Gombak 1 Tampines 1 | Another favourite stifled by the 4-1-4-1

Posted on February 19, 2011

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Just three days after Balestier held Home United to 1-1 draw at Toa Payoh with a fluid 4-1-4-1 set-up, another S.League title contender – Tampines Rovers – was frustrated by a similar set-up at Gombak United. But while Home dominated possession and Balestier needed a super performance from Paul Cunningham in defence, Tampines struggled to gain dominance over a defensive-minded Gombak team which relied on every individual’s contribution.

The goals came from dead ball situations. Tampines scored first through Park Yo Seb via a corner, while Gombak equalised through Park Kang Jin after Chang Jo Yoon saw his spotkick saved. They were lucky to get the penalty in the first place, with Hamqaamal Shah looking like he had dived when challenged by Benoit Croissant in the box.

The Starting XIs

Try as he might, Gombak head coach Darren Stewart cannot deny his team was set-up defensively in a 4-1-4-1. Walid Lounis started in the centre of defence alongside Obadin Aikhena, meaning Jaslee Hatta moved out to the left. Tengku Mushadad assumed the midfield anchor role, flanked by Park Kang Jin and Ridhwan Jamaludin in the centre. Zulkifli Hassim played in an attacking right-wing role – much like Bruno Castanheira does for Albirex Niigata – while Chang Jo Yoon led the line alone. In essence the formation was an ultra-defensive version of the Japanese outfit’s.

Tampines started again as expected, in their 3-4-2-1 formation. With Aliff Shafaein still unable to pass his beep test, head coach Steven Tan had two options. One, bring in Jamil Ali as a straight replacement for Aliff, with Shahdan Sulaiman partnering Akihiro Nakamura. Two, bring in Shukor Zailan to partner Aki, and push Shahdan forward in a more measured approach. He chose the latter. Meanwhile, Ismadi Mukhtar was picked ahead of the more defensive-minded Zahid Ahmad at left-wingback.

Gombak clog up the midfield

Gombak’s three central midfielders – Tengku, Ridhwan and Park K J – sat very deep in midfield. This was probably because everyone knows Tampines always have two attacking men (from a choice of Jamil Ali, Ahmad Latiff, Ahmad Fahmie and Aliff) working the space between the lines behind main striker Aleksandar Duric.

This tactic worked. Duric was starved of any decent service, and spent most of the game yelling at his team-mates in frustration for playing hopeful (and impossible to reach) balls forward. The only drawback of this on Gombak’s side, in my opinion, is that they effectively negate their own quality. Ridhwan and Park are two very good, creative, midfielders but here their role was simply to break up play and deny Shahdan and Latiff space.

Gombak did have one outlet for attack though: Zulkifli Hassim’s pace. The 25-year-old former Woodlands man used his electrifying pace time and again to get past Ismadi (who, as pointed out earlier, is not as good a defensively as Zahid) and charge towards Park Yo Seb. Once in the second half, he even left Park Y S on his backside having zipped past him on the touchline. But for all his advantage of speed, Zulkifli’s decision making was very poor. Three times in the game, he bore down on goal but decided to shift inside on his weaker left foot. The result? All three chances went wide. He was hauled off for Ruhaizad Ismail with 20 minutes to go.

Tampines ring in the changes

Tampines also made changes around this time. Steven threw Jamil on for Shukor and shifted to a lopsided 3-4-3, with Latiff bombing forward on the right and Ismadi doing the same on the left. Imran moved inside to sit in the middle while Aki tried to help out as much as he could. Fahmie came on for Latiff but could not do much in his 8 minutes on the pitch.

Despite their efforts and pressure on the Gombak defence, Tampines only created one very good chance in the last 20 minutes of the match. It fell to Jamil, whose shot from about 10 yards went just a foot wide of the post and into the side netting.

How can Tampines overcome defensive sides?

Steven was visibly irritated at the final whistle. He was quoted later as saying that he expected more teams to adopt the 4-1-4-1 or 4-5-1 formation in a bid to trip up the big teams such as Tampines and Home, and that his team had to find a way to overcome it.

So how can they do it? Again, they can do two things. One option is to scrap the 3-4-2-1 formation for something else. The other is to tweak how they play. Since they’ve been playing in the 3-4-2-1 for the best part of the last half-decade, I think the more sensible option is the latter. I’ve said before that Tampines might struggle going forward this season, but judging by a few moments last night, all is not lost.

With Shahdan and Latiff dominated by the Bulls’ midfield trio, that meant Aki and Shukor had A LOT of time and space in the middle of midfield. Unfortunately, both stayed in their normal deep positions for most of their duration on the pitch. One the rare occasion Aki decided to move further forward, Gombak’s numerical advantage was lost and they momentarily looked unable to deal with the 3 v 3 situation.

This was the same when Benoit Croissant charged forward once or twice with the ball. With an extra man to deal with in the midfield area, Gombak suddenly seemed troubled, and this could be key to overcoming teams that pack their midfield.

Seiji Kaneko, Park Y S and Croissant are very good defenders with good technique and physiques. It is an utter waste – like last night – if all three stay behind to deal with the threat of a solitary striker. Perhaps if they – and one of Tampines’ two holding midfielders – get more involved in the buildup of their side’s attacks, they could negate the defensive tactics of their future opponents.

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Posted in: Gombak, S.League, Tampines