Football: Lions given licence to thrill but key to success is to press and deny opponents space

BACOLOD CITY – They are Singapore football’s current Fab Four – a quartet of forwards who had impressed in the opening 1-0 Group B win over Indonesia at the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup on Friday (Nov 9).

While they bring assets such as stepovers, body feints and pace to the national team, the flamboyance and entertainment are underpinned by the sheer hard work needed in pressing for possession.

The Lions will play their second Group B game on Tuesday (Nov 13) against the Philippines in Bacolod’s Panaad Stadium.

Facing opponents with big names in coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and Cardiff City goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, the foursome of Ikhsan Fandi, Yasir Hanapi, Gabriel Quak and Faris Ramli know that before they can create, they have to destroy first.

Quak, who plays on the left flank, said: “Coach Fandi (Ahmad) doesn’t restrict us (in expressing themselves in attack) as long as we carry out our defensive duties.

“The pressing was the whole platform for the team to build on. We kept our shape and we moved forward and back in numbers.”

But the intensive pressing can work only if the players buy into the plan and switch on their turbos to harry opponents.

Faris said: “If one player doesn’t work, the game plan will not work. In modern football, it is crucial to recover the ball early and I can feel that every player wants to defend for the team.”

Interim national coach Fandi is happy with what he had seen from the players so far and has called on them to keep up the high work rate.

He said: “They (the forwards) did very well pressing together. They kept Indonesia at bay and forced them to go deeper, where they cannot hurt us.

“The Philippines like to switch the ball (from one flank to another) by playing diagonally from deep. We have to be fast in closing them down. And, if need be, we have to double-team or even triple-team on the man in possession.”

In Fandi’s five matches in charge so far, the Lions are unbeaten, winning four and drawing once and scoring in every game for a total of eight goals.

Quak revealed that the chemistry came from the players observing each other on the pitch and figuring out how to best serve them. He said: “From training and from our four friendlies (against Mauritius, Fiji, Mongolia and Cambodia), I know the runs my teammates make and the type of ball that they like.

“The coaches also paid special attention to how each of us spin and run away with the ball from our markers to determine what kind of balls to be played to us.”

That attention to fine detail was demonstrated in the 2-0 win over Fiji, when Quak received the ball inside his own half and instinctively planted a grass-cutting pass that bisected the Fijian defence for the onrushing Ikhsan to finish.

“The day before that game, we practised this move,” the 27-year-old said. “We know Ikhsan likes those type of through balls and I try to bring that to the games.”

As an added edge, the quartet can also interchange positions to drag markers out of position. “We are all flexible,” said Faris. “We can all play anywhere across the line. Gabriel can switch to the right, I can go to the left, Yasir can play wide, Ikhsan can also drop deep. We have options in attack and Indonesia were surprised by us.”

While the pressing and trickery have caught the eye, Faris believes that even Hassan Sunny can be an offensive weapon.

A case in point was the goalkeeper’s long punt against the Garudas in the 51st minute that played Faris clean through only for his lob to hit the bar.

But, if the Azkals refuse to yield, Fandi can still call on a guided weapon from the bench.

“If we need another player to open up the Philippines’ defence, I will bring Shahril (Ishak) in,” he said. “He has the intelligence and he is an important part of the team.”

The Lions will face a fresh Philippines side playing their opening game and having an edge in fitness, but Faris said the fatigue will be forgotten once the first whistle blows.

He said: “After the Indonesia game, we were all feeling tired. But we are feeling happy and excited, too. We want to go out there and give 110 per cent.”

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