Next Singapore coach must learn from Leicester

Rather than getting caught up with delusions of grandeur, Singapore’s new coach needs a practical approach, playing to strengths rather than far-fetched ideals, argues Neil Humphreys 

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When Bernd Stange arrived in Singapore, he did a decent Pep Guardiola impression.

The Lions were going to pass and move in a dizzying blur of balletic beauty, mixing the best of Barcelona and Bayern Munich to deliver the kind of football usually produced with a PlayStation controller.

By the end of his tenure, the Singapore coach was closer to Andre Villas-Boas.

He talked a good game, but seldom coached one. He was plagiarising from AVB’s big book of pretentious coaching philosophies. All that was missing was Stange crouching on his haunches and rubbing a straggly beard.

Stange wasn’t the first coach to learn the hard way that the Lions are not quite ready for Barcelona’s pass and move patterns.

The only way is the Leicester way. Keep it practical and spare the grandstanding.  The big boasts usually end with a sheepish dash for the exit.

In the late 90s, Jan Poulsen promised to bring the grit of the Great Danes in a bid to realise Singapore’s grand vision of qualifying for the World Cup in 2010, but didn’t take into account the cultural differences between the two countries.

Poulsen went Danish and turned the Lions into puff pastries.

Stange opted for the dominant dynasties of Barcelona and Bayern, effectively setting himself up to fail from the first press conference.

It’s easy to see now, but there was an established template already in place; the Leicester template before it was called the Leicester template, otherwise known as the Raddy Avramovic model.

The wily Serbian now bears favourable comparison with Claudio Ranieri. Rather than reinvent the wheel, he picked the best tyres to make the journey towards three AFF championships.

Avramovic left the grandiose plans to others in the region and focused on Singapore’s strengths, picking the best players available to play in fixed positions with clear responsibilities.

It sounds so obvious now, with Aide Iskandar and S.Subramani taking on the Robert Huth and Wes Morgan roles, Fahrudin Mustafić doing his best N’Golo Kante and Khairul Amri and Aleksandar Duric matching the heavy industry of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki (if not their blistering pace.)

Before the Ranieri way, there was the Raddy way

Avramovic rarely lamented what he didn’t have – unlike both Stange and Poulsen – and focused instead on maximising his limited resources.

During their trophy-winning heyday, the Lions’ line-ups essentially picked themselves, with the same personnel drilled mercilessly, almost militaristically, to reduce the risk of error on match days.

Singapore then, like Leicester now, knew who they were and what they could realistically achieve. They were not sidetracked by wooly-headed thinking or confused by a coach suffering delusions of grandeur.

Avramovic neatly blended rising prospects such as Baihakki Khaizan with veterans like Aide.

He focused on performances, rather than birth certificates. Ranieri is doing the same at Leicester. There are few spring chickens, but enough sly Foxes to sustain a title charge against all expectations.

It was not pretty to watch but Singapore were effective

But Stange appeared straitjacketed by a philosophy, obsessed with age rather than application. He dumped the likes of Duric and Bennett soon after their 2012 Suzuki Cup win and the Lions have lacked leadership ever since.

He wanted nimble cubs passing and moving, but ended up with confused kids bumping and grinding, clearly lacking experienced support on the pitch.

Stange, like Poulsen in the 1990s, struggled to shake off traditional perceptions of “good” and “bad” football, seeking a pretty game rather than a practical one.

The football aesthetic under Avramovic was not always easy on the eye, but that’s remembered less than his three AFF Championships.

Similarly, no one is sitting outside a Leicester café right now, sipping a latte whilst reading French philosophy and lamenting the loss of the game’s purist principles at the King Power Stadium.

If the Foxes huff, puff, bluff and blunder to the number of points required to win the title, they’ll party in Leicester like it’s 1998.

That was the year the Lions lifted their first international silverware thanks to the ball looping over the line via a shoulder.

Barry Whitbread, Singapore’s coach at the time, also advocated Ranieri-esque principles, picking the best players available and sticking with them through most of the AFF Championship in 1998.The football was patchy and the ‘Blade of God’ winner against Vietnam came off R. Sasi Kumar’s shoulder, but the unexpected triumph was a victory for Whitbread’s pragmatism.

He took the best of the old guard – Rudy Khairon, Rafi Ali, Nazri Nasir and Kadir Yahya – and built an effective, industrious side around the veterans and the no-nonsense Aide and Sasi Kumar.

No one said it was always pretty. No one cared.

Whenever a Singapore coach has succumbed to the popular philosophies of the day, pandering to the press in a futile effort to mimic the men from Spain or Germany, it has rarely worked.

Clubs and countries should always be open to new ideas. Tactics evolve. A parochial, insular approach to an ever-changing game can be just as damaging as copying whatever formation is flavour of the month.There’s a fine line between playing to one’s strengths and tactical dogma.

But Leicester are winning by simply playing like Leicester; not Barcelona, or Bayern, or even Arsenal or Tottenham, but by finding a formula that works for their small squad of unheralded players and sticking to it.

Singapore once did the same.

The Lions’ next coach could not only learn from Ranieri, but Avramovic and Whitbread, too.