Football Tribe SEA Editor
Not every big name foreign import in Thailand is a success. Many names who are lauded abroad struggle to escape from the constantly running conveyor belt of overseas talent, with many failing to settle in and make an impact in the local league.
Many theories have sprung up to explain this phenomenon. Maybe it’s the heat, or difficulty adapting to the culture, and so on and so forth. While not being our resident tactical expert, I’d argue that another key part of this explanation has to do with their in-game situations itself.
Almost by nature, foreign players are signed to be a cut above the local talent, with the intention of elevating the standards of their team by their own sheer ability. This is not a disparaging comment against local players – the consistent improvement of homegrown talent allows clubs to reach even higher when it comes to attacking foreign ones, meaning that this gap can be a positive thing for the league.
However, that status and perception often places an unfair level of responsibility on these players. With each team only allowed four imports (excluding the ASEAN quota), there often exists a disconnect between this small group of individuals and the rest of the team. As a result, coaches can sometimes fall into the trap of expecting these players to perform multiple roles in the team, which go well beyond the scope of the role they would be playing when surrounded by players of their level or better. In other words, Thai clubs will sign a player who is a specialist at a certain position, but (are forced to) expect them to fulfill a number of other roles on the pitch, reducing their ability to shine in the role that they have made their name in.
It is an idea summarized by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s alleged comment to Pep Guardiola during his failed spell at Barcelona; “you bought a Ferrari but you drive it like a Fiat.”
Buriram United’s Hajime Hosogai is the example that sparked the premise of this piece. After being a key part of Urawa Red Diamonds’ 2007 AFC Champions League winning campaign, spending the majority of his best years in the Bundesliga and earning 30 caps for Japan, it is clear that the 32-year-old midfielder is a cut above the regular standard of the Thai League, even accounting for the injury problems he suffered during his recent years.
However, Hosogai made his name in a defensive midfield position – which typically consists of breaking up opposition play, and restarting his side’s own forward movements with lateral passes. At Buriram, Hosogai has been partnered in a two-man midfield alongside another defensive-minded player, Rattanakorn Maikami, meaning that playmaking responsibilities have been piled on to the Japanese veteran.
While I will confess to not having watched Hosogai play before this season, the nature of his position suggests that he may be used to having one – if not two – midfielders typically playing in front of him. However, in this current system, Hosogai is the link between the midfield and Buriram’s three-man attack force, and often being confronted with teams which sit in defensive low-blocks against the defending champions. Despite being one of the league’s most technically skilled players, perfectly capable of fulfilling the role, it remains true that Buriram are not getting the best out of a player that has the ability to be one of their most memorable imports.
Muangthong United’s Heberty is another example of this phenomenon. Despite showing clearly that he is at his best playing ‘off the shoulder’ of defenders, either taking on players in one-on-one situations or running on the end of through balls, Heberty has been forced to move back into an attacking midfield position due to the dearth of fit and mobile creative talent behind him. He has managed to maintain a stellar goal output in spite of, not because of, the way he has been used for the majority of his time with the Kirins.
Despite being one of the best players in the Thai League, the numbers suggest that he could be an even more lethal player than he is currently. He has gone from managing a 0.72 goals-per-game rate at mid-table Ratchaburi to a 0.68 goals-per-game rate to regular title competitors Muangthong, meaning that the negative effect of his new position has outweighed the positive effect of being surrounded by better teammates and starring in a side that typically plays on the front foot.
Examples of this are littered throughout the league. Port striker Dragan Boskovic is used to playing off a target man, and prefers the ball at his feet – yet he is often forced to be an ‘all-round’ striker attempting to fill both roles, which has come at the detriment of his goal output.
That isn’t to say that the problem is systematic – that is, it isn’t inevitable that players struggle in this manner due to the existence of the foreign player quota. Rather, it just adds another layer onto the delicate balancing act for coaches in the league, and further piles on responsibility for the foreigners brought in to be ‘a cut above’ the local talent.