Time for wounded Thailand to take stock

Thailand’s bid for a third consecutive AFF Suzuki Cup title ended in painful drama as Adisak Kraisorn skied an added-time penalty kick to let Malaysia off the hook.

But the 2-2 draw that saw the Harimau Malaya through to the final on away goals was no more than the visitors deserved as the War Elephants again failed to find the necessary intensity and creativity.

Only poor finishing prevented Malaysia from coming to Bangkok with a semi-final first-leg lead but two fine finishes on this occasion ensured that Thailand failed to reach the final for the first time since 2010.

While there will be an inevitable social media outcry, let’s take a look at five things we learned from Thailand’s 2018 AFF Suzuki campaign.

  1. There is no substitute for Chanathip

Much has been made of the absence of Thailand’s four overseas-based players and there is no doubt that they would have had a much stronger chance of winning the tournament with Chanathip Songkrasin, Teerasil Dangda, Kawin Thamsatchanan and Theerathon Bunmathan in the team.

Adisak did his best to replace Teerasil with eight goals, while Korrakot Wiriyaudomsiri’s set-piece deliveries were reminiscent of Theerathon.

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However, no one could replicate the direct running that Chanathip offers and the speedy transitions in play that he can bring. Build-up play was often laboured and, while floated balls over the top from Sanrawat Dechmitr may have proved too much for Timor Leste, it became much tougher against better opponents.

The return of Chanathip for the AFC Asian Cup will be most welcome.

  1. There is no substitute for Kawin

Missing Kawin was less of a concern until Buriram United’s Siwarak Tedsungnoen made a howler against Indonesia before Chatchai Budprom’s blunder saw Thailand drop two points in the Philippines.

The Chiang Rai United keeper then let a backpass roll under his foot against Singapore before scurrying back to prevent the ball crossing the line.

Arguably, Chatchai’s biggest mistake was to rile the Malaysians with some crass comments ahead of Wednesday’s match. His bold proclamation that the visitors would experience a ‘nightmare’ in Bangkok only served to fire up the opponents and they were quick to remind him at the final whistle.

It may well be the last time Chatchai is invited along to a press conference, with many Thai fans critical of his lack of humility and respect for the opposition – particularly given his own struggles with form.

The Thai defenders will be relieved to have the reassuring presence of Kawin behind them in the UAE next month.

  1. Rajevac sometimes needs to twist

Milovan Rajevac is well known to be a pragmatic coach and he vowed to try and solidify a flimsy Thai defence when he came into the job.

Things had been going reasonably well at the expense of the more expansive attacking football favoured by previous head coach Kiatisuk Senamuang and the large majority of the Thai fans.

Unforunately, Rajevac seems to be stuck in the same gear too often when a different approach might be necessary. When Thailand took the lead for the second time against Malaysia, there was an immediate move to sit deeper and it backfired when the visitors levelled for a second time, with the defence very much at fault.

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Photo Credit: FA Thailand

Rajevac can point the absence of his four best players when the inevitable inquest into Thailand’s failure begins but he needs to take some responsibility for a pragmatic approach that seemed to hold Thailand back when they should have been going in for the kill.

There was a lack of variety in the final third and too often players took the wrong option and promising moves broke down. Chanathip will provide part of the solution here but Rajevac must give the players more confidence to express themselves.

  1. Right-back to square one

Nowhere can Rajevac’s tactical dilemma be seen more clearly than in his inability to settle on his favoured right-back. Tristan Do has been discarded, apparently due to his tendency to focus more on attack than defence, but Philip Roller is similarly attack-minded and has been playing at struggling Ratchaburi.

Mika Chunuonsee provided a more solid defensive option that Rajevac took up after Roller struggled in the Philippines.

But Rajevac turned to Roller for the second leg against Malaysia and it seemed a move designed to push back against the attacking force of the Malaysians on the left.

Unfortunately, Roller had a night to forget and was one of the weakest links in the team. He perhaps feels stifled by the defensive discipline required and this is interfering with his natural game.

This is clearly a position that requires more thought. Based on performances in this competition, Mika will provide a more reliable option than Roller and then there is always the option of swallowing pride and giving Mr Do a call.

  1. It’s not the end of the world

It’s relatively rare for teams to win international tournaments two times in succession, never mind three.

Players get complacent and lose hunger, while other countries recover and make plans to knock the champions off their perch. We saw holders Germany humiliated in the World Cup this year in a similar way to what had happened to Spain four years previously.

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Photo Credit: FA Thailand

And it should be remembered that Thailand bore no resemblance to the side that defeated Indonesia in the final two years ago. Just one player – Tanaboon Kesarat – started the second leg of that final and on Wednesday in Bangkok. Only two other players – Mongol Tossakrai and Pokklaw Anan – were in the squad.

Under Rajevac, there has been revolution and not evolution. Despite this, but for Adisak’s last-minute miss, Thailand would have been looking forward to a final against a Vietnam side that bears many similarities to the Thai team of 2014 – young, gifted and hungry.

This points to a depth of talent that is the envy of other countries in the region. Despite a complete overhaul of personnel, Thailand exited the tournament undefeated. What must happen now, though, is to mould this talent into a side that can progress from the group stage in the AFC Asian Cup at the very least.

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