The Hong Kong team appear to be headed in the right direction despite the team’s elimination from the Asian Cup. Whether they can stay that way depends on whether crucial steps are taken.
Hong Kong’s tournament is over. After surprisingly strong performances against the UAE and Iran, the team were unceremoniously dumped out of the tournament by Palestine.
It is, perhaps, a cruel way to exit the Asian Cup for Hong Kong who won plaudits from observers inside the city and abroad for their high energy, high pressing style of play under head coach Jörn Andersen.
With a win against Palestine, Hong Kong stood a chance of advancing to the Round of 16 as one of four third-placed teams. What unfolded, though, was anything but.
Heading into the match, Andersen had stated that holding midfielders, Wu Chun-ming and Tan Chun-lok, both of whom led the team in distance covered over the first two matches, had been dealing with injuries. He later downplayed the severity of these injuries, indicating that the players would be fit to play on Tuesday.
But after the match, the Norwegian-German boss admitted that four or five players were “not 100 per cent” and that “maybe 10 to 20 percent of the energy from the past two performances was missing.”
This much was obvious to all those who watched the match. Against the UAE, Hong Kong applied 57 direct pressures, forced 57 turnovers, and were able to recover the ball in 9.22 seconds on average. Against Iran, they applied 52 pressures, forced 67 turnovers, and recovered the ball in 9.42 seconds.
Against Palestine, Hong Kong forced more turnovers (78) but applied less direct pressures (37) and took longer to recover the ball (9.71s).
Hong Kong’s sluggish start allowed the Palestinians to play their way out of the back with relative ease. Once the ball was played into midfield, Palestine’s players were able to play diagonal balls out to the flanks to exploit the space left in behind by Hong Kong’s press. Palestine were able to use their two target men effectively to hold the ball up, forcing Hong Kong players to make long recovery runs on tired legs.
Andersen elected to start eight players who had also started the previous two matches. In contrast, Palestine used only six.
Only two changes were made to the starting eleven from the Iran match. The first was in goal where Tse Ka-wing replaced captain Yapp Hung-fai. It had been rumoured that Yapp had suffered a finger injury against Iran, though Andersen did not confirm that this was the case.
There was nothing that Tse could’ve done to prevent any of Palestine’s three goals on Tuesday night, and without him, they may have scored more.
Instead, it was the other change – the insertion of Michael Udebuluzor at centre forward and the switch of Orr from that position to left wing – which were much more consequential. The 19-year-old appeared either unfamiliar with the way that Hong Kong press without the ball or unwilling to do so. He was slow to initiate the press for the team, which gave the Palestinians extra time to move the ball.
He also failed to lead the line for Hong Kong as a centre forward should. While some may defend Udebuluzor by pointing to his age, others can rightly counter that he should not have been given the responsibility of starting a must-win game for Hong Kong.
This was evident in the 31st minute, when Hong Kong had a 3-v-1 opportunity to counter against Palestine. With Everton Camargo open to his right, one would’ve expected any other striker on the team to play into his path. Instead, Udebuluzor took two unnecessary touches on the ball, and played a weak pass to Philip Chan on his left. Unfortunately, Chan, who scored Hong Kong’s only goal of the tournament, was unable to readjust his body.
The decision to play Udebuluzor may forever haunt Andersen, given how well Sun Ming-him had played in the previous match at left wing, and Orr in the central slot.
The tournament was also supposed to have been a coming out party for Everton, whom Andersen had labelled as “Hong Kong’s best footballer” and who revealed last week that he had been speaking with a new agent with an eye to playing in China.
Instead, he may have proven himself to be Hong Kong’s most frustrating player, one who is capable of making magical runs with the ball like he did in the waning minutes of the first half, but also someone fails to deliver an end product at the international level.
No one can blame Everton for shooting in this situation after he had created the chance on his own. But, in situations where passing the ball is the better option, his default instinct is to have a go at it himself, to the detriment of the team.
When Hong Kong were awarded a penalty deep into stoppage time, it was Everton who stepped up to take it. With nearly 500 Hong Kong fans watching – most of whom had been singing and chanting all game – it seemed rather poetic that Everton would rattle the bar, encapsulating Hong Kong’s tournament in one final act.
They were close, but not close enough.
The Lee Man winger finished the tournament with a non-penalty xG of 0.56, second highest on the team next to Chan. Had he scored that penalty, it would’ve been a deserved consolation for his efforts during the Asian Cup.
But alas, the chance was squandered, and one wonders if he may have blown his only chance to write his name into the tournament’s history books. He will be 35 by the time the next tournament rolls around, and his pace and abilities will have diminished.
It is clear after the Asian Cup that Andersen understands the Hong Kong player pool. As he has personally acknowledged, there are no Hong Kong players who can create a goal “out of nothing” – though Everton would beg to differ. Compared to other Asian rivals, they vital lack technical, mental and physical skills such as vision, passing, anticipation, finishing and dribbling.
But Hong Kong players are also not without strengths as they are industrious, have a high work rate, and follow instructions.
Whereas previous managers looked at this group of players and saw a team who were best suited to stay compact defensively, Andersen saw something entirely different. He saw a team who were willing to press from the front, rather than the back, to force turnovers in the opponent’s half.
Andersen understood that Hong Kong lacked players who could put together a 10-pass sequence to build their way out of the back so he never asked them to do so. Instead, he asked them to win the ball in the opponents’ half where they could possibly get in behind with fewer passes. He also asked the players to play the ball long when in danger and not to get caught in possession.
These tactics nearly worked against the UAE and Iran, who appeared shocked at times by how high Hong Kong were willing to press. The chances that Hong Kong were able to create against Iran even led Saman Ghoddos to admit after the match that Hong Kong deserved the three points.
But without the energy to press, Hong Kong cannot stand a chance against stronger teams. Palestine dutifully exposed all of Hong Kong’s flaws with surgical precision, leaving the team completely devoid of answers.
Andersen has expressed concern that all of the work that he has put into raising his players’ fitness levels could be lost after the players return to their clubs. Some of his players, such as Jesse Yu, Marcus Chang, and Law Tsz-chun are not regular starters at their respective clubs, and he feared that their levels will drop before Hong Kong’s next match against Uzbekistan in March.
Whereas Hong Kong could only press with limited intensity in the past, fans were able to see what the team were truly capable of at the Asian Cup. They should rightly demand, as Andersen has, that the clubs in the Premier League also play at a higher pace to improve players’ decision making and increase their stamina. They should continue to ask that the government and the HKFA to schedule more training sessions and matches at night to make it easier for players to play at the faster pace.
But the fans’ concerns mainly fall on Andersen, towards whom they chanted “Stay” after the Palestine match. The coach told Sportsroad that he would only leave if he received an offer from a team that was clearly better than Hong Kong. With the amount of heads he has turned at the Asian Cup, fans are understandably concerned to lose the best coach Hong Kong has had, perhaps, ever.
Nevertheless, fans should remember how happy they were when the team qualified for Asian Cup more than 18 months ago. They should take solace in the fact that the team made them happier than they’ve ever been in all the years that they’ve watched football. Those who made the trip to Qatar should treasure the memories and the friends they made for as long as they live.
Though Hong Kong’s journey at the 2023 Asian Cup ends here, don’t be sad that it’s over. Be glad that happened.
And if it can happen once, maybe it can happen again.