Football: LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad famed for attack philosophy now adapts to win

Fandi Ahmad (centre) shows how it's done during LionsXII training at Geylang Field with (from left) Sufian Anuar, Zulfahmi Arifin, Gabriel Quak and Sahil Suhaimi.
Fandi Ahmad (centre) shows how it's done during LionsXII training at Geylang Field with (from left) Sufian Anuar, Zulfahmi Arifin, Gabriel Quak and Sahil Suhaimi. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

He's pleased with developing national players and ensuring they are versatile

Times were tough for the LionsXII last season. Knocked out of the Malaysia FA Cup in the round of 16, they would finish in a lowly eighth position in the Malaysia Super League (MSL) before being unceremoniously booted out of the Malaysia Cup in the group stages.

Coach Fandi Ahmad bore the brunt of criticism from fans, who questioned his gung-ho, all-out attacking approach.

This MSL season, however, the 53-year-old has shown another side of him as a head coach - a pragmatic strategist who is willing to change his game plan according to the opponents he faces and the available players he has.

In some matches - particularly tough away encounters - Fandi has set up the LionsXII to play defensively and look for counter-attacking opportunities.

In others, he has let his charges loose, playing with a more attacking approach at home or against weak teams.

The new-found adaptability has culminated in memorable victories, such as the LionsXII's FA Cup final win over Kelantan. Fandi's inspired substitutions have also delivered a 4-2 stunner over then MSL leaders Pahang on Saturday.

Tonight as he returns to the Larkin Stadium to face his former employers and defending champions Johor Darul Takzim (JDT), Fandi was in a reflective mood.

"It was tough last season for sure, but we were working hard and growing as a team and now we are bearing the fruits of our labour," he said during team training at Geylang Field yesterday afternoon.

"As a coach, I am very happy, along with the coaching staff at how the players have grown individually and as a unit over the last year.

"We have delivered quality players for the national team, and that is what really makes me happy.

"Some of our players can now excel in two or three positions and that is something else that has made me really pleased. For myself, I have had to explore tactically, and it is great that things have fallen into place for us this season."

Like Fandi, some of his players have also made their own successful adaptations to new tactics or positions. For instance, Zulfahmi Arifin and Nazrul Nazari, two players who started the season as midfielders, are now regulars in defence.

Right-back Nazrul said: "Playing in defence this season was initially a startling prospect for me but as I got more games under my belt, I really started growing into it."

"Coach Fandi's decision is only good for me because it makes me versatile."

Centre-back Zulfahmi added that Fandi's faith in him has instilled plenty of confidence in himself.

He said: "The move helped me... and when I eventually move back into midfield, I will be more efficient in my defensive duties."

"The last two seasons have been fantastic for me because Abang (big brother in Malay) Fandi has shown so much faith in my abilities. My confidence has really grown because of that."

JDT are on a nine-match unbeaten run and Fandi is certain that his side will have to be at their best if they are to halt that run, especially with the continued absence of injured main forward Khairul Amri.

He said: "It is against my former team but anywhere you go, no matter which side you coach, you want to win matches. I will put out my best XI and hopefully we can get a result. The players are all very eager to beat JDT."

MALAYSIA SUPER LEAGUE Johor Darul Takzim v LionsXII StarHub Ch112/Ch205 & 76.25MHz, 8.30pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2015, with the headline 'PRAGMATIC FANDI ADAPTS TO WIN'. Print Edition | Subscribe