If you watched the Euro 2016 Championships avidly, you’ll be aware that “three at the back” is very much a playing system in fashion. The 3-5-2 is the system that gave stability to Italy’s impressive run to the quarter-finals until they were beaten by a German team who changed their own formation to a back three to counter Italy.
More impressively, it is a system that propelled rugby-loving Wales to an unthinkable place in the semi-finals of the tournament. For Wales, 3-4-2-1 got the best out of the Championship and lower rated Premier league players who made up the majority of their squad. That organizational stability enabled its star players to shine.
It is also a system I have long thought would be suitable – or at least worth a long try – for International teams in South East Asia to use. The most common complaints about players in this region are that there is a lack of physicality in defenders and that there is a dearth of goal-scorers. 3-4-3 may help address these issues.
The fact that import players predominantly hog the central defensive, midfield and central forward positions at professional state and club teams means that there are fewer Malaysian players that are used to playing in those key areas when it comes to International matches. For years, coaches have shoe-horned players into positions where they have succeeded at one level, but struggled when the competition has become a bit stiffer (Asian level).
The principle assets attributed to players in this region are pace, athleticism, a strong technical ability and a good level of individual skill. Alistair Edwards – Director of Sport at Johor Darul Takzim – often speaks of the high technical levels of players under his remit at The Southern Tigers, comparing the skill levels favourably with those he sees in Australia’s famed academies.
Singapore’s Technical Director, M. Michel Sablon, in his ‘Blueprint for the future of football in Singapore’ speech, also recognized a good level of skills in ‘local’ players, but has pinpointed a particular system as a ‘playing philosophy’ for all Singapore football teams. His system is 4-3-3 – the same system that worked for Belgium, who until their recent dismissal by Wales at Euro 2016, had been on a 10-year upward trajectory fuelled by a revamp of all coaching of young players from 5 years-old upwards. Sablon was largely responsible for implementing the system that has propelled Belgium up to the top of world football.
Malaysia’s Technical Director, Fritz Schmid, has not made any such decree about how he would like Malaysia to play. But to this non-coach and 15-year observer of the professional game in Malaysia and Singapore, an observation would be that a system such as 3-4-3 may well suit Malaysian-type players. I offer it as conjecture and discussion but confess that as a non-qualified student of the game, it is a system that I have long admired.
Three at the back (a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2) is a system that is rarely played and yet, invariably, when it is utilized, teams have a reasonable level of success. In my one season involved in the backroom of professional football in South East Asia in 2002-03, former Kuala Lumpur defender Scott O’Donell (now Director of Coach Education at the All India Football Federation) used the 3-5-2 system to enable a young Geylang United team to runners-up position in the Singapore League and Cup competitions.
Johor Darul Takzim’s Baihakki Khaizan was an emerging teenage talent of that team, and he played alongside Singapore veteran Lim Tong Hai and Australian import Peter Bennett. Current Singapore International, Hassan Sunny, was the teenaged goalkeeper behind that trio whilst broadcaster PJ Roberts was the important defensive shield in front of that defensive trio. Geylang were runners-up that season to former Kelantan and Perak Coach Steve Darby’s Home United, who themselves played with a back three of Aide Iskandar, S Subramaniam, and A. Siva Kumar – all internationals.
More recently, current Pahang Coach, Razip Ismail, introduced the system with some success last season to improve Harimau Muda’s end of season position in the S-League. Having stuttered in the first half of the 2015 season, Harimau Muda improved in the latter stages, and much of the improvement was down to the implementation of a back 3. Perak’s Kenny Pal Raj was the middle-man of the back three that really worked for them as it released Amirul Hisyam and Adam Nor Azlin from defensive duties and enabled them to be a more creative force.
The benefits of the system include that it gives an extra sense of confidence to the centre backs. Muslim Ahmad and Fadhli Shas were both very highly rated individually, and yet as a pairing often found it a struggle to cope at international football outside of the ASEAN region. Similarly, when Aidil Zafuan, Amiridzuan Taj, Afif Amiruddin et al played outside of ASEAN, they were often outmuscled, or out-manoeuvred and had no extra protection to assist them. All of the above have thrived when a big strong foreign centre back has been alongside them – but they have no such shield at international level. Imagine the security a Shukor Adan, for example, as leader and third centre-back, might have given them.
Wing-back is the position Malaysia should have the least problem in filling. Already Malaysia produces interchangeable wingers/full backs. S Kunanlan started as a winger and dropped back to be a full back; Azrif Nazrulhaq similarly so. JDT’s Fazly Mazlan is an attack-minded full-back who looks his best going forward, as does the out-of-favour Zubir Azmi. All four seem perfectly suited to a wing-back role. All have pace, endurance and stamina, defensive awareness (and weaknesses) and attacking ability. So long as someone in central midfield –like Brendan Gan – has the awareness that when the wing-backs go forward, he must plug the gaps, then the system could work.
Three at the back can be an attacking philosophy as it encourages wing backs to push forward which, by decree, would push the wide forwards further up the pitch. Again, a common cry you hear of Malaysia’s national team is that the forwards are isolated. This three-at-the-back system may just help to take the strain off what is too often the lone forward when Malaysia play. The key figures for Wales in their Euro ’16 success were the central striker (Sam Vokes or Hal Robson-Kanu), the holding midfielder (Joe Ledley), and the central of the three defenders (Ashley Williams). None could be considered a household name and yet they have been able to help take Wales – Wales – to the last four of the European Championships. The system suits the players.
Internationally, as well as Italy and Wales, Copa America Champions Chile were using a back three until just last year. They impressed at the Brazil World Cup 2014 using such a system going out to the hosts only on penalties. Closer to home, in Thailand, Buriram United went undefeated through the whole of the 2015 Thai Premier league season using a back three. Venezuelan central defender Andres Tunez flanked by the experienced Thais Suree Sukha and Narubadin conceding just 24 goals in 34 League matches.
In Singapore, the side who are taking the professional S-League by storm this season are Albirex Niigata (the former team of Terengganu striker Issey Nakajima). They play with a back three and have the best defensive record in the league. Their closest rivals, Tampines Rovers, have also successfully experimented with a back 3 in AFC Cup games anchored by Faharuddin Mustafic. Brunei DPMM Coach Steve Kean’s response to a poor run of form was to ask Rosmin Kamis to play on the right side of a back three. The result was a comprehensive 4-1 win over Balestier Khalsa to end a poor spell of just one win in 7 matches.
Obviously, you need the players to play such a system and, as Sablon is trying to introduce in Singapore, the Technical Directors in Malaysia may need to try to fashion a similar decree here. It is not an instant solution but seems – to this observer at least – to be a system that suits the kind of player who is making his way in the professional game in Malaysia.
Truly, if it can inspire Wales, a country of 3 million people and just five fully professional football clubs, it can work here.
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