The Bleachers King: A football lesson
Understanding what happened to the Loyola Meralco Sparks’ 2012 Singapore Cup adventure
“This is a big learning experience for us but maybe I will see the big picture of it in a few days but right now, I’m very disappointed.”
Phil Younghusband made that statement following the 4-0 thrashing of the Loyola Meralco Sparks by Gombak United in the battle for third place in the 2012 Singapore Cup at the Jalan Besar Stadium last Sunday evening.
Loyola kicked off its Singapore Cup campaign with an incredible 2-1 over Singapore side Geylang United to advance to the quarterfinals where they defeated Burmese side Kanbawza, 5-3, in aggregate. The pair of stunning wins easily tabbed the Philippine club as the sensation of the tournament.
Once in the semifinals, their ran out of luck as Tampines Rovers taught Loyola a lesson strategy and conditioning en route to a 5-0 aggregate win.
The battle for third place against a young Gombak side promised silverware. Instead, the club ended the tournament with a whimper much to the disbelief of the staunch Philippine crowd that saw them through four legs and the officials of the Singapore league who expected a thrilling match and not a pitiful performance.
In the aftermath of the Tampines loss, Sparks assistant coach Vincent Santos asked me if I could help write something that will put things in perspective for those in management and the team’s sponsors who could not see past the final result. It took me a couple of weeks (mostly because I have been taken ill) but this is what I hope to be an unbiased and objective discourse on Loyola’s Singapore adventure and that the clubs that follow their trail may learn from it.
This is not making excuses for the losses because the other squads really won it on their own merit. These are some factors that also contributed to the loss. Clearly, for the entire surge in popularity in football, ours is a young footballing nation where we are finally beginning to learn the right way.
A team must be on-ground for at least 48 hours before a match abroad There is a reason why FIFA mandates that the latest a club can release a player for national duty is two days before. Even in tournaments like the Suzuki Cup, teams have a two-day interval between matches. It is not ideal as the best would be a several days but this will do for a short tournament. It is primarily used for recovery because a 90-minute hard match is hard on one’s body.
If you recall in April 2010, there was concern about the 20-hour bus ride by Barcelona to Milan due to the explosion of Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Once they got there, they got waxed 3-1 by Intermilan in a Champions League match (Barca got bounced from the competition as they lost 3-2 on aggregate). Again, there was hardly any recovery for the La Liga club.
If you look to the recent history of the Sparks, James and Phil Younghusband were told by the Philippine Football Federation that flying in with a day before the Bahrain match would not be of any help to them or the national team so the earliest they could see a return to action was against Kuwait. A long and transcontinental flight doesn’t really help even if one sleeps throughout the flight.
Singapore is a little over three hours away so why did this trip hurt? Because it was a red eye flight. Loyola was supposed to have a match on Thursday night against Mendiola but it was postponed due to the weather. The Thursday match meant that the team could not fly out to Singapore earlier. And the team can only be thankful they did not have to play Thursday night because how much worse could they be if there were even less time for recovery?
The only available flight for the team was on a late Friday evening. The team left Friday night in two batches, the first at around close to 9 p.m. while the second left at 10:30 p.m. The first batch arrived at the hotel around 1 a.m., while the second checked in at 3 a.m.
Furthermore, practice was scheduled by the S. League from 7-9 p.m. on Saturday evening. By the time the team got back to the hotel, it was around 9:30 p.m. Once more, there wasn’t enough recovery from that.
Sunday, match day, it was obvious in the morning that there was some fatigue that set in. Many players got up around 11 a.m. We arrived at the Jalan BesarStadium a few minutes before 4 p.m., a little later than desired because ideally,you are at the venue two hours before for proper limbering and simply getting ready for the match.
By kickoff at 5:15 p.m., the team appeared sluggish and they paid for it as Gombak scored twice early. The team never got its bearings until the half and by then, it was already a mountain to climb.
The odds are stacked against a semi-pro team beating a pro team. The United Football League is a semi-professional league. Let’s get that out of the way. That means that teams are not full-time professionals. Some players because of their wages are close to it but not for the vast majority.
Looking at the make-up of the Loyola Meralco Sparks, many of the players have day or in the case of defenders Alex Elnar and PJ Fadrigalan, night jobs. When these “employed” players go abroad, they have to file for leaves. Imagine filing leaves for football and not for a vacation.
In Loyola’s recent match against Pachanga, Fadrigalan had to leave at halftime for work. It is the same thing with the others. During the first leg against Geylang, Jayson Cutamora arrived on match day. Against Tampines, defender and co-captain Pat Ozaeta also arrived late.
Pro clubs train on a regular basis because that is their life. Semi-pro teams try their best to do so but it is difficult.
There is a massive difference when one lives and breathes football as opposed to a life where one has to totally shift one’s mindset from an eight-hour workday to a football match to be played two hours later.
S. League teams all have homefields where they have facilities for training any time they wish too. That is another advantage.
While the Philippines has finally begun to understand the need for all-weather pitches, we are still miles away from our Southeast Asian neighbors. But think how far we’ve come with only so much. How much more when we’ve got everything down pat?
You gotta be fit to be the king
Match fitness and conditioning are just as important to any team’s chances of winning.
When Loyola played Tampines in the Singapore Cup semifinals, the Stags were winding up a long season. Loyola on the other hand, was just getting started for the new one. One team was in peak form while the other was trying to find its legs.
Advantage Tampines. And what an advantage that was.
Usually Philippine club teams only play in one tournament at a time. Loyola was playing in both the UFL (the tail-end of the last season) and the Singapore Cup. Teams have to get used to that.
If you look at say Manchester United, they have been criticized for not taking other tournaments outside the Premier League and Champions League seriously. That is why they have a huge roster to be able to utilize the reserves for other tournaments. Team are celebrated for winning the domestic title and in Europe.
Because of the Loyola stint in Singapore and other regional tournaments, UFL teams now have to look long term on planning and playing for more than one tourney at a time.
In order to do that, aside from the composition of squads, one has to consider fitness and conditioning. And aside from that, there are the home conditions that usually favor the home team.
When the Philippine Men’s National Team played Kuwait in the opening round of the Asian Qualifiers for the 2012 World Cup, the nationals were literally sweating buckets in the desert heat. That is why the team camped out in Bahrain to acclimatize. But is it enough? Not at all but it is better than arriving there with only two days to spare.
The same thing befell the Philippines when it played Mongolia in the away match for the AFC Challenge Cup, after a while, the players couldn’t move. The weather got to them.
Having said that, Singapore is a tropical country much like ours. But theirs is closer to the equator, hence, it is even hotter. Now in Southeast Asia, there are two seasons – hot and wet. In the days leading up to match day, Singapore was inundated with rains. However, Sunday, was hot and humid. I didn’t mind the heat as I had the chills due to a bout of the flu. I welcome the beads of sweat that lined the back of my shirt outside the stadium. But to my Filipino friends who reside in Singapore, they just wanted to get inside the cooler confines of the stadium.
Against Geylang the humidity and the hard artificial turf were a huge factor. Players were collapsing due to cramps yet the valiant stand and win makes this one of the most memorable wins in the team’s history.
It was clear even against teams like Kanbawza that Loyola faded in the second half. The other wideouts of opposing teams looked like thoroughbred horses racing down towards the finish line once they got the ball on the flanks.
Tampines hardly even went to their bench and that showed how fit and superbly conditioned they were.
Tampines and Gombak played their best games of the season both against Loyola (that Singaporean media will attest to that). A Singaporean colleague remarked that the Stags’ goalkeeper Sasa Dreven looked all-world against the Sparks when he was so inconsistent throughout the season.
Gombak has slid from sixth to ninth place. There is a young team. The Bulls lost over eight players from the previous season due to financial woes. There was a late season turnaround for them as they went to a youth movement. In a post-match conversation with Gombak coach K Balagumaran, he said that they playing for third place was huge not just for his team but for his players because there is the possibility that they will move to other and bigger clubs in the off-season. Translated, that means, this too, was their audition for the other clubs. Doesn’t that remind you of that Middle Eastern club that recently played the Azkals where the players who went in were auditioning for the club?
Nevertheless, even if the Stags were putting their best foot forward for a big payday, they had a veteran backline that they trusted to repulse Loyola’s attacks. They hoped to be aggressive as they stole a page from Tampines by being aggressive early and not let Loyola get their passing game going. They were surprised by the slow and sluggish start. In fact, Balagumaran opined that the heat might have been a factor.
At breakfast this Monday morning, right before we left for Changi to return to Manila, I asked Loyola coaches Dang Pedro and Gil Talavera about plyometrics since the Sparks players lacked explosiveness on the run. It is something that because of their semi-pro nature they hope the players will find the time to do on their own. If that is so that is not going to happen because for one, plyometrics training is expensive and should be done in the off-season and not during the season.
Unlike the evergreen Aleks Duric who has learned to pick his spots on offense, Gombak’s Mustaqim Manzur, Iqbal Hussain and Fairoz Hassan were explosive on the release. Watching them from the media tribune of the Jalan Besar Stadium, it was like watching Usain Bolt leave his competition behind. There was that burst of speed and energy that left players like Alex Elnar and Chad Gould behind.
And it is no surprise that teams like Air Force and Global utilize their speed advantage to the hilt against Loyola.
Pro teams train twice a day. There’s the weight training and the proper field practice. I asked Aleks Duric about this and he said aside from paying attention to what he eats, he runs and runs. Ditto with his teammates.
Is running enough? Maybe. Maybe not. But on the average, a footballer runs an average of five miles per game. The midfielders and forwards, depending on their game plan, run anywhere from five to 11 miles. This was something that was discussed by Loyola in the pre-game talk.
Unfortunately, it was Gombak that got out of the gates like a Seabiscuit.
And there’s the question of tactics Loyola usually runs a 4-2-3-1 formation, the vogue formation run by Paris Saint Germain, Ajax Amsterdam, Borussia Dortmund, Zenit St. Petersburg, and Spain. Barcelona occasionally leaves its cherished 3-4-3 for the 4-2-3-1.
It is hard to say that any one formation is the best. I will always say that it boils down to having the right players to execute a formation.
The formation has to be run in practice and not discussed only in pre-game briefings. To assume that everyone can run the formation will fall prey to Norman Schwarzkopf’s famous line about assumption being the mother of all f**kups.
Against Tampines, a 4-1-4-1 was run without having the midfielders and forwards practice how to move in sync. That was disastrous. The 4-2-3-1 is a terrific defensive and offensive scheme because it offers layers of defense and offense…. providing the team moves as a unit.
The problem is if the spacing isn’t correct and players tend to clog the midfield (as it happened against Gombak), there isn’t enough defense on the wing. That is how Gombak, running the conventional 4-4-2, made Loyola pay as their wingers Julien Durand and Mustaqim Manzur ran up and down the flanks (usually the left) with abandon.
The substitution of Mark Hartmann in the middle of the first half was crucial. The coaching staff might say that he wasn’t able to get the job done but that is an awful too early to make that sub. I thought it was the defense that got eaten alive by one man. That substitution gave the team one less weapon and Hartmann was huge against Geylang and Kanbawza. With Phil Younghusband shackled, Loyola needed scoring. Obviously, the opponents tried to shackle the Younghusband brothers and they did so quite successfully.
I understand that in Korea, players are made to learn the different positions but the thing is, again if I may emphasize it, if not practiced with the team, that is not going to help.
Case in point, Anto Gonzales was pulled out for Kim Woo Chul who usually starts at centerback. But in a more attacking midfield position, he was not able to complete any passes to his teammates making it even more exasperating for the offense.
When Loyola gets it right (see the recent match against Nomads), their play is a wonder to behold. But when the midfield play is sour then it’s going to be a long and frustrating match for the Sparks.
And if Loyola doesn’t score early, they struggle for second half goals because teams figure out how to play them. They have shown a capability for halftime adjustments, they just need to be more consistent.
Everyone should learn from this
The whole Singapore Cup can still be summed up as a successful one for Loyola. After all, who knew they’d go that far? They made a case not just for themselves but the upswing of the UFL and Philippine football.
Up in the media tribune of the Jalan Besar Stadium and in the post-match press conference, my Singaporean colleagues, not to mention Gombak coach K Balagumaran all expressed that “this is not the Loyola they have seen.”
If you ask me that is the best compliment that can be said about this Philippine club team. That is a sign of respect won at a hard and telling cost. And if the players and coaches – and I do know you are reading this – noticed, you gained many Singaporean fans.
And I do hope people understand that there are many factors that affect a match. I tried my best to outline them and explain them although there are some that are better left unsaid for now. But there are lessons to be learned from scheduling, to recovery, to fitness and conditioning, and to practicing what one preaches. These are but some of the ingredients for a successful football team.
The 2012 Singapore Cup was ultimately a great learning experience for the Loyola Meralco Sparks although as Phil said, it left a bittersweet taste in the end.