U23 Asian Cup: Vietnam deserve a better result in Saudi Arabia match

By Steve Darby   June 13, 2022 | 01:39 am PT
U23 Asian Cup: Vietnam deserve a better result in Saudi Arabia match
Vietnam (R) play Saudi Arabia in the 2022 U23 Asian Cup quarterfinal on June 12, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Thoa
Vietnam had to face Saudi in the quarterfinals and most football fans would see Vietnam as underdogs in this game and a win would be a tremendous achievement.

The team had achieved the first key step in their target for the U23 Asian Cup. They moved past the group stage in second place after South Korea and ousted both Thailand and Malaysia. I thought that second place was the best option for any of the Southeast Asian teams with South Korea being too strong. Hence the draw Vietnam had against South Korea was seen as a great result. This may now be put into perspective after South Korea were well beaten 0-3 by Japan who came second to Saudi Arabia in group D. So were South Korea that good after all?

I have heard arguments about past results of Vietnam teams and people comparing them together. I'm not a believer in football history, so I don't put much weight behind previous results of tournaments. These are different Vietnamese players playing against different opponents in different conditions. You can only judge the team on what is happening here in Tashkent and once again, all that matters is the result.

The big question for coach Gong Oh-kyun: does he gamble on an all-out attacking play as he did against Malaysia or revert to the system that has achieved so much for Vietnam, a defensive lineup relying on fast counterattacks. The hope is that the longer the game goes on at 0-0 and Saudi will send more players forward and leave spaces for Vietnam to exploit.

Vietnam started with what looked like on paper a defensive 4-5-1 lineup. Goalkeeper Quan Van Chuan has performed well since replacing Nguyen Van Toan who had a dislocated finger. He has not only made saves but also played in a calm relaxed manner.

In the midfield five, Luong Duy Cuong who is a natural defender played a holding role and sat deep in front of Vietnam's back four. The rest of the midfielders have to do their job of pressing and ruining the Saudi attacks. I was surprised at the exclusion of Le Van Do as I was very impressed with him in previous games. Also, Nguyen Van Tung has impressed in all three games but only played as a substitute.

The one thing you can guarantee from Vietnam are passion. I watched the way the team sing the national anthem with such pride. Recently in England, Trent Alexander-Arnold was criticized for not singing the England national anthem. This is never an issue in Vietnam.

Vietnam went into the halftime break 0-1 down. This I felt was unfair as Vietnam were the better team. They started great, getting their midfield to support Nham Manh Dung and had a great chance early in the game where a cross from Khuat Van Khang was headed wide by number 11 Le Minh Binh. That would have been the perfect start for Vietnam. At this level, you don’t get many chances, you have to hit the target and nearly is not good enough.

Surprisingly Vietnam were pressing high up the pitch, trying to use their energy to unsettle the Saudis. The danger is that if you press higher the whole team have to push forward and support so it is very physically demanding to do this for 90 minutes. The Saudis only had two shots on target in the first half, a 13th-minute effort saved by goalkeeper Van Chuan as it was a deflected shot and the second was their goal. Vietnam's back four looked excellent with both center-backs dominating and the full-backs getting forward, with Vu Tien Long even getting a great shot in the 24th minute. This was bettered by Minh Binh in the 34th minute when his powerful shot was touched on to the crossbar by the Saudi keeper. It was a great shot as he hit the center of the ball causing it to swerve and the goalkeeper did very well to get a touch on it.

Vietnam deserved to be in the lead and it was a big surprise when the Saudi left-back Al-Harbi overlapped and went past both Tien Long and Bui Hoang Viet Anh and finished into the bottom corner. It was a well-placed shot, but maybe the positioning of the keeper could be questioned? You can organize a team all you want but a piece of individual effort can cause your downfall. But overall, other than the score, it had been an excellent performance by Vietnam in the first half.

The sad reality of professional football turned this game into a defeat for Vietnam. They had to attack as they were 0-1 down and of course, this means gaps will be revealed at the defense. Saudi kept possession of the ball well for the first twenty minutes of the second half and again Al-Harbi overlapped well and got past Tien Long to put in a cross for Firas Al-Buraikan to head it in. That was game over as Vietnam were never going to score three goals.

Coach Gong started to gamble and put on substitutes, Van Tung coming on and Van Do who immediately showed his pace and created a chance in the 73rd minute. They appeared to be two good substitutions, However, coach Gong rather naively used up all five substitutions by the 75th minute. Usually, a coach will keep one substitution until the last minutes in case of an injury. The worst-case scenario happened in the 77th minute when keeper Van Chuan raced off his line and caught Al-Buraikan outside the box illegally. The referee immediately drew a red card and even VAR confirmed it. However, watching the replays I felt it was a harsh decision as certainly, the keeper has made contact with the ball and Al-Buraikan was very clever to make a theatrical dive to ensure the referee saw the foul. I think a yellow may have been enough for this. What it meant was that Manh Dung had to act as a goalkeeper so Vietnam lost their best striker. To be fair, he did well in goal and made a good save.

The Saudis made the most of their advantage and professionally managed the game. Maybe the difference between the two teams was the experience of the Saudis. They played more internationals than Vietnam and also most of their players are getting a big number of games in the Saudi league. That's something the Vietnamese have to look at. Are Vietnamese young players getting enough game time? How do you get better if you don't play enough games? Are the players in the Saudi league better than the ones in Vietnam? I think we know the answer to that. Also, the Saudis are also developing their own coaches as all the Saudi staff were homegrown - something the VFF must look at in the long term.

The tournament is over and I think Vietnam can go home with their heads held high. They are once again are the leading ASEAN nation, and also a number of players have shown they have the ability to progress to the national team. The 2026 World Cup qualifiers are only two years away and the Asian Cup is coming even earlier. I will be interested to see who will move up to the national team.

If I was Park Hang-seo, I already know who to choose.

*Steve Darby is a former Thailand national coach.

U23 Asian Cup: Vietnam 0-2 Saudi Arabia

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