Coming off a successful 2018 campaign, where they finished second in the Singapore Premier League, and were crowned champions in the AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal Finals, Home United were expected to challenge for trophies on all fronts this season. Given reigning champions, Albirex Niigata’s poor form in pre-season, Home were quickly labelled as favourites for the league title. What went wrong?
1) Failure to replace Shakir Hamzah
Shakir Hamzah was ever present in the Home United defence last season, playing either in the centre or on the left. He was crucial as Home romped to the AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal title. His ability on the ball allowed Home to play out from the back, and his composure and assuredness in defence kept out many of the region’s top strikers.
Shakir even popped up with the crucial first goal in the second leg of the ASEAN Zonal finals.
Speaking to Fox Sports, 2018 Home Head Coach Aidil Sharin described Shakir as “the best player in Singapore at the moment”, and Shakir’s decision to follow Aidil to Kedah FA proved a huge blow for the entire Home team.
To replace Shakir, Home’s new Head Coach Saswadimata Dasuki signed Ho Wai Loon from Warriors FC. Playing at left back, Wai Loon has looked out of his depth this season. His lack of stature and positional awareness means he is often caught napping when defending crosses, with opposition wingers easily escaping his attention at the far post.
He is also often caught out of position in defensive transitions. Against Tampines Rovers, centre back Faizal Roslan was constantly seen covering for Wai Loon, who looked lost as he ambled across the pitch. Tampines winger Ryutaro Megumi easily beat Wai Loon each time he received the ball on the flank and was often able to put in crosses unchallenged.
This lack of positional discipline and defensive nous cost Home, as they conceded five goals against Tampines, a side they were expected to challenge for the league title. Clearly, Wai Loon has yet to find his feet, and this has been a big blow for Home, who have conceded 10 goals in just five games this season.
2) Song Ui-young’s injury
Song Ui-young scored 20 goals for Home United in all competitions last season, including nine in just 11 AFC Cup matches. His ability to pop up with crucial goals in the semi-finals and finals of the ASEAN Zonal round of the AFC Cup led Home to the Zonal title. Rejecting a lucrative contract from Indonesian giants Persija Jakarta to stay with Home, Song was expected to lead the line once again for Home this season.
Yet, he has been sidelined with an injury and has missed the first two games of the SPL season.
Speaking exclusively to VAVEL, Song revealed that he will only return at the end of March. This reliance on Song in attack has led to Home looking toothless up front this season. They have struggled for goals, having scored just three in five games.
This dry spell for the team is likely to continue until Song returns, and Home fans can only cross their fingers and hope that Song will take to the field soon to get their season back on track,
3) A lack of physicality in midfield
In the past, Home were able to call on the likes of Hariss Harun and M. Anumanthan to shield the defence with their strength and positional awareness.
Opposing teams found it difficult to get the ball past Home’s midfield, with Hariss and Anumanthan often winning the ball back for Home, leading to opponents resorting to long balls so as to bypass the midfield.
This season, Home have plenty of flair in midfield, but lack a hard man who does the dirty work; putting in crunching challenges to win the ball back in midfield.
Against Tampines, Home’s midfield was easily overrun, with Shahdan Sulaiman, Yasir Hanapi and Zehrudin Mehmedovic given far too much time and space on the ball. They easily passed the ball through midfield without much resistance from the Home United players.
Even 41-year-old centre-back Daniel Bennett strolled through Home’s midfield with the ball unchallenged several times. It is clear that for all of Izzdin Shafiq’s quality on the ball, and Aqhari Abdullah’s hard running, Home lack an imposing figure who is able to stamp his dominance on the game, and protect their defence while controlling the midfield.
Home have found it difficult to get on the ball and retain possession in the centre of the park this season, and the lack of physicality in midfield will only cost them further as teams continue to exploit the time and space afforded to them.
4) Shahril Ishak isolated up top
Shahril Ishak and Song Ui-young formed a deadly partnership up front last season, with Shahril registering 20 goals and 21 assists in 2018. However, with the absence of Song, Shahril had cut a frustrated and isolated figure up top. While Adam Swandi has tried his best to support Shahril in attack, Shahril was often left to chase hopeful long balls booted over the top against Tampines. He also constantly had to drop deep to receive the ball from the midfield, who were often slow to move forward and support him in attacking transitions.
Whenever Shahril was on the ball, he lacked options and often had to hold up play while support slowly arrived, pass it backwards, or go on his own. With a player of Shahril’s ability to not only score goals but pick out a pass, Home should be looking to constantly offer him outlets to play the ball to.
Yet, against Tampines, he was often left alone, surrounded by three to four yellow shirts.
Home have scored just three goals this season, and two of their goal scorers; Hami Syahin and Song, are out injured. If they do not find a way to make use of Shahril’s undeniable talents and offer him help up front, they are unlikely to score many more.
5) Foreign player slot used on Isaka Cernak
Home have two foreign players on their roster this season, in Song and Isaka Cernak. Signed midway through the 2018 season, Isaka did not impress apart from scoring a goal in the first leg of the AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal Finals. He was often ponderous on the ball, and his decision making was seen to be lacking. He took too many touches in midfield, and this slowed down Home’s play and allowed opposing defenders to get back in shape. He often lost the ball easily as he tried to do too much, instead of picking out the simple pass to an open teammate.
Therefore, it was a surprise when Home retained Isaka for the 2019 season. As a foreign player, Isaka takes up a large portion of Home’s wage budget and does not perform at a level to justify his role as a foreign signing.
Against Tampines, Isaka was left on the bench the entire game, leaving fans questioning why he was even offered a contract for the season. A highly paid player who does not improve Home’s already mediocre midfield and struggles to get off the bench is clearly a huge mistake on the part of Home’s management team, and a reason for their struggles this season.
6)Saswadimata Dasuki’s tactical ineptitude
Assistant coach to Aidil in 2018, Saswa was handed the reins after Aidil departed for Kedah.
Yet, it has been glaringly obvious that Saswa lacks the capability to lead Home challenge for the SPL title this season. His signings, his failure to replace Shakir Hamzah, and the obvious weaknesses in the team that he has not addressed several games into the season are testament to this.
Home were all over the place against Tampines and were easily routed 5-1. After the game, Saswa maintained that he was proud of his team, and laid a large part of the blame on Faizal Roslan for an error that led to Home going 3-0 down on the night.
This lack of ownership and responsibility from the Head Coach after such a poor performance should surely be ringing alarm bells in the Home boardroom.
The only other team managed by Saswa, Sengkang Punggol in the 2008 season, broke the league record for the least number of goals scored, and the record still stands today.
Nothing seems to have changed, with Home struggling for goals this season. It was clear that Home did not have a game plan against Tampines, and struggled to keep the ball.
In the end, they resorted to lumping long balls for Shahril and Adam Swandi to chase, in what turned out to be a wildly ineffective tactic.
Home have been underwhelming this season, and Saswa’s inability to recognise and address the problems that are stacking up each week will cost Home dearly. Its only early days for Home this season, but their fans will hope that the team can turn things around sooner rather than later, having grown so used to success in the past few years.