SPL review: Should Young Lions stay or go?

The Young Lions competing at the SEA Games in Hanoi, Vietnam in May 2022. PHOTO: SNOC

The Young Lions marked their 20th anniversary by finishing bottom of the eight-team Singapore Premier League (SPL) with their second-lowest points-per-game haul.

While the Singapore under-22 side were not expected to challenge for the title, their performance was dismal as they notched just eight points from 28 games while shipping 103 goals.

Finishing with fewer than 10 points in four of the last seven seasons indicates they are stuck in reverse and some among the fraternity believe that a rethink is in order.

Tampines Rovers chairman Desmond Ong offered mitigating factors, such as a poor crop of defenders, a season-ending injury for captain and centre-back Jacob Mahler, key forward Ilhan Fandi’s transfer to Albirex Niigata, and national wing-back Ryhan Stewart’s move to Chiangmai in the Thai League 2.

He said: “They are limited by how talented their latest two or three batches of young players are, which may not be equally spread throughout the positions.

“Unlike other teams, they cannot just go out and buy players to strengthen those departments.

“And if you look at the three-way fight to finish fourth, it would suggest that the league is more competitive this season.”

But Ong added: “In their current form, it is hard to justify their continued existence as they have not been competitive.

“The Young Lions project has not met its objective of performing at the SEA Games (Singapore have not made the semi-finals in the last four editions).

“It would also not have been good for the players’ football and psychological development to be suffering massive defeats in most weeks.”

While there have been rumours of the Young Lions being disbanded, that would lead to the question of whether the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) would allow players on national service to train with and play for other clubs.

However, with the SEA Games and Asian Games looming in 2023, the murmurs are that the Young Lions will continue, but with the possibility of featuring overaged outfield players and imports, going back to a strategy they used up to 2015 to varying success.

Ong said: “Perhaps a tweak of composition would help. If the arrangement with Mindef remains status quo, between our next generation being able to play some football and not being able to play at all, there is no question I would prefer to have the Young Lions.”

Other than the Young Lions’ new look, The Straits Times reported earlier that the SPL looks set to undergo other changes such as the implementation of Video Assistant Referee technology.

National football project Unleash The Roar! may take over the running of the league from the Football Association of Singapore, as the SPL season could be extended with a later start in 2023 and run into 2024 to sync with the Asian Football Confederation club calendar.

There is also speculation that 2015 and 2019 champions Brunei DPMM could return after a three-year hiatus, while some local clubs like Woodlands Lions are eyeing a spot, subject to the league’s approval.

The FAS said on its website that there has been “no decision made with regard to the privatisation of the SPL, or that there will be an extended league season”, although there are ongoing discussions with national sports agency Sport Singapore and other stakeholders.

SPL 2022 statistics

Top scorers (overall):
Boris Kopitovic (Tampines Rovers) - 35 in 28 games
Kodai Tanaka (Albirex Niigata) - 33 in 28 games
Reo Nishiguchi (Tanjong Pagar) - 26 in 27 games

Top scorers (local):
Ilhan Fandi (Albirex) - 17 in 21 games
Song Ui-young (Lion City Sailors) - 13 in 24 games
Taufik Suparno (Tampines) - 12 in 27 games

Most assists:
Maxime Lestienne (Sailors) - 23 in 25 games
Kristijan Krajcek (Hougang United) - 17 in 25 games
Masaya Idetsu (Albirex) - 16 in 23 games

Most clean sheets:
Zaiful Nizam (Geylang International) - 9 in 25 games
Hassan Sunny (Sailors) - 7 in 20 games
Takahiro Koga (Albirex) - 4 in 27 games
Zharfan Rohaizad (Tg Pagar) - 4 in 25 games

Most saves:
Zharfan Rohaizad (Tg Pagar) - 121 in 25 games
Ridhwan Fikri (Young Lions) - 97 in 22 games
Zaiful Nizam (Geylang) - 90 in 25 games

Most yellow cards (individual):
Raihan Rahman (Tg Pagar) - 9 in 24 games
Yasir Hanapi (Tampines) - 9 in 25 games

Most yellow cards (team):
Tg Pagar - 66

Least yellow cards (team):
Albirex - 34

Most red cards (individual):
Huzaifah Aziz (Geylang International) - 2 in 22 games

Most red cards (team):
Geylang - 5

Least red cards (team):
Albirex - 0
Tampines - 0

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