AFC U23 Championship: Vietnam's blank slate reveals several problems

By Hoang Nguyen, Xuan Binh   January 16, 2020 | 03:31 pm GMT+7

Vietnam has not conceded a goal in two matches, but it has not scored one either. What gives?

Nguyen Quang Hai is put in forward position but usually has to play lower to support other midfielders during the match vs Jordan, January 13, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

Attacking midfielder Nguyen Quang Hai usually has to play lower to support other midfielders during the match vs Jordan, January 13, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

Entering the ongoing AFC U23 Championship as runner-up of the previous edition, Vietnam has found the going tough since the squad is very different from the one that played two years ago. Only a few key players from that squad remain. The new faces are yet to prove their mettle.

One of the main reasons that Vietnam failed to score in the last two games is because the offense line has had few chances in the box. It's evident that the connection between the midfield and the offense wasn't effective in both matches. This means Vietnam lacks a box-to-box midfielder that can bridge the two areas effectively.

In modern football, a box-to-box (B2B) midfielder has to multitask. Apart from controlling the tempo of the game, they also must have a great work rate and good skill sets rendering them proficient at both defending and attacking. Such players can tackle and intercept as well as run up to assist attackers with equal felicity. In the current squad, Vietnam has no player who can do this.

The lack of an effective B2B midfielder was apparent in the draw with Jordan. Coach Park Hang-seo decided to put Nguyen Duc Chien and Tran Thanh Son in the central midfielder positions. It was effective, but only in defense. Both Chien and Son are defensive midfielders (DMF), so their job is to tackle and intercept, not make passes up to the three strikers.

But Park had a reason to put two DMFs in the midfield. The defenders had not performed well in the first game against UAE. Vietnam was able to thwart Jordan's attacks, but the ruse also isolated the three forwards Nguyen Quang Hai, Nguyen Tien Linh and Nguyen Hoang Duc. They rarely got the ball from the midfield. Vietnam could only produce two shots, while Jordan had nine, in the first half, and neither was on target.

The two other midfielders on either flank, Do Thanh Thinh and Ho Tan Tai, were unable to make crosses inside, which virtually neutralized two wings of the formation. In a formation like 3-4-3, really good wingbacks are needed to make a difference and in this case, Tai and Thinh couldn't make the cut. Vietnam needs an efficient wingback like Doan Van Hau, who couldn't join the tournament this year due to scheduling conflict with his Dutch club.

Nguyen Quang Hai, as usual, had to go down to the midfield and be the bridge between the offense and defense. He has done that many times, from the earlier U23 team to the Olympic team. Every time when the midfield has problems, he has to be there to sort it out.

The touch map of Nguyen Quang Hai in the first half. He had to play in the midfield to be the connection between the back and front line,

The touch map of Nguyen Quang Hai in the first half of Vietnam vs Jordan match, January 13, 2020. He had to play in the midfield to be the connection between the back and front line.

After the game, Park explained his decision on putting two shields in front of the defense.

"Vietnam has many new and inexperienced players. If they concede early, there is the chance they will become dispirited quickly. Our goal was keeping a clean sheet in the first half. We started to attack from the 60th minute, when the opponent's stamina decreased," he said.

In the second half, he subbed one DMF out for a striker. Thanh Son was replaced by striker Ha Duc Chinh. Vietnam switched to 3-5-2 formation. Quang Hai returned to his strong suit: being an attacking midfielder and a creative playmaker. He obliged, creating three chances for the strikers, one of them the best opportunity Vietnam had in the game. In the 83rd minute, Hai made a lofted pass to Tien Linh in the box; and if the 22-year-old striker hadn't hesitated, he could've scored.

The touch map of Nguyen Quang Hai in the second half, when he was relased from the midfield and played closer to opponents box to create more chances for the strikers.

The touch map of Nguyen Quang Hai in the second half, when he was relased from the midfield and played closer to opponent's box to create more chances for the strikers.

Jordan had studied Vietnam quite well before the game. They always put pressure on Duc Chien, preventing him from passing to Hoang Duc and Quang Hai. Having no other option, Chien were forced to pass right to midfielder Ho Tan Tai, who failed to make an impact on the flank.

Although Chien played well as a DMF, having been a centre-back, he lacked the versatility of national team midfielders like Do Hung Dung or Nguyen Tuan Anh. And coach Park didn't have a better choice. Thanh Son was too slow in ball transition and was replaced by Trieu Viet Hung, a great passer but who is unable to contribute to the defense.

Nguyen Duc Chien is great at defending, but cannot be a playmaker. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

Nguyen Duc Chien is great at defending, but cannot be a playmaker. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

The defense line also displayed a problem. No centre-back could make accurate long passes or start an attack like national players Que Ngoc Hai or Do Duy Manh. The wingbacks, as mentioned above, lacked speed and skills to assist the front line.

With such systemic issues in the information, Vietnam can only count on a couple of players who can make a difference, like Quang Hai and Hoang Duc. Hopefully, coach Park can introduce tactical changes to have the team function better. Time’s running out for Vietnam, the 2018 runners-up, to make a difference in this tournament.

 
 
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