OPINION: A changed Malaysia under Cheng Hoe means he should be retained

Tan Cheng Hoe, Malaysia, AFF Championship, 24112018

BY        ZULHILMI ZAINAL       Follow on Twitter

The Malaysian FA (FAM) has been taking quite some time to decide on the future of Malaysia head coach Tan Cheng Hoe, after his contract ran out at the end of 2018.

He most recently guided the Harimau Malaya to the final of the 2018 AFF Championship, before they were edged out 3-2 on aggregate by a superior Vietnam.

The decision on his future is set to be announced by FAM this mid-week, but not before Perlis announced their interest in hiring him as their technical director, perhaps a publicity stunt more than anything.

FAM secretary-general Stuart Ramalingam told Utusan that the former Kedah boss has met his target in the tournament, so it is hoped that no member of its national team committee is doubting Cheng Hoe's capabilities.

In case they do, let us list down the reasons why he absolutely needs to continue on as head coach, before Malaysia head into the next World Cup and Asian Cup qualification cycle.

His Malaysia displayed fighting spirit

Malaysia were far from favourites in the AFF Championship, but the Harimau Malaya constantly defied the odds en route to reaching the final. They consistently showed the desire to go in front first in the matches, but their ability to absorb pressure when trailing to chase the game was most apparent in the knockout stages. In the second leg semi-final encounter against Thailand in Bangkok, they went behind twice, but each time they hit back to level the scoreline, to win the tie 2-2 on aggregate, via the away-goal rule. In the first leg final in Kuala Lumpur, a nervous display saw them concede two quick goals to Vietnam early in the first half, but they kept their heads down to chase the game, before eventually tying the game at 2-2 through some dogged display in front of their own fans. And the fans in turn enjoyed not seeing a national team that is meek and too easily frustrated.

Under him, Malaysia like having the ball

It was also refreshing to see a Malaysia side that is committed to having the ball, to his philosophy. Out of the eight matches played by Malaysia in the championship, they dominated possession in seven of them (only in the second leg clash against Thailand did they not have superior possession). Malaysia fans are probably already familiar with this tactical preference, having seen Kedah play this way under him from 2014 to 2017. But the fans perhaps first glimpsed how effective this preference could serve Malaysia, in their pre-AFF friendly match against the Kyrgyz Republic. Despite losing 1-0 to an opponent who were headed to the Asian Cup, in the encounter Cheng Hoe's charges produced a convincing performance that provided a taste of what they would do in the regional tournament.

He fostered camaraderie in the squad again

Admittedly, his squad selection for the AFF Championship initially had raised some eyebrows, especially with the inclusion of aging forwards Norshahrul Idlan Talaha and Zaquan Adha. But as the tournament went on with Malaysia reaching the final, it became more apparent to the media who followed the team closely that there might have been off-the-pitch considerations as well behind his squad selection. With the absence of experienced internationals and the inclusion of a number of Malaysia U-23 players, he was able to mould his charges' attitude from scratch, thanks to the help of the experienced players. For this he had the help of Zaquan and his twin brother, centre back Aidil Zafuan, whose close fraternal relationship outside the pitch assisted them in keeping up the team morale. Observers who prefer a more strict, disciplinarian approach might have been tut-tutting at the pranks inflicted by the twins on their teammates (and then posted on social media), but in the end the more unorthodox approach helped the players break the ice, and helped bridge the gap in seniority. Gone were the days of the squad dining in cliques while in camp, and of superstar players undermining the head coach, which previously had contributed to Malaysia's dismal run in the previous qualifying cycle.

Admittedly, there are still areas that Cheng Hoe can improve on. For example, his attackers were not as clinical as they probably should have, while his younger players were still upstaged by the more senior players.

And his decision to not call-up a more creative midfielder to the squad is still a strange one, when considering that such a player might have made his side more dangerous throughout their AFF campaign, by capitalising on their dominance of possession and providing options to the forwards.

On FAM's part, the association needs to continue the good work they have done finding him quality friendly match opponents in the run-up to the tournament. 

And if Cheng Hoe is rehired, his target must include qualification to the 2023 Asian Cup, considering that all the semi-finalists of the recent AFF tournament, save for Malaysia, have also qualified to the 2019 finals of the continental competition. Having seen what Malaysia can do in the past one and a half year to emerge as one of the best Southeast Asian sides, fans are surely eager to see the Harimau Malaya reach greater heights under Cheng Hoe.

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