Azkals-Thailand: dissecting a gloomy night in Bulacan

BOCAUE, Philippines - Thomas Dooley's unorthodox deployment of Phil Younghusband did not pay dividends. It seems like the armchair coaches were right all along. Phil is a square peg in the round hole of holding mid.

Yes, the Philippines' all-time leading striker is proficient at unspooling inch-perfect diagonals from the center of the park. Problem is, Phil has many talents, but being able to bi-locate and receive his own passes is not one of them. 

Dooley told me before the tournament that he had faster, quicker attackers to station upfront, and that Phil's size, intelligence and passing range would be useful deep. Problem is, Phil is not a defender, and was unable to disrupt opposition in the middle third all tournament long, and even in the tuneups. That taxed the backline immensely. 

Phil needed to justify his coach's tactics by creating goals from that position. But it never happened. None of his deliveries into the attacking third resulted in a goal, not in the Suzuki and neither in the tuneups, as far as I could recall. 

Dooley over-estimated two things: Phil's ability to operate in the position, and the capability of the other attacking players to conjure up goals. Mike Ott, and Hikaru Minegishi didn't cash in on any of their chances. And that is a big reason why we are not in the semifinals. 

Maybe it would have different had Javi Patiño been around. But he wasn't available. 

Frustratingly, even when we were desperate for a late equalizer, Phil still sat deep in the middle third, beside Manny Ott. It was only with minutes to go, and with the team needing two goals because of an Indonesian go-ahead strike in Rizal Memorial, that Phil was permitted to venture forward. 

Perhaps Phil could have been pushed forward early on in the campaign and maybe Kevin Ingreso could have occupied the slot in front of the defense. We will never know. 

Thomas Dooley is an outstanding coach, and a terrific human being. His legacy as one of our best coaches is safe thanks to the runner-up finish the the Challenge Cup and those stunning victories against Bahrain and North Korea. But in my opinion this competition wasn't his finest hour, and he must bear some of the responsibility for this flame out. 

The defense was unsettled from the very beginning, and it finally caught up with us. In the first tuneup in Bishkek against Kyrgyzstan, Dooley paired centerback Amani Aguinaldo with Dennis Villanueva, his teammate in Global. The team won but allowed far too many shots on goal. Villanueva also picked up a needless yellow in the center of the park in the first half. Dooley never started Villanueva again. 

Then in the home games against Bahrain and North Korea, Luke Woodland was roped in to ride shotgun with Aguinaldo. The result: 6 goals leaked in the two losses. 

Then when Kyrgyzstan comes to Manila, suddenly it's the undersized Daisuke Sato as our new centerback with Aguinaldo. Sato does great. Aguinaldo told me he loved his positioning and their chemistry. We win, but the Phil-Japanese, ordinarily a left back, is not allowed by his club to play in the Suzuki. 

In the tournament itself Jeffrey Christiaens, a left back, becomes Aguinaldo's newest wingman. He plays decently for two games, then is shipped back to his natural position for Thailand, with Marco Casambre now filling up the middle alongside Aguinaldo. 

Seven games. Five different centerback combinations. Plus the wingback positions were also a whirlwind of activity, with Martin Steuble, Ingreso and Kenshiro Daniels, none of which are usually defenders to my knowledge, flitting in and out game after game. 

And then you place two players in front of this ever-changing back four to help out with defensive midfield duties in Manny Ott and Phil Younghusband. Neither is a natural holding midfielder. 

When you take all of this into account, no wonder we didn't make the semifinals. A strong team needs to have a defense that's settled, cohesive, and familiar with each other. We never had that.

What we did have was a terrific goalie in Roland Müller. His numerous saves kept us in the last two matches. He gets my Man of the Tournament award for the Philippines.

The fielding of Sato and Woodland in the friendlies was, in my opinion, just plain wrong. We knew the Suzuki Cup was not being held during FIFA international windows. We should have known that CSM Politehnica Iasi, Sato's club, and Oldham Athletic, Woodland's employer, would have, in all likelihood, not allowed them to take several weeks off work to play for the Philippines. And yet they were fielded anyway in tough tuneups that were meant to prepare us for the Suzuki Cup. 

We chose these difficult teams to sharpen us for this tournament. Why risk playing players who ended up not being available? 

In hindsight, perhaps Dooley could have decided early that Christiaens was an option, then give him one or two matches in tandem with Aguinaldo to build a partnership. That might have worked.

Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

Matches are not only won on the pitch. They are the result of careful, thoughtful planning and preparation. Let this exit be an instructive moment for Philippine football going forward. We must learn from this.

Oh but there's more! In one final mad twist to this tale on Friday, Dooley burns his last substitution on the defense, with Kevin Ingreso coming in for Casambre. That meant Christiaens returned to centerback and Ingreso now occupied the left flank. Incredibly, yet another change in our back line! Our defense looked like a deck of playing cards in a casino with all that shuffling. 

Dooley told the media afterwards that he wanted Christiaens in for more speed in the counterattack as they went for goal. What happened is that the Ceres man made a critical error on the goal, trying to move up to catch Sarawut Masuk offside. But replays showed that Masuk's run was superbly timed and he was never offside. He thus gobbled up Prakit Deeprom's gorgeous through-ball and moment's later eased the ball past Müller for the dagger goal. See it here.

Being a Suzuki Cup semifinalist is no birthright. We were gunning for a fourth straight final four appearance in the biennial tournament. Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia have all accomplished this feat, but four-time champion Singapore have not. It's hard to sustain that level of consistency in an increasingly tough neighborhood.

We just didn't get the breaks, and we didn't quite have the personnel. Patiño, Sato, and Simone Rota might have made a difference. But it wasn't ours. 

Meanwhile Thailand, already qualified for the semis, played their ENTIRE bench and beat us on our ground when we obviously needed it more. Think about that. That's the difference between a mature footballing nation and a developing one, right there. 

We have come a long way. We came very close this time, but no cigar. There's much work to be done before we can be considered one of ASEAN's elite sides.

The silver lining is Marco Casambre. Dooley stunned the Philippine football community by starting Casambre at centerback for his first senior cap. The question on everyone's lips surely is, “who on earth is Marco Casambre?” 

The lad is 17 years old, turning 18 next month. He plays club football for Global and has UFL experience and international experience with the team in the Singapore Cup. I first saw Casambre play for Anto Gonzales' U15 national team three years ago in a tournament against ASEAN club youth sides. He was also a member of the Kaya Elite youth squad once. Casambre played with the U19 squad in China earlier in the year but missed that team's most recent qualifying campaign due to injury. 

Casambre is from Claret School in QC, the same institution that produced Gonzales and another former Azkal, Ariel Zerrudo. Another Claretian who was in the national pool, Andrew Santiago, watched the game on Friday. Sadly Casambre might be the last great footballer from the school, as their field has given way to a new building. 

An older brother, Paolo, played in the UFL for Socceroo.

Marco is in his first year in UP, and was part of the team that Gonzales recently led to the Unigames title in Dumaguete. They outclassed DLSU 5-1 in the final. 

By coincidence, one of my poker buddies is Kimber Ablaza, who works for Marco's parents, XP and Joanne, and knows the kid well. He paints a picture of a talented and dedicated young footballer who started dribbling and passing a ball at the age of two. Marco is a pretty good student who, despite training nearly every day in high school, graduated with first honorable mention in Claret. Ablaza said he awoke before sunrise every schoolday to hit the books despite training the night before.

Marco is supposedly considering shifting from Sports Science to a more academically challenging course. 

Once a chubby kid, he has sworn off soft drinks and junk food. Marco's body has grown and filled up remarkably in the three years I've known him. 

How much does he love football? Ablaza says his favorite video game is FIFA17. 

Former Global coach Leigh Manson had this to say about the kid. "Misagh (Bahadoran) hates training against him because he roughs him up a lot." 

On Friday Casambre was a revelation. It would have been perfectly acceptable for a callow teen such as he to disintegrate under that pressure, but he didn't. Casambre was unable to prevent a Mongkol Thossakrai shot off a high ball a few minutes in, but Müller saved the shot. After that, no significant errors, from what I recall. 

Casambre battled well throughout the encounter and showed composure beyond his years in passing out of trouble well. Dooley made note of his distribution in the postgame presscon. 

I have been told that there is a possibility that Aguinaldo, a UP student, may play for the Maroons in the next UAAP Season. He could partner with Casambre if that happens. That would mean they would build up a chemistry at school level that they could conceivably transfer to the national team. They are also both in Global. These two could be our centerbacks for a long time, maybe even the next 4 or 5 Suzuki Cups. With a combined age of 38, they are, together, only a year older than the recently-retired Juani Guirado. 

Friday was a gut-wrenching experience for the Azkals and their fans. But in the ashes of this defeat, maybe a new star has been born. Philippine football is down, but it won't be out for long. – Rappler.com 

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.