The disappointment etched on the faces of the Lion City Sailors players at the final whistle on Wednesday night was palpable.

The 1-1 draw with Tampines Rovers in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) meant they missed out on qualifying for next season’s AFC Champions League.

On the surface, it would have been easy to brand the Sailors’ debut season a washout. After all, they had fallen short of their initial target of winning the SPL title this year, and would also not finish the season as the best local team in the league.

But a closer look at their overall campaign illustrates that there are plenty of reasons why this year can still be considered a success for the Sailors, and why fans should be excited about what the team can deliver next season.

Rising stars raise their game to the next level

It has been a good year for the Sailors’ Under-23 youngsters, with a number of them given significant playing time and becoming better players. Just look at Naqiuddin Eunos, who made the left-back position his own this season despite originally being a winger. The 23-year-old has started every game this season, and has improved tremendously while going toe-to-toe with top SPL attackers such as Jordan Webb, Shawal Anuar and Hazzuwan Halim without looking out of place.

Further up the field, Saifullah Akbar has been a revelation in the middle of the pitch. Often deployed as part of a midfield three, the technically gifted 21-year-old’s mature performances alongside his senior teammates Shahdan Sulaiman and Song Ui-Young has seen him earn the trust of head coach Aurelio Vidmar. He has gradually developed into a modern playmaker who is capable of not just playing the passes, but also getting on the end of moves to finish them off.

In attack, electric winger Arshad Shamim has added end product to his blistering style of play with key goal involvements in the 4-0 win over Young Lions and the 1-1 draw with Tampines. Hardworking and industrious, the 20-year-old has certainly shown that he has the potential to be a national team player in future.

With the advantage of working day in day out with top quality players, the Lion City Sailors provide an ideal environment for these starlets to develop and thrive. Expect more of such young talents to burst onto the scene under the tutelage of coach Aurelio in the coming seasons.

Re-inventing experienced players and bringing the best out of them

It is not just the young players who are shining – the more experienced stars at the club have evolved and upped their game to another level as well. While there may be a tendency for experienced players to simply rely on skill sets and attributes they have honed over the years, coach Aurelio has challenged his senior stars to get out of their comfort zone and re-invent themselves to suit his tactical system.

And they have responded magnificently.

Known as a combative no-nonsense defender over the years, Aqhari Abdullah has morphed into a modern full-back this season with the ability to bomb forward and put in dangerous crosses into the area.

And how can we not mention the transformation of Gabriel Quak, who has contributed five goals and seven assists so far? Yes, the 29-year-old midfielder – who has been deployed on the wings for most of his career – did start playing centrally while at his previous club Warriors FC back in 2019. But this season, Gabriel has managed to be even more influential in central areas for the Sailors.

Often moving infield to link up effectively with the other attackers, he would also cause havoc in opposition defences with his intelligent off-the-ball running through the middle of the park. And, with chief forward Stipe Plazibat unable to play the last few games of the season due to injury, Aurelio has deployed Gabriel as a False 9 up top to devastating effect – just look at the impact he made in the 3-0 win over Geylang International in the dying stages of the game.

Attractive possession-based football

Even though results this season may not have always gone their way, the Sailors have persisted with playing an attractive brand of football throughout, and that has won over admirers. Ever since the league restarted in mid-October, coach Aurelio’s philosophy of a possession-based style of play has been evident in all the matches, with some of the football they put on display worthy of being included in a highlights reel.

The football has been free-flowing at times, with the Sailors midfielders and attackers exchanging passes at an almost telepathic level and showing great interchange of play in the final third. The best example was Song’s goal in the Sailors’ 6-1 win over Tanjong Pagar United where he played a couple of one-twos with Stipe, before lashing the ball into the back of the net to cap off a superb team goal.

Courtesy of the hard work put on the training ground, every player now knows their role on the counter – this understanding was evident in the opening goal of the Sailors’ 3-0 away win over Geylang, with the move starting all the way at the back with Hassan Sunny and ending with Song’s emphatic finish.

The Sailors have also picked up the second-highest number of points – 23 – among the eight teams since the restart, which shows the fruits of playing a style of football that is pleasing on the eye. The Sailors’ approach to the game is one which can help Singapore football on a whole – not just in terms of attracting fans to the stadiums (once restrictions are lifted), but also one that helps improve the players and puts them in good stead to face quality international opponents.

Fearsome attacking prowess

If there is one thing you can be certain of when you watch a Sailors’ game, it is that there will be goals. Aurelio’s men have scored in every single game this season, bar the 4-0 loss to Tampines earlier in March.

No team has recorded more than the Sailors’ tally of 38 goals since the restart, with the team averaging more than three goals per game. No less than 12 different Sailors have also found the back of the net this season – even centre-backs Kaishu Yamazaki and Tajeli Salamat have a couple of goals each! This just goes to show that the team does not solely rely on Stipe for goals.

It has also long been lamented that there is a dearth of local strikers who can hit the back of the net on a regular basis. Based on how the Sailors’ local attacking contingent performed this year, those worries may soon be put to rest. After all, Gabriel is the top local scorer with five goals despite not playing as an out-and-out forward. Adam Swandi has four goals to his name – all of which came from the bench – while the evergreen Shahril Ishak has scored twice despite his limited game time. It goes to show that with hard work and proper guidance, these local players can flourish in the goalscoring department.

Fighting spirit and impressive fitness levels

As cliché as it sounds, the hallmark of a great team is how they react when the chips are down. And it was evident throughout the season that this group of players have tremendous team spirit, as they kept fighting for one another throughout the full 90 minutes of each game. Whenever the team trailed, there was no sulking or finger-pointing. The team simply rallied together to muster a response.

Another trend over the course of the season is that the Sailors tend to finish matches as the stronger side, just like how they did against Tampines at the Bishan Stadium. The statistics back this point up – among the eight teams in the league, Aurelio’s men have scored the greatest number of goals (10) in the final 10 minutes. Their nearest challengers in this aspect, Albirex, have only managed to record six goals.

Being able to finish the game strongly can be attributed to the impressive fitness levels of the team. It is a real feat, given that the Sailors had to play more matches since the restart as compared to other teams – with a gruelling schedule of 11 games played over 36 days prior to the final game against Balestier. Credit also has to be given to the medical and fitness department for their tireless work in getting the players to recover and keep them in optimal condition.

The players’ superior fitness levels and tremendous work ethic will only serve the team well, especially at the continental level where they will face bigger and fitter opponents. Hopefully, that will come in the form of the AFC Champions League in the near future. For now, though, the Sailors have to be content with the second-tier AFC Cup – which could prove to be a perfect tune-up for the team’s future ambitions.