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Ill-prepared and disorganised: Malaysia's dismal end to AFF Suzuki Cup caps a worrying decline since 2019

03:30 GMT+3 21/12/2021
Malaysia vs Indonesia, 2020 AFF Suzuki Cup, 19 Dec 2021
Crashing out of the 2020 AFF Championship, Malaysia failed to live up to the high of two years ago

When the curtains closed on a year of international football in 2019, the Malaysia national team was seen to be in an upward trajectory, a year on from reaching the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup final and building on that success during a gallant opening run of the World Cup 2022 campaign where Indonesia and Thailand were brought to their knees, while United Arab Emirates (UAE) were almost humiliated at Bukit Jalil.

Just two years later and the progress and improvement seen under the tutelage of Tan Cheng Hoe have all but dissipated with the debacle from the remainder of the qualification process and an early exit from the 2020 AFF Suzuki Cup following defeats to Vietnam and Indonesia, ultimately failing to match the target of reaching the final.

Unable to build on the progress made, Harimau Malaya's performance in Singapore left a lot to be desired and with only less than a week's preparation heading into the regional tournament, it was a campaign that was headed for failure right from the very start.

Heavily criticised for only bringing 24 players to the tournament when in total 30 players were allowed to be registered, Tan left himself with very little room to maneuver during the competition when four players tested positve for Covid-19 and two senior centre backs were struck down with injuries.

Sympathy can be laid in his direction in the fact that his nominal midfield choice of Brendan Gan, Nor Azam Azih and Syamer Kutty Abba were all unavailable for selection because of various illness and injuries. Disaster struck further when stalwarts in Kuala Lumpur City's winning run to claim the 2021 Malaysia Cup in Kenny Pallraj and Akram Mahinan were forced to be dropped because of injuries.

With only one replacement player being called up in the shape of Arif Aiman, it left a gaping hole in midfield with Baddrol Bakhtiar the only experienced player left in that position. To his credit, Mukhairi Ajmal slotted in seamlessly against Cambodia and Laos, but struggled against stronger opponents like Vietnam.

Kogileswaran's wonderful opener in the Indonesia clash momentarily gave Malaysia hope and perhaps it would have been completely different had Syafiq Ahmad put away the chance created by a glorious Safawi Rasid through ball but lapses in concentration during defensive situation put paid to any chance of advancing past the group stage.

Of the starting back four against Indonesia, only Rizal Ghazali played regularly throughout the 2021 season and even he struggled against Arhan Pratama and Ramai Rumakiek. Junior Eldstal, Dion Cools and Syahmi Safari just did not have enough minutes in their legs going into this competition and were cruelly exposed by the intensity and pressing shown by the energetic Indonesian side.

Syahmi was culpable during the concession of the first two goals, allowing opponents to ghost in behind him for the first of Irfan Jaya's brace, before getting sucked into a position that did not need his presence and thus allowing the attacker from PSS Sleman with the easiest of tap-ins at the far post.

For much of his reign in charge of the national team, Tan has always come across as someone who fervently believes in a vertical style of possession-based attacking football and building up from the back, but perhaps desperation kicked in going into the second half trailing and needing to chase the game as he went completely out of character with his tactics.

Pushing Cools up front, Malaysia opted to do away with progressing the ball or the use of width of the pitch and went for a more traditional route one tactic that must have pleased Shin Tae-yong, who knew Fachruddin Aryanto, Alfreanda Dewangga and later Elkan Baggott would all relish and win those aerial duels with consummate ease.

Having persevered with the same tactics even when it hasn't worked against Vietnam in the past, it was baffling to see the lack of cohesion and unnecessary urgency with 45 minutes still left to be played and only trailing by a single goal.

Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) and Tan must heed the warning signs and take great learnings from this tournament. Better planning must be put in place to give the national team a better chance of being competitive in future competitions.

The third round of the 2023 Asian Cup qualification will come around in the middle of 2022 but preparations and planning must be done immediately with support from the Malaysian Football League (MFL) to support in terms of domestic football fixture calendar.

There will be calls for Tan to be removed from the head coach role but with the Asian Cup qualification still a real possibility, perhaps now is a better time for improvement and preparations instead of a complete change. The spark that performances in 2019 created must be rediscovered.