree with it as it has, in my opinion, restricted and brutalized a supremely gifted generation of attacking talent that have been reduced to feeding off long-balls, faced with impossible situations where they are often one or two up against four or five, or expected to create things out of nothing on the counter.
There has been a rigid bank of five defenders throughout the tournament, with a line of four in front of them and only (the wonderful) Nguyen Cong Phuong by himself up front to work his magic.
The transitions are often slow and clunky and when the first idea doesn’t work it’s been a case of a shower of long balls and sweeping switches of play rather than the usual intricate passing sequences that these players had previously been known for that have seen those possession and passing stats dip to historic lows.
I’ve argued before and I’ll argue it again that this generation of young Vietnamese players are not only the best in terms of pure technique anywhere in Southeast Asia but they’re right up there with any across the continent and beyond.
As we’ve seen in the fleeting glimpses where Nguyen Quang Hai and Cong Phuong have had the ball or the extremely limited moments when the exceptionally gifted fullbacks, Vu Van Thanh and Doan Van Hau, were ever so slightly released, this is a side more than capable of matching it going forward with any other team at this tournament.
Luong Xuan Truong has impressed.
The brilliant midfield controller, Luong Xuan Truong, has been ultra-impressive throughout (even more so given he’s barely played a minute of club football in two years) in having to hurriedly construct the few attacks his side has had when they’re not exhausted from the endless defensive work they’re forced into adopting.
This is a nation with outstanding technicians who are being forced into playing in a manner that, for me, does more damage than long-term good and this is a point that we can’t forget in all the discussion about results.
Let the fans enjoy their moment and celebrate success in a nation that hasn’t tasted it on too many occasions, but let’s not forget too that this tournament – in the grand scheme of things – means nothing and is merely a step towards a future goal.
Try playing in this negative manner against full-strength opponents in the future when qualification or actual meaningful titles are on the line – and you’re going to find that the results – when they matter – simply won’t be there.
Play to the strengths of this side and see what happens long term though and that’s a different discussion altogether.
Vietnam, if allowed to realise their ability and full potential to dominate and control games, can shake off this new-found tag of strong-willed battlers and truly join the elite entertainers of Asia – they’re that good.
At last year’s U20 World Cup many of these same players were sent out by a specialized youth (and local) coach, Hoang Anh Tun, who had genuine belief in them and trusted in their talents to play positive and upbeat and they dominated two of their three group matches where they had the better of possession against both Honduras and New Zealand.
There was a belief in the process of winning with style which this generation of players are more than capable of yet now we have a new coach appointed in an opaque manner from obscure surrounds just months before a crucial VFF election who clearly doesn’t hold the same belief in these same attacking talents.
Yet, all hope is not lost as there’s still one more match to be played.
Uzbekistan, a side of considerable talent but not a collection of mini-Messis or Ronaldos, await and now is the time for the conservative approach to be thrown away.
To march into the final saying we invested a decade of intense training in creating a generation of attacking talent that’s the equal of their peers anywhere in Asia and that we’re not going to cower down, sit deep and concede territory and possession.
To say that we are Vietnam and we can match it toe-to-toe with anyone through being positive and with belief not with yet another scrapping, backs-to-the-wall, tactical approach that we’ve seen to this point.
Don’t bet on it happening though and regardless of wins or losses, it will be the style and the belief in playing positively in this match that will lay the marker down as to whether the development of this supremely gifted generation of attacking talent – that I have deep respect and admiration for – will be fully realised or whether they continue down a path where they have the best years of their careers squeezed out of them so that a foreign coach can keep his job.
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