HAGL are the biggest surprise of V. League 2021, winning seven of nine games so far and losing only one.
They are no longer the inconsistent and motivation-lacking team fans used to see in past seasons. They have become a solid and mature squad with a tremendous desire to win. It all started when coach Kiatisuk took over the team in December last year and made some major changes.
Beautiful but effective style
“When I became HAGL manager, I knew the club owner wanted me to help the team play beautiful football. But personally, beautiful football must result in winning games. That’s why I let the team play offensive football but with short and precise passes since long balls would require greater stamina from Asian players,” Kiatisuk said in a post-match interview on April 2.
In just a short time, the Thai coach turned HAGL into a team that are powerful in possessive play and can adjust the tempo of the game whenever they want. They also make the most of their chances every time the goals are in sight. The players have improved their stamina as well, with the main squad capable of playing a full game every four days without substitutions.
“My philosophy in the past or present, at HAGL or even the Thailand national team, focuses on possessive play with fast and accurate passes. I also tell players before each game to not commit many fouls since that would create more chances for the opponent,” he added.
Strengthen the defense
For years, their backline has been a weakness for HAGL. To make the defense more solid, Kiatisuk decided to recruit 26-year-old center-back Kim Dong-su, a product of German club Hamburger SV after scouting the player himself. The Thai coach then switched HAGL’s formation to 3-5-2, forming a three-man defense with Kim, Serbian Damir Memovic and Nguyen Huu Tuan. Other wingbacks like Nguyen Phong Hong Duy and Vu Van Thanh are ready to support the center-backs at any time.
Hoang Anh Gia Lai players celebrate the victory over SHB Da Nang on April 8, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.
While other V. League clubs spent their money on foreign strikers or forwards, HAGL chose to invest in their defense. In fact, they are the only team in the league that have two foreign defenders playing side by side. Thanks to Kiatisuk’s adjustment, HAGL’s defense has become much more reliable this season. After nine games, they conceded only six goals, three of them in their latest match.
“This season, the team have focused more on defensive tactics while training. Coach Kiatisuk said to win the game, we must be good in defense,” midfielder Luong Xuan Truong said.
Putting things in the right place
HAGL finished seventh last season, winning only six out of 20 matches.
Kiatisuk really knows how to get the best out of his players this season. For example, Nguyen Cong Phuong, a roaming forward, has been playing as a central midfielder in recent games for HAGL. With great ball control and roaming ability, Phuong helped the HAGL midfield retain possession.
His lofted passes also have high accuracy and an element of surprise, especially when on the offense are forwards with great pace like Nguyen Van Toan and Brazilian Washington Brandão. In his new role, Phuong can also penetrate the box with excellent dribbling skills and create trouble for the opponent. His two goals against Viettel FC and HCMC FC have proven just that.
Under Kiatisuk’s lead, Vietnam national players at HAGL are enjoying their best season so far. Van Toan is leading the V. League scoresheet with six goals, and Cong Phuong right behind on five. Midfielder Nguyen Minh Vuong has netted three goals and wingback Van Thanh, two. With Vietnam set to play the remaining World Cup Asian qualifiers in June, this could set great momentum.
In the past five seasons, away matches were always HAGL’s nightmare, with their related number of losses four times higher than their victories. But Kiatisuk has improved the situation by helping the squad win its recent away games against Viettel and Hai Phong FC. So far, the team has claimed seven points in away games this season, already more than their total away points of last season.
Hoang Anh Gia Lai players celebrate the intense win against Nam Dinh FC in the V. League match on April 12, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dong Huyen.
Winning V. League has never been an easy task. But it seems HAGL have what it takes to become a champion, thanks to the difference made by Kiatisuk. But the 47-year-old coach remains humble about the club’s impressive run.
“We will try to stay in the top four first, then think about the title race later.”
Kiatisuk “Zico” Senamuang was a legendary Thai striker. During his 18-year career, Kiatisuk scored 251 goals in 339 appearances. He used to play for HAGL from 2002 to 2006, helping the Central Highlands club get promoted to V. League 1, then winning the title in 2003 and 2004. In 2006, he coached and played for the club at the same time and retired at the end of the season.
In 2010, he returned to coach HAGL but failed to achieve good results. Later, Kiatisuk returned to Thailand to coach local clubs like Chula United and Bangkok United, then managed the Thai national team from 2013 to 2017, helping it advance to the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifiers and win 2016 AFF Cup.