There was a moment, midway through the second half of the first leg of Thailand’s semifinal victory over Myanmar, where ever so slightly things cracked.
A whirling, blur, of energy throughout the tournament on the right of the competition’s best team, Tristan Do let his guard down for just a moment.
After another powerful foray forward, he cut the ball back expecting his teammate to read the play, exchange passes and again Thailand would be in behind Myanmar – yet on this occasion the return pass was not made, possession lost and for the briefest of moments the exceptional wingback stood there exasperated.
Hands went up, words were let out and frustration appeared.
Five seconds later it was as though a bolt had shot the 23-year-old back into action and he immediately retreated almost back to his own penalty box where he was involved in wrestling back possession for his side and again Thailand were on their way forward.
It’s been a scene repeated time and time again throughout the tournament with ‘zeal’ being at once the ideal descriptor of Do’s game yet at the same time not giving a sense of the sheen with which he plays.
Rested for the final group clash, the other four matches in which he’s featured Do has been close to the Thai’s best player; indeed if you were tallying votes for player of the tournament he should – but certainly won’t given the position he plays – come into serious consideration for the overall MVP award, such has been his impact.
Although nominally stationed on the opposite side of the pitch, the synergy he has with the other fullback, primarily Teerathon Bunmathan, and the exceptional knot-tying abilities of Sarach Yooyen in central midfield have been the key to the sweeping Thailand performances in the tournament to date.
Sure, it’s easy to look at the intricacies of Chanathip Songkrasin and the finger-clicking moments where captain Teerasil Dangda has awoken from his slumber to provide glimpses of pure class but it’s this trio of Do, Teerathon and Sarach, working as a unit that’s been the bond which has allowed the others to shine.
It’s also a key reason why at times the team has struggled defensively, and why their own insistent commitment to positivity may allow Indonesia the space they need to exploit things in the final.
Whilst Do operates almost within an invisible margin of around five metres or so off the right touchline, Teerathon, as is his want, has again been a roving presence.
He’s a left fullback in name only as often he’ll switch roles with one of the two central midfielders or slide across into a deeper, central, position collecting the ball from almost the feet of one of the three central defenders then scanning and probing where to launch attacks from.
On other occasions still he’ll roam forward, giving Thailand a numerical advantage against both their semifinal opponents and likely that of their opposition in the final – both of whom usually operate with four central midfielders.
With Do often doing the same on the other flank and one of the central midfielders, usually Pokklaw Anan who is used to playing this style of football with Chonburi, Thailand often attack with almost six players.
So comfortable are they in possession, especially against defences at this level that they are simply able to pass and pass and pass some more, waiting, knowing that openings will arise – the midfield flooded with blue shirts.
It’s the width – and advanced positioning – of both fullbacks which allows them the numbers to do so yet when they lose possession, that’s where Sarach, usually deployed as the deeper of the two central midfielders must work overtime to sheppard and close down play before Do and Teerathon can retreat.
Even as assured as the trio of central defensive options are, it’s probably the area of greatest weakness in the War Elephants lineup but it’s more often than not the advanced positions of the fullbacks that have led to the defensive concerns, as the team is constantly open to counters.
It’s worth noting though that the only two goals in which they’ve conceded in the entire competition have come from identical positions and both against the same opponent as Indonesia crossed deep from the left and then the right and grabbed two goals within three second half minutes in the very first match of the tournament.
Since, then, Thailand haven’t conceded in more than 400 minutes of football – whilst still retaining an attacking threat unrivalled in the tournament.
Little wonder then that they enter the final as the hottest of hot favourites.
Once again the temptation may be to only look at the stars shining in the final third but a closer eye on both fullbacks and their guardian in central midfield perhaps better reveals just why the War Elephants have been trampling everything in their path.
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