Thailand is basking in proud euphoria as we watch our young guns and shoot up the FIFA ranking ladder, but there is one nagging concern tugging at the back of our minds. The incorrigible skills of Chanathip Songkrasin and the swarming, fearless play of Charyl Chappuis mesmerise leaden footed defenders used to physical battles and immobile centre forwards.
Our defenders have class and pace but, crucially, they are short on experience and physicality. The clean sweep of old for new is invigorating and compelling, but the heart of defence is no place for the faint hearted or the inexperienced. Left and right defenders can float like butterflies, but central defenders have to sting like bees. Class can easily be crushed by power as Khairul Amri showed like a buccaneering pirate barging his way through Thailand’s soft centre at will. Complete overhauls usually happen when there are no other options. But, for Thailand, the central defence is no place for children and there were plenty of other choices available.
25-year-old Welsh/Thai defender Mika Chunuonsee made the provisional squad and was unlucky to miss out on the tournament. He has developed into a highly-muscular and intelligent central defender who may not have the style and range of passing of BEC Tero’s sublimely-skilled 21-year-old Tanaboon Kesarat, but he gets the job done and, in an ugly fight, he will often come out as the top dog.
When playing the physical teams like the Philippines or Malaysia central defenders need to be platforms for the midfield to work from, not an extension of them. Possession must be battered out of the opposition and foreign strikers need to flinch as they receive the ball, knowing they are about to enter a dogfight, not a pushing contest that they are well-equipped to win.
For experience, bravery and character former national captain Panupong Wongsa would have given heart and soul to the central defence. Still only 31, his 28 caps have included highly physical battles which he wears the scars from to this day. His role is an old fashioned one of getting in to where it hurts and going toe to toe with centre forwards without flinching. This makes him a platform for flighty young players to strut their stuff, knowing there is someone in the centre to do the dirty work.
With youngsters, more bodies are needed to compensate for physical power. Having a sweeper would shackle and unbalance the team too much, so power has to replace grace at the heart of central defence. Zico has to gain huge credit for taking big risks by dropping previously undroppable players like Datsakorn Thonglao but, when you’re a golfer and your ball is in the rough, you need to know that you golf bag has all the clubs in it to batter your way out again.