MANILA, Philippines - Thomas Dooley was always a left-field choice to lead the Philippine men's national football team. Although his credentials as a player were impeccable, having won silverware in the German Bundesliga, lifted the UEFA Cup, and led the USA to the second round of the FIFA World Cup, Dooley had yet to shine as a coach when he took the reins of the Azkals in 2014.
His only previous high-level coaching stint was a failure at German side SC Saarbrucken, which suffered a relegation under his watch. After that Dooley had briefly been an assistant with Jurgen Klinsmann in the USA men's senior team and had coached at the youth level.
But last year Dooley proved his worth as an international mentor when the Azkals claimed a runner-up finish in the AFC Challenge Cup and then a semifinal berth in the Suzuki Cup.
2015 has brought another set of challenges but the German-born American has responded brilliantly, helming the squad to two wins out of two in a brutal World Cup qualifying group. The Azkals defeated Bahrain 2-1 and Yemen 2-0 to sit in second place in their group, behind Korea DPR on goal difference.
What makes the Azkals' performance all the more remarkable isn't just the new personnel he had to deal with, namely Luke Woodland, Stephane Palla, Iain Ramsay and Kevin Ingresso, plus Javi Patino, who hadn't been with the team in ages. There was also the unorthodox new system he installed, 3-4-3 in attack (three defenders, four midfielders and three forwards), and 5-3-2 in defense.
Playing with three defenders is nothing new. The Dutch, among others, have employed it often over the years. But most teams play with four defenders, four or five midfielders, and one or two forwards.
To give some perspective, let's try and equate this to basketball. It's like Tab Baldwin, coach of Gilas Pilipinas, suddenly having two or three new players, starters mostly, who had never played with the team. Then he suddenly junks Chot Reyes' beloved dribble-drive offense and, from scratch, makes the entire team learn the notoriously difficult triangle offense in its place. For good measure, he also revamps the defense. Imagine the Philippine hoops press raising a howl at the thought.
Plus, Baldwin would have just one training camp to do all of this.
Yes, Dooley has done something akin to that with the Azkals, and has succeeded. Phil Younghusband, the Azkals' leading scorer, seems impressed at the feat.
“I don't think it could have been easy. A few of the new players have been mentioned over the last couple of years and to finally get them out here is an accomplishment. Even Luke (Woodland) missed the first game due to paperwork reasons and was waiting for confirmation up until kick off against Bahrain so that just shows how complicated it can be.” (Woodland got his first cap against Yemen.)
“But getting two wins after only having the full team together less than a week before the first game just shows how well management and the players have done. Training was generally focused on making sure we understood the formation, the system and our roles within that.”
Younghusband explains that a good chunk of the minimal preparation time was spent on learning the ins and outs of the 3-4-3.
“A lot has been discussed about the formation and playing three at the back and could we make it work? Our answer is in the results. We had nine days of training and maybe five meetings and constant reminders on a PowerPoint based on how we wanted to play. And making sure all the players understood the roles of each position offensively and defensively. There wasn't time to work on anything else.”
The system was certainly very new to many of the Azkals.
“I had never played with the 3-4-3 before,” admits Manny Ott, one of Dooley's midfield engines. “In Germany we all grew up playing with four defenders. It was like the first time for almost everyone. But after the Bahrain camp, (in March), and the first two games, we are getting used to it.”
Ott adds that the system has its quirks and is not for the lazy player.
“If one player is not working (hard), then it doesn't work.”
Patrick Reichelt also echoes Ott's sentiments.
“He took a big risk in changing the system, but he has one idea and he is sticking to it.”
The winger also says that it took him and others a while to fully buy into the switch.
“We were skeptical at first.”
Reichelt does say, though, that the players stopped doubting their coach as the team gelled in the training camp and won those first two matches.
Patrick has good reason to appreciate the 3-4-3. He is stationed in the very top right-hand corner of the formation, so his role is more offensive in nature.
“It's easier for me because the midfield has to work harder,” he says with a smile as he glances to Ott, who, nearer the center of the field, must work back and forth on both offense and defense.
In other aspects, Dooley also has his boys drinking his Kool-Aid, as they say in America.
“I can't say a bad thing about him,” enthuses Daisuke Sato, who mans the left corner of the three-man defensive line.
“He gives us a lot of confidence.”
Certainly when it comes to man-management, Dooley has had his travails.
After the Challenge Cup both Stephan Schrock and and Dennis Cagara both publicly slammed Dooley, which prompted the coach to fire back in a press conference.
Thankfully, Schrock and Dooley have since smoked the peace pipe, with the midfielder appearing in the qualifier against Bahrain before hurting himself. (Cagara has yet to be called up again.)
Both Reichelt and Younghusband say that Dooley has upped his game in the people skills department.
“He got better in man-management,” explains Reichelt. “He talks (to the players) more now, and he explains his decisions. You can see him doing one-on-one talks with the players.”
“I think coach has got better and better with the players and man-managing us,” adds Younghusband. “As players, we have made certain requests and he has worked hard to make sure the players are happy.”
How does he compare with his predecessor, Michael Weiss, and other past Azkals coaches? Phil is very diplomatic in his response.
“I think every coach has their own style and way of coaching. Every coach has their strengths. Coach (Thomas) pays a lot attention to detail and understands that small margins make a big difference. Even if it gives that 0.5% advantage, he believes we have to do it. And he makes sure we know and are aware of who we are playing against.”
Reichelt is more open, though, about his regard for Dooley's abilities vis-a-vis the previous gaffer.
“I had a lot of good times with coach Weiss, but there definitely is a different level of professionalism with Dooley.”
One of Dooley's lieutenants, German assistant Sebastian Stache, plays a key role with the team, according to Youghusband.
“Coach Seb has a lot of input. He does the scouting of our opponents and presents it to the players. He will also try to let players know what they can do better.”
Stache is also the team's conditioning coach, and I've personally seen him order the Azkals to do some very medieval stair-climbing exercises on the steps of Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
Younghusband does have one complaint about Stache, though, which he shares with a smile.
“His jokes are terrible!”
Dooley is riding a wave of success, as Azkals fans are now hoping the team can make the next stage of World Cup qualifying. (The Philippines must either finish atop their round-robin group or be one of the four best second-place teams out of twelve groups.) But Uzbekistan, the group's highest-ranked team, comes to the Philippine stadium in September, and in October the Philippines play North Korea and Bahrain on the road in just five days.
In Dooley the Philippines has a competent, capable man in charge. But he will have to coach better than ever to keep the Azkals' dream of Russia 2018 alive in the next few months. - Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.