Penalties expose Vietnam's weakness in defense

By Xuan Binh   October 16, 2021 | 09:39 pm PT
Vietnam had suffered penalties seven times in their eight most recent games due to VAR technology, problematic defensive habits and the level gap with opponents.

Penalties are haunting Vietnam game by game. In the final round of Asian World Cup qualifiers alone, four penalties were awarded to the opposite team in Vietnam’s last four matches. On average, a penalty is given against Vietnam every game.

For the other 11 teams in the final round, they have only suffered eight penalties in a total 120 World Cup qualifiers. That’s one penalty per 11 games on average.

What happened to Vietnam was not a coincidence. There are solid reasons behind the reoccurring penalties.

The presence of VAR technology

Vietnam have played five matches with the video assistant referee technology so far and five penalties were given against them. The first match was in Asian Cup 2019, when VAR helped Japan get a penalty after defender Bui Tien Dung fouled Ritsu Doan inside the box. Thanks to that penalty, Japan won 1-0. The other four penalties came from two games in the World Cup final qualifying round against Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Referee Adham Makhadmeh reviews a situation on VAR in the World Cup qualifiers game between Oman and Vietnam on October 12, 2021. Photo by Asian Football Confederation

Referee Adham Makhadmeh reviews a situation on VAR in the World Cup qualifiers game between Oman and Vietnam on October 12, 2021. Photo by Asian Football Confederation

Of the five penalties mentioned above, the referee twice gave a penalty without checking VAR. In the other three penalties, VAR reported to the referee and he reviewed the fouls on video before making the call. Every time the referee reviewed an error by Vietnam, it resulted in a penalty. But when an Australian defender used his hand to block the ball from Nguyen Phong Hong Duy's shot, the referee did nothing even after checking the situation on VAR. Some said Vietnam were unlucky, but rules are rules and that the defender didn't intentionally put his hand out.

However, the other 11 teams also played matches using VAR and the number of penalties given against them were way lower than Vietnam. In the past 24 games of the World Cup final qualifying round, Vietnam have been penalized four times, UAE once and the remaining 10 teams never.

Defensive weaknesses exposed

VAR is not responsible for the penalties. It just helps bring Vietnam's defensive issues to light. The fouls that led to the penalties were all avoidable, but Vietnam defenders just kept repeating the same mistake and made unnecessary errors. It's not the fault of any individual, but rather a systemic problem.

Of eight penalties given against Vietnam, four came from the hands of defenders. Left-back Doan Van Hau committed two fouls by pushing opponents inside the box during the second qualifying round games against Thailand and Malaysia. Recently, right-back Ho Tan Tai swung his hand across the face of an Oman attacker while center-back Do Duy Manh repeated the same foul an hour later. Two penalties in a game with the same error says a lot about the defensive habits of Vietnam's players.

"One of the reasons why Vietnam defenders often make penalty errors like that came from their playing style and habit in V. League. In domestic tournaments, they get used to playing like that, maybe because they were taught from a young age that it's fine to use their hands in defending. Things are different when they go to the international stage and they will be penalized for such errors. For players in other teams, they understand the rules better and know when to use their hands or not," said former assistant referee Phan Viet Thai.

This is Vietnam’s first time in the final round of World Cup qualifiers, while of the other five teams in group B, four have qualified for World Cup before. Oman are also a regular face in the final round. With such experience, these teams don’t make mistakes like Vietnam.

Now a football expert, Thai said to improve the current situation, players must avoid making unnecessary movements in defense, especially with their hands, and that VAR should be used in V. League as soon as possible.

"With VAR, the players will be more careful. V. League would be amazing with VAR. Once that happened, coaches will change their way of training young players. We must take action right away," Thai said.

Vietnam’s way of defending needs to change and it can’t be done in a day or two. But defenders can start by learning and improving from and on their recent mistakes when facing stronger opponents.

Level gap between Vietnam and other teams

Vietnam are considered the weakest team of group B and the large level gap was shown in these defensive errors when facing teams higher up in FIFA world rankings. When trying to stop such stronger, faster and sharper players, it was really difficult for Vietnam defenders to avoid committing fouls, especially inside the box. The opponents in this round know how to make the most out of Vietnam’s errors, even the smallest ones.

"Vietnam are facing really strong teams with dangerous attackers that have the ability to exploit the weaknesses in defense to earn penalties," football expert Gabriel Tan told VnExpress.

It’s really hard for defenders to mark players who are quick, skilled and have great positioning as well as movement inside the box. For example, star forward Wu Lei caused a lot of trouble for the 21-year-old center-back Nguyen Thanh Binh when China played Vietnam on Oct. 7. Wu exploited Binh’s lack of experience to score two similar goals, using his great pace and positioning to escape the young defender. And even if Binh could stop Wu, it’s most likely he would have to commit fouls, penalizing Vietnam.

"When Vietnam faced China, Wu Lei showed off his excellent movement and positioning inside the box. If China didn’t have him in the game, Vietnam could have won. That’s the difference between the top teams and Vietnam. Remember Wu Lei, who’s playing for Spanish club Espanyol, has scored against Barcelona before," Tan said.

Vietnam (white) play China in a World Cup qualifier game on October 7, 2021. Photo by AFP

Vietnam (white) play China in a World Cup qualifier game on October 7, 2021. Photo by AFP

The China clash was just Binh's second game for the national team and he already had to face a famous forward in Spanish top league La Liga, so it’s understandable when the young defender couldn’t keep up with Wu. Vietnam coach Park Hang-seo also admitted he was wrong when putting Binh in the game. But thanks to that decision, people could see the huge gap in level between Vietnam and the top teams of Asia.

Vietnam are on their longest losing streak in history with five consecutive defeats. But this streak is not meaningless. Coach Park and his players know exactly where they are standing, what they need to learn and how they can improve. Playing against top opponents has uncovered Vietnam’s weaknesses and limitations, which is necessary for future development.

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