Rubbing off beads of sweat while trudging off the pitch following the Lion City Sailors’ resounding 7-1 win over Balestier Khalsa on Saturday, Gabriel Quak had reason to smile as he reflected on a productive evening where he was involved in three out of the Sailors’ seven goals.
In between his perfectly-weighted passes to set up Stipe Plazibat and Adam Swandi for their goals, he also notched an intelligent pre-assist ball over the top for Plazibat, who teed up Saifullah Akbar for the latter’s maiden Sailors goal.
Despite his impressive performance in the Sailors’ commanding win, however, the 29-year-old remains unsatisfied. Instead, Gabriel was more interested in reflecting on where he and the Sailors can improve for their upcoming Singapore Premier League (SPL) matches.
“The manner in which we scored some of the goals was exactly how Coach Aurelio (Vidmar) wanted us to play our football…I was really pleased with how we moved the ball as compared to our previous games, but it’s still not a complete team performance if you ask me,” said Gabriel. “There were still some errors from us here and there, so that’s where we need to improve on.
“For myself, I could have scored a hat-trick in the second half, but fatigue let me down in my finishing. This is what happens when games are played every three to four days. But I’m not too worried (about not scoring) because I’m getting into the key positions that I need to be in.”
Gabriel has recorded four assists so far this season, making him the joint-top assist maker in the league alongside teammate Plazibat and Tampines’ Jordan Webb.
And the Singapore international, who also has two goals to his name, is pleased with how his Sailors career has panned out so far. This is especially after a knee injury forced him to make cameos off the bench in the first two matches following the SPL restart, before finally returning to the starting eleven for the next three.
“I thought I won’t feature at all in the first game back (against Geylang International) as Coach felt it was better not to risk me with games coming thick and fast,” said Gabriel, who joined the Sailors after an excellent 2019, where he scored 11 goals in all competitions and captained the Warriors to the Singapore Cup final.
“But he still decided to give me some minutes to slowly ease me back – which was a great gesture from him. He brought me on in a crucial moment where Geylang was starting to come back strongly at 2-0 down, and that helped as I played a part in the final two goals that effectively killed the game off. From there, things just got better for me and I believe the best is yet to come.”
While widely known as a fleet-footed winger, Gabriel has these days morphed into an all-rounded attacker – one who is capable of playing through the middle or drifting infield to create chances.
While crediting his coaches at Warriors for the initial transformation, Gabriel revealed that he is now receiving crucial inputs from former Aurelio to bring his game to another level in this newfound role.
It is of no coincidence that the Sailors tactician was a legendary attacking midfielder who scored 17 times in 41 appearances for the Socceroos from 1991 to 2001.
“Coach actually sat me down for coffee before the season started to share his plans for me. He liked me in the middle because of my ability to create and what I can offer in tight spaces,” shared Gabriel. “With his experience as an attacking midfielder from his playing days, he knows exactly what he wants from a player in that position so that makes it much easier for me.
“Also, after playing on the flanks all these years, I think my runs are smarter and more effective now. So I told him I’ll play anywhere in the attacking third, and we even spoke about using me as a false nine before Stipe arrived.
“Not all players can play more than one position, so I’m really glad that I can add this new dimension to my game at this stage of my career. It’s a good option for Coach too, as he can work out his game plan without being so rigid.”
It has taken a while, but it seems like the team is now getting to grips with Aurelio’s coaching philosophy. The Sailors have looked fluent in attack in recent matches, and have scored 19 goals in five matches since the restart, making them the league’s current top scorers.
Gabriel puts that success down to ‘everyone having a common goal’.
“It’s a breeze (for the attackers) to work with each other because we don’t just want to win; we also want to bring the best out of each other,” he emphasised. “We know deep down Stipe is gunning for the Golden Boot so we’re all helping him.
“It’s also down to Coach’s excellent man management that we all know our roles. For example, Adam (Swandi) isn’t sulking because he’s not starting. He knows he will come in at some stage during the game and indeed he has done well in all his appearances off the bench. This happiness in the team is important for us to be successful. The moment selfishness kicks in, that’s a recipe for failure.”
Next up for the Sailors is a rematch against second-from-bottom Tanjong Pagar United at Bishan Stadium on Friday night (Nov 13). Gabriel believes the boys are out to prove a point after they could only eke out a 1-1 draw against the gritty Jaguars in their first match of the season.
“I’m personally looking forward to this match ever since the final whistle sounded in that first game,” said the veteran. “Tanjong Pagar have yet to win probably due to their thin squad, but they always put up a good fight in every game. So we have to be physically ready for the challenge and I believe everyone is eager to make amends for that result.”
Currently five points adrift of pacesetters Tampines Rovers with seven games to go, Gabriel is setting the bar high for the Sailors.
“Why not?” he replied, when asked about whether it is realistic to target an unbeaten run for the second half of this season. “When our team was assembled, our aim was to try and win every game.
“It takes time for a newly-assembled team to get going, but excuses will run out as time passes. We need to improve on our consistency. The 4-0 win against Geylang counted for nothing because we lost to Albirex (Niigata (S) in the following match; likewise for the 5-0 win against Young Lions, because we then drew with Hougang (United).
“We need to cultivate a winning mentality and make winning a habit if we want to seriously challenge for the title and be a successful side for years to come.”