The Local Game: Stuck in the middle with coach Park

August 17, 2021 - 16:25

It’s hard to believe given the passage of time in lockdown has slowed to a crawl, but the national team are in action again in just over two weeks.


Coach Park Hang-seo has some midfield pondering to do. Photo

Peter Cowan

It’s hard to believe given the passage of time in lockdown has slowed to a crawl, but the national team are in action again in just over two weeks.

Park Hang-seo’s men take on Saudi Arabia on September 2 in their first match in the third round of World Cup qualifying and amid the misery the pandemic has brought to Việt Nam in the last few months, the opportunity to focus on something as trivial as football is most welcome.

I’m unsure if coach Park is a fan of Scottish folk rock band Stealers Wheel, but I do reckon he could take some comfort in the lyrics of their 1972 hit Stuck in the Middle with You.

I’m not trying to say the Korean strategist is surrounded by clowns and jokers, but I do think he faces a conundrum in the middle of the park.

The national team’s trip to Dubai for the final three matches of the second round of qualification of course went down as a success seeing as they made history by advancing, but the games against Malaysia and the UAE asked more questions than they answered about Việt Nam’s midfield.

It’s well documented that Hà Nội FC star Đỗ Hùng Dũng will be missing for the long-term due to the horrific leg break he suffered in the spring, but another midfield injury in the UAE received little attention.

Hoàng Anh Gia Lai (HAGL)’s midfield maestro Nguyễn Tuấn Anh is beloved by analysts and Vietnamese football aesthetes alike. The man oozes class and has that much-coveted line breaking killer ball in his locker.

Only problem is, he’s always injured.

Anh started Viet Nam’s first match against Indonesia but hobbled off after 36 minutes, and wasn’t seen again on a pitch in Dubai.

His HAGL teammate Lương Xuân Trường replaced him on the night and for the other three matches and played reasonably well, but the performances of two less-heralded players made me sit up and take notice.

I’ve been banging the drum for Nguyễn Hoàng Đức for a while and I think the Viettel midfielder showed just why he should be a nailed-on starter for Park. He’s calm on the ball, energetic and has the ability to carry the ball out of midfield and take pressure off the defence, something that could prove invaluable as Việt Nam play under the cosh against giants like Japan and Australia.

Trần Minh Vương also made a huge impact, albeit in a brief cameo against the UAE. The HAGL man scored one goal and set up another to almost single-handedly bring Việt Nam back into that game and stake his case for a place in the team.

I’d love to see coach Park reward these two lads and take a gamble by starting them against Saudi Arabia. For one they (and Trường) are in far better form than any other midfielders in the country, or at least they were when domestic football stopped. For another, picking them allows Nguyễn Quang Hải to be deployed further up the pitch where he can really do some damage.

Unfortunately, I fear Park may stick to what he knows and let Anh try and complete a match, or perhaps move Hải deeper into midfield. Even worse, he may give a place to Phạm Đức Huy, who came off the bench before Vương in the UAE despite rarely playing for his club side Hà Nội FC in recent years.

You might say I’m a clown or a joker, but with Việt Nam huge underdogs in Group B, perhaps it’s time for some risk-taking to avoid being stuck in the middle. VNS