Against the UAE, Hong Kong showed character and bravery, and they played with an identity. Imagine how much better they could be if they had quality and creativity.
There are plenty of positives to take from Hong Kong’s opening match against the UAE.
The team, who entered the tournament as the lowest ranked association according to FIFA’s rankings at 150th, put in a creditable performance against a side who are ranked 64th. The centreback pairing of Oliver Gerbig and Li Ngai-hoi, who had never played together before the New Year’s Day friendly against China, did a decent job of keeping UAE’s attackers at bay.
And, they were unfortunate to concede two dubious penalties against the Arab nation, though in honesty, they were lucky not to have conceded a third.
Video Assistant Referee, of course, was the other main topic of discussion on Sunday night. Even Jørn Andersen himself could not refrain from chiming in, opining that the penalties given against his team would not be given in Europe.
But that should not distract from Hong Kong’s performance during the game, in spite of refereeing controversies. They showed character and bravery, and they played with a real identity – one that fans can be proud of.
At times, UAE’s defenders looked shocked at how high Hong Kong were willing to press. Andersen will undoubtedly take pride in this, as he had spent the first two weeks of the team’s pre-tournament training camp working to build up his players’ fitness levels.
Hong Kong played well in the first half and on a different day, they may have gone into halftime with a scoreless draw or even a lead.
A counter-press inside UAE’s 18-yard box in the 26th minute led to a chance for Hong Kong which fell to the feet of Poon Pui-hin. But the 23-year-old, who has played as an attacker for less than two full seasons, learned a hard lesson about the difference in pace between the Hong Kong Premier League and international football. Whilst he may have time to take an extra touch in the domestic league, he simply must hit the ball first-time in the same situation for his national team.
One set of statistics shows that the game was actually quite even. Despite UAE possessing the ball 71 percent of the time, they only managed two more shots on target than Hong Kong. The expected goal numbers show that the UAE slightly edged Hong Kong 1.86-1.7, even though the Emiratis had 20 more touches in the opposition box and completed 171 passes in the opposition half.
Another set of statistics show that UAE created five big chances in the game compared to only one by Hong Kong. That should be an area of concern for Andersen as Hong Kong did not make the most of their counter-attacking opportunities, much less score.
Ask fans who they deem to be the squad’s most talented player and the majority will answer Everton Camargo because of his ability on the ball. But as talented as he may be, it’s also what he doesn’t do when has the ball that is often the subject of discussion.
As long-time fans will know, Everton has carried a reputation in the domestic league as a player who takes it upon himself to win the game on his own. He has even gained the “tongue-in-cheek” nickname ‘Everton FC’ amongst fans for his unwillingness to bring his teammates into play once he receives the ball.
Everton is a creative player in the sense that he is good at creating chances for himself, but not necessarily for others. Of course it should be mentioned here that he delivered a perfect cross/assist for Philip Chan Siu-kwan’s historic goal.
But there were also a few glaring examples of a less collaborative Everton, one of them in the 9th minute of Sunday’s match. After receiving the ball in transition, he elects to cut inside with the ball instead of picking his head up to find a teammate. His intention, from the moment he received the pass, was to try to score on his own.
To his credit, Everton has been incredibly successful at what he does, and his reported monthly salary of between $130,000-140,000 HKD only speaks to that. But being able to win games on his own in the Premier League does not mean he can do the same at the international level.
This is not to say that Andersen should not have selected Everton – every coach would’ve done the same. But every team needs the right balance of players. After spending years with loads of depth in defence and wondering where the goals would come from, Hong Kong now has plenty of attackers and less of a clue what to do with them.
Considering the situation that Hong Kong found itself when trailing 2-1. In the 67th minute, Andersen made a double substitution – but perhaps not the ones that fans at home were anticipating. He decided to bring on two strikers in Stefan Pereira and Michael Udebuluzor, while taking off Poon and right-back Yue Tze-nam, moving midfielder Wu Chun-ming to right-back.
After the changes, Hong Kong were now playing 4-2-4 with four direct players up top, meaning that they look for the shot rather than the pass. In midfield, the team still had two players in Tan Chun-lok and Philip Chan who could provide service, but who also had extra defensive responsibilities now that Hong Kong were outnumbered in the middle.
Given Andersen’s options on the bench, only Wong Wai or Ju Yingzhi could have possibly provided a bridge between defence and attack – but neither of them are game-changers. Had Juninho been available, perhaps he could have played left wing and provided creativity from that side – though he, too, is quite direct as a player.
There is another problem to consider which is that Hong Kong does not offer much variety in attack. Whether ahead, behind or even, Hong Kong players seem hardwired into thinking that the only way to generate chances is to swing crosses into the box. This, despite Hong Kong lacking an aerial advantage over most teams.
Aside from Everton’s runs inside, there were few attempts to play the ball through the middle. There are no technicians on the squad who can wriggle out of tight spaces, or take the ball on the half-turn and look upfield for a teammate.
Hong Kong look like an orchestra without a conductor. They have clearly got some good pieces, but they need someone out there to ensure that everyone is playing the same tune. The program is crying out for a player like Lam Ka-wai, whom the team once channelled their attacks through and served as a field marshal on the pitch.
One only needs to re-watch Hong Kong’s friendlies in June against Vietnam and Thailand to appreciate the importance of Nguyen Quang Hai and Chanathip Songkrasin to their respective teams, and understand what Hong Kong are missing.
There is light at the end of tunnel, though. Those with knowledge of Hong Kong’s youth levels have expressed hope over young attacking midfielders such as Sohgo Ichikawa and Yuen Chun-him to be Lam’s successors. But both of them are young in experience, and neither are on the Asian Cup squad.
For now, someone else on the squad will have to step up – and soon.