A new coach, a new philosophy and a lot of hard work to learn the ropes, but the Lion City Sailors continue to cut through choppy waters, extending their unbeaten run in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) to 11 matches.
Ushering in the Kim Do-hoon era with a hard-fought 1-1 draw with defending champions Albirex Niigata (S), the Sailors were next made to dig deep to secure another 1-1 draw with Balestier Khalsa. The first win under the renowned South Korean coach would finally come in a convincing 4-1 triumph over title rivals Tampines Rovers, a result – and performance – that made the football fraternity stand up and take notice.
Here, we round up the major talking points from the Sailors’ first three games under the former Ulsan Hyundai man.
Kim’s Sailors revolution is starting to take shape
The arrival of AFC Champions League (ACL)-winning coach Kim Do-hoon signalled the Sailors’ real ambitions of becoming one of the best clubs in Asia. There can be no doubts about his credentials, but there were segments in the fraternity who wondered what exactly he would bring to the table.
Three games in, and Singapore has gotten a glimpse of what is in store for the rest of the campaign and beyond.
The 51-year-old has placed a strong emphasis on a solid team structure in view of building a side that is not just defensively sound but also effective going forward. And things started to take shape in his first outing against Albirex. The Sailors appeared more tactically savvy at the back than before, limiting space for their opponents to run in behind and capitalise on.
A demanding trainer who focuses a lot on discipline and fitness, the effects of his approach could already be seen in the Sailors’ following game against Balestier. The team were able to find an extra gear in the latter stages of the game, they out-ran and out-fought the Tigers before finally breaking down the door with a 95th-minute equaliser.
His fluid attacking approach that taps on the tactical awareness and game intelligence of individual players, is perhaps the most interesting. There are big responsibilities placed on players who are expected to take up different positions to capitalise on opportunities and space when presented in the game.
It all came to fruition against Tampines, with the game’s first goal perfectly encapsulating the new Sailors way.
With Stipe Plazibat dropping deep in midfield to hold up the ball, Gabriel Quak instinctively moved into the space the Croatian front man had vacated. The 2020 SPL Player of the Year was presented with an open path to goal and scored with a classy lob.
Kim’s high-pressing game plan was also on show, with the Stags unable to handle the Sailors’ rapid transition from defence to attack. Case in point: the Sailors’ second goal. It was just 10 seconds between Shahdan Sulaiman winning the ball in midfield to Stipe slamming the ball into the back of the net. The final two goals also came in a similar fashion.
With the team now starting to play Kim’s way – and effectively executing his plan on the pitch – fans can look forward to some exciting football in the remainder of the season.
The real Faris Ramli is back
Faris Ramli was unable to break into the Sailors’ first eleven in the first half of the season, he started just once and was introduced as an impact substitute on numerous occasions. It was understandably not a role he expected when he joined the Sailors after a season with Malaysia’s Terengganu FC.
But things are looking up for the 2019 SPL Player of the Year.
He has been largely involved in Kim’s first three games, playing the full 90 minutes in the big games against Albirex and Tampines, and was also the first substitute to be called upon to change the team’s fortunes in the first half of the 1-1 draw with Balestier.
Faris has not hid his frustrations at playing a bit-part role and has acknowledged that he had to stay the “most patient” in all his career, but he kept plugging away and is now seeing the fruits of his labour. The free-spirited 28-year-old played his best game of the season in the handsome win over the Stags, contributing three assists for the four Sailors’ goals.
Faris also put in a solid defensive shift, showing plenty of industry to win possession in crucial areas, even tracking back to perform his defensive duties in the dying moments of the game.
Having a Faris who is firing on all cylinders can only be a good thing for the Sailors who go into the business end of the season looking to come out on top of the league.
Missing key players? No problem
It is no secret that the Sailors have a quality squad at their disposal, with solid options on the bench ready to be called upon into action when needed. And the strength in depth is paying off.
Kim had to cope with the absence of the midfield trio of Saifullah Akbar, Shahdan and Song Ui-young through suspension against reigning champions Albirex.
Then against another title rival in the form of Tampines, the Sailors have to contend without the Brazilian duo Jorge Fellipe and Diego due to suspension and injury respectively. Many teams would have struggled without their leader at the back and star signing in such a big game, but the Sailors managed to plug those gaps with minimal fuss.
Kim is unbeaten in his first three matches as Sailors coach, and his ability to shape a team that can cope without key players can only breed confidence in the Sailors ranks as they battle for their first-ever SPL title.