Why Kelantan's new attack mode might reap dividends... or blow up in their faces
In the wake of Saturday’s loss to defending Malaysia Super League champions Johor Darul Ta’zim, Kelantan president Tan Sri Annuar Musa predicted, nay, decreed (he is the president, after all) in one of his infamous, caps lock-peppered Facebook posts that the Red Warriors would start with all three of their foreign strikers against Sime Darby in the second leg of their FA Cup quarter-final.
At this point, let it be noted that Kelantan are the only side in the Super League who are actually capable of fielding three import strikers at once. Perak boss Datuk M. Karathu had previously mentioned that he had wanted to start his three foreign forwards against Terengganu in the FA Cup two weeks ago, but there were two issues with that, namely (a) Horace James is more of an attacking midfielder than pure striker; and (b) he didn’t, as James’ International Transfer Certificate didn’t come through in time.
Austin Amutu and Gilmar da Silva joined existing import Erwin Carrillo in Kota Bharu just a week ago, and the newer duo started (and combined for Amutu’s goal) on Saturday, but their Colombian counterpart was injured and missed the match.
TSAM’s idea was mocked as “Fantasy Football” by some, a naïvely top-heavy solution to one of Kelantan’s problems this season – scoring goals (they’d only netted 10 goals in 11 matches prior to last night). “A team must be balanced!” they cried, noting the ease at which JDT tore them apart once Azraai replaced Jonathan McKain (a centre-back) with Fakri Saarani (a winger) after the Australian suffered a blow to the head, moving Norhafiz Zamani Misbah back into defence and thus leaving Amar Rohidan alone to fend for himself in a midfield zone containing the predatory duo of Safiq Rahim and Hariss Harun.
Bottom of the league with one point from eight games, perhaps Sime Darby provided an accommodating opportunity for Azraai to try it out. Nonetheless, “the Giant Killers” have been a different animal in the FA Cup, living up to their moniker earlier in the tournament as they blitzed PDRM 4-2 and held Kelantan to a draw in the first leg. Their Serbian striker Nemanja Vidakovic was the competition’s top scorer with six goals in three matches.
And so, the team sheet was released and lo, Azraai had indeed handed starts to his Carrillo-Amutu-Gilmar trident. But how would they line up? Amar was relegated to the bench, with Zamani the lone holding midfielder in a team shape that rather resembled an hourglass – wide at both ends, but slim in the middle – albeit a lopsided one.
As against JDT, Amutu was shunted to the right flank, with Gilmar the furthest forward and Carrillo just slightly behind him. Wan Zaharulnizam Wan Zakaria started on the left, but was not placed as high up the pitch as he usually is. Captain Piya took up an advanced midfield position as is his wont; while Zamani shielded the defence. Zairul Fitree Ishak replaced Fitri Omar at left-back.
Leaning to the left
With a side already featuring such attacking intent, it was a surprise that Wan Zaharulnizam (Kecik) started. He played an important role as the only natural winger, hugging the touchline and drifting infield in equal measure, the latter evident in the 30th minute as his lob from a central position set up Carrillo for an attempt at goal. But his biggest contribution of the night was for the opening goal, when he sped down the flank (outpacing Azmirul Azmi) before cutting the ball back for Piya, who was felled for a penalty that he later converted.
Nonetheless, Kecik was a bit more subdued than usual, and helped out in the middle as well to prevent Badhri from getting overrun by Sime Darby’s midfielders.
With their sparse midfield numbers, Gilmar was often the target man when Kelantan tried to break out of defence quickly, but not in the way you’d expect. The big Brazilian often drifted to the left flank to receive quick passes and pull his marker out of the box, such as an attempt in the 48th minute that saw his long-range shot saved. He would eventually have two goals disallowed (more on that later).
As expected of a natural striker positioned on the wing, Austin Amutu found every opportunity he could to drift inside, instead of hugging the touchline to send crosses in. However, this often resulted in a sizeable gap emerging on their right flank that Nik Shahrul (not the most mobile full-back) often struggled to fill. This was most obvious in first half injury time, when a Kelantan attack fizzled out as Wan Zaharulnizam drifted into the centre of the pitch followed by a couple of defenders, but found passing options limited as Amutu had made a reverse run to the left wing, leaving him with Nik Shahrul, along the half-way line, as his only option. This resulted in Kecik’s pass being intercepted by Tengku Qayyum, and the move broke down.
However, it must be noted that Nik Shahrul managed to contribute from his deeper position, notably sending in a cross in the second minute that ended with Kamarul Effandi saving a shot by Gilmar.
The three pronged attack
Gilmar inadvertently had a role in two of Kelantan’s goals. As mentioned above, he did well pulling Sime Darby’s centre-backs out of position, but he also tracked them deeper to try and win possession, notably pressuring Abdul Qayyum on the hour mark in the build-up for Amutu’s goal. The third goal was a result of the ball falling to Carrillo after Ivan Dragicevic had tried to stop Gilmar from breaking past him.
The Brazilian had two efforts ruled out, the first for offside and the second for an aerial challenge on the goalkeeper, adding to his disallowed tap-in against JDT that was also deemed offside. However, in his two matches for Kelantan so far he’s been involved in three of their four goals, so his contribution on the pitch cannot be understated.
Amutu generally caused much disruption for Sime Darby with his pace, as seen when he burst through their defence for his goal, echoing his strike against JDT where he also sped past two defenders to score. The young Nigerian, still only 23 years of age, is difficult to mark with his physical presence and searing pace, and two opposing players were booked (Abdul Qayyum and Abdul Halim Zainal) for poor challenges on him.
Erwin Carrillo generally played as a second striker behind Gilmar, but stayed predominantly central. The two South Americans combined well in the 79th minute and on the stroke of full-time, and would have added to the scoreline if it wasn’t for Kamarul Effandi’s saves.
Leaving the door open
Clearly, a team that plays without an orthodox winger on one flank will invite pressure though. Unaccustomed to tracking back, Amutu vacated his defensive duties on occasion, and were Sime Darby able to utilise their wingers and full-backs more effectively, they would have created much more chances.
As it was, Sime Darby’s first opportunity of the match came after 15 minutes, as Fahrul Razi Kamaruddin’s cross was hooked over the bar by Nemanja Vidakovic.
Azraai chose to replace Zairul Fitree (left-back) with Wan Zack Haikal (winger) in the 67th minute, a curious choice of personnel considering that he had Noor Hazrul Mustapha on the bench. Those expecting Zamani to drop into defence with Farisham covering at full-back would have been surprised to see Wan Zack filling that role himself. Interestingly, the winger managed to stick to his new position, and go forth in support a few times (even having a shot on goal that flew terribly high over the crossbar in the 71st minute), but he was exposed in the 83rd minute as a clever lobbed ball set Azmirul free in the box, but McKain came over and snuffed out his attempted cross.
As we saw in their defeat to JDT, Kelantan are vulnerable at both full-back positions, particularly when their opponents overload the flank. JDT’s second goal was a direct consequence of setting Patricio Rodriguez and Asraruddin Putra Omar on Nik Shahrul, and this is an area that would need attention, considering that the Red Warriors host league leaders Selangor this weekend. Andik Vermansah and Hazwan Bakri are threatening enough on their own, but the added attacking ability of Selangor full-backs Raimi Mohd Nor and Azrif Nasrulhaq will be a dangerous proposition for Kelantan’s defence.
Nevertheless, Amutu’s pace and power on Kelantan’s right (particularly on the break) could force Selangor’s left-back into defensive mode, with the same being said of Wan Zaharulnizam on the opposite flank, assuming he starts. As the saying goes, “Attack is the best form of defence”. Why, you’ll be probably be unsurprised to note that Tan Sri Annuar Musa said that himself days ago.
Of course he did.