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2020 Vision: Muangthong Utd

 

Ignoring the old saying about saving the best ’til last, we finish our series of 2020 season previews with our old friends Muangthong Utd. After a season in which they flirted with relegation and lost to Port three times, can Gama get the Kirins, who lost to Port three times last season, back on track? Or will they struggle – and lose to Port three times – again? They’ve already lost to Port once and the season hasn’t even started. We hear from not one but two MTU fans, Gian Chansrichawla and Kenneth Lim, on their hopes and fears for the new season.

How did your team perform in 2019? Where do they need to improve?

Kenneth

Overall – Fair. Disastrous start of the season up till the midway point, reminiscent of a certain Bangkok Glass. Fortunately Gama took the helm & steadied the ship, & went on an almost miraculous run at the title. However, 5th place is nowhere good enough for a club of this stature.

Instead of on-the-pitch, I really feel that they need improvements off it. The management is cost-cutting extensively & has offloaded Heberty, probably the best player in the league, and also the remaining Thai marquee players such as Teerasil, Chappuis, & Adisak. With rumours of Captain Sarach leaving too, it seems that the Muangthong of late doesn’t possess that star power & quality anymore. With a declining attendance rate, I think these departures would certainly keep the fans away, despite the fact that some of these Thai players largely underperformed last season.

Gian

Firstly, I’ve got to say, there are probably other people who are more equipped to speak for Muangthong and be more representative of what the fans generally feel that I can. But it looks like none of them want to venture into the Sandpit! So apologies if my views aren’t representative of what all Kirin fans think.

A quick look at the numbers says everything about last season – awful first half, excellent second half. Unfortunately, a number of key players that made that run possible have departed the club, so it is genuinely impossible to predict how good Muangthong will be this year compared to last season.

So much is changing so quickly that it is tough to pin down one specific area that needs the most improvement. But for now, given that both Teerasil and Heberty have left the club during the window, the strikers will be under the most scrutiny. Muangthong are going to need Derley and Willian Popp to have excellent campaigns if they want to be successful this season.

 

 

Transfer window – which new signings are you most excited about? Which departing players are you sorry to see go/happy to see the back of?

Kenneth

Honestly none of the new signings excite me. I am more interested to see how Sorawit & Ballini will develop & fare, if given more game time. Also, the new signings from last season, Derley & Sato, would be thrusted into the limelight more & will be counted on to provide the extra quality in this current squad. Hopefully they will show that they have adapted well & contribute much more.

Mixed feelings about Chappuis & Adisak. A classic case of what-could-have-been. Chappuis wasn’t given much of a chance by other coaches last season, besides Gama. Adisak couldn’t find his form & wasn’t given much opportunities too. Perhaps it would be better for them to seek pastures new & try to re-discover that spark which lead them to become a mainstay in the National Team, albeit before their major injuries. Their new coach would need to believe in them more & afford them more opportunities. Chappuis is always capable of that defence-splitting pass & is still 1 of the best passers of the ball in the league.

It is sad for Aung Thu too, but perhaps it was for the best as he simply couldn’t fit into the team’s playing style & other more fluid attackers up front.

Gian

I think it helps to start by discussing what Muangthong’s transfer ‘strategy’ has been as a whole. They realized (two years late) that their distribution of wages was completely unsustainable, and that cuts to their highest earners are needed to stop the whole thing from collapsing. As such, they are offloading them in an effort to spend money more efficiently, but needless to say they’ve completely failed to stick the landing.

They thought they had signed Magno Cruz from Jeju before he chose a move to Qatar instead, they got us excited over a move for Kim Kee-Hee before that fell through, and they had offers for an unnamed Japanese midfielder rejected. They are now scrambling to find another AFC or ASEAN player before the start of the season, but I’m not holding my breath at this point.

Obviously the big miss will be Heberty. Some of the other departures are more understandable departures for balancing the books, but the Brazilian has often carried Muangthong on his shoulders and he is going to be a massive miss for them. The other ‘big miss’ that nobody is talking about is Oh Ban-Suk, who is going back to Korea this season. He was absolutely incredible for Muangthong and didn’t get the recognition he deserves. If he had been there at the back, there’s no way Muangthong would’ve conceded two goals at the end of that LEO Cup final!!

Frankly, the new signings aren’t the most exciting to me. Both Willian Popp and Lucas Rocha have some experience in the Brazilian first division and have played regularly in the second division, which is a good sign given how other players of a similar caliber have done in the Thai League. Popp also has a similar record to Lukian in K.League 2, so looking at the numbers there is reason to be hopeful.

Happy with your club’s coach?

Kenneth

Yes, looking forward to see him blooding the new young talents in. He always seem to have a game plan, which can not be said for some of the previous coaches we had. However, it would be interesting to see how he fare this season without the aid of the club opening its chequebook. His achievements in Buriram & Chiangrai, were aided by top-money signings.

Gian

I’m very happy with Gama, of course. Given the project the club is undertaking currently, selling their older, higher-paid players and restructuring the club’s finances to be more sustainable in the long run, they need someone who is willing and able to play the young players, and give them confidence to step up during this transition period.

The question I would be more concerned with is whether Gama is happy with Muangthong. I’ve heard him say time and time again that he does care about having the biggest name players, as long as they have the characteristics that he wants. But I can’t help but feel that the club’s hierarchy are really pushing the limits of his patience. He’s too prideful to throw a fuss and he genuinely believes in the young players at the club, so I’ll say it for him. What the board are doing to him in the transfer market (flip-flopping on selling Teerasil, failing multiple AFC signings) is a disgrace and the fact that he hasn’t walked out on them already is a testament to his belief.

What are your realistic ambitions for the 2020 season?

Kenneth

Top 5. Hoping for an improvement & also a good fight for the Top 3 positions to try to qualify for the expanded AFC CL. Expecting more of the same contenders this season too, but there should be no excuses as other top teams have reduced their spending too.

Gian

I’d take fourth, and hopefully one of the top 3 can also go and win the FA Cup so Muangthong could get in the AFC Champions League qualifying. If Gama is still around in 2021, that would be the year to launch a title challenge, and I wouldn’t underestimate his chances in the ACL preliminaries either once he’s had that much time to work with the squad. With the current squad, fourth place would be a solid achievement.

Which teams will be in contention for the title? Which teams will struggle to survive?

Kenneth

Contention- Buriram (strong core of the new marquee Thai players), Bangkok United (kept almost all of their core & key players), Port FC (acquisition of Heberty, the league’s best player & also kept most of their key players, with addition of experienced Thai players), Chiangrai (proved everyone wrong in the curtain-raiser), BG Pathum (should be difficult to breakdown with that big, bad, back 3).

Struggle- Suphanburi, Trat, & the other newly promoted teams except BG.

Gian

Port, Buriram and Bangkok United are the three I expect to finish above Muangthong, and I’d tip Rayong, Suphanburi and Trat for the drop personally.

I expect Ratchaburi to underperform expectations by quite a bit, and BG by a little. I know it isn’t exactly a hot take at this point but Sukhothai and Prachuap will be teams to watch next season.

What 3 things would you change about Thai football?

Kenneth

1. Thai FA & Thai League Co. to help the clubs with more marketing & community outreach, engagements within the local vicinity & province. To promote a sense of identity, belonging, raise awareness, & ultimately to boost attendance rates.
2. Educate, manage, & even hire foreign FIFA accredited Referees. Fans get discouraged to tune-in when they see shocking & abhorrent refereeing decisions. Feels like corruption, inevitably.
3. Thai FA & Thai League Co. to introduce a Marquee signing rule similar to that of the A League & MLS (Designated Player), where the authorities help to cover the salary of a qualified player. I know they already have plans to implement something similar to attract Japanese players only. With more Thai players going to play abroad & more are encouraged to, this could attract more crowd, media coverage, & also help to maintain/improve the quality of the league.

Gian

1) Transparency. It’s hard to enjoy the season when we reach the second last game of the season and insane refereeing calls bring everything into question. Referees need to be paid more. It’s an unenviable position to be in for the Thai FA to be in given how Thailand tends to operate, but this is the one thing that needs to be fixed quick if we want to have any hope improving our league.

2) Foreign player quotas. We need to expand them, maybe by just one slot initially, and make Thai players face more competition from abroad. This will improve the standard more than this current protectionism will.

3) Repercussions. This one is harder to put into words, but I feel like a lot of clubs get away with making awful decisions because the clubs around them make even worse decisions. This allows clubs to fail to hit standards, make impulsive decisions, operate with bad infrastructure, etc. Some more investment into lower T1 and upper T2 clubs to really put the teams just hovering above the relegation zone under some serious pressure would be nice!

 

Thanks guys for your lengthy answers!

 

Tim Russell

Tim Russell

The founder and editor of The Sandpit, Tim has been in SE Asia since 2003 and in Bangkok since 2012, where he runs a travel tech business. Tim has followed Port FC since 2014, and is also a fan of his hometown club Coventry City, and French club AS St-Etienne. He has written for the likes of Football365, ITV.com, NME and The Quietus, and is a regular contributor to God Is In the TV. He's a keen photographer and his work can be seen on his website.

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