Milovan Rajevac arrives in Thailand with a lot to prove

A familiar face to our African football followers, Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac has returned to football management to take up the role of head coach of the Thailand national team. Rajevac’s career to date has been bitty to say the least and hardly current, begging the question whether his suitability for a promising squad potentially on the cusp of something special in Asia is justified. However, the one area of his career that stands out quite clearly is his success with Ghana. With that in mind Martin Lowe caught up with our resident Ghanaian expert Theo Sakyi to gauge whether this indeed is the right appointment for the War Elephants going forward.

It’s fair to say there were few in Asian football that predicted Thailand would make it this far in World Cup qualification. Going someway to nearly dump out Asian Cup semi-finalists Iraq in Round 2 of qualification, whilst guaranteeing an Asian Cup berth for 2019, they went on to clinch a historic point against continental champions Australia before winning yet another Suzuki Cup (the South East Asian Championship) to end what was a defining year as a footballing nation under a dynamic coach in the form of their all time top scorer Kiatisuk Senamuang.

The resumption of World Cup qualification after the winter break however was a rude awakening. Heavy defeats to Saudi Arabia (0-3 in Bangkok) and Japan (0-4 in Saitama) in March confirmed the inevitable, with Thailand falling out of the race for Russia 2018. This was surely a given at the start of the campaign, in a group involving Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia and UAE, it’s hard to conceive Thailand had much hope of challenging for a playoff spot let alone an automatic top two finish. However, others seem to have other ideas.

The Thai FA (FAT) president Somyot Poompanmoung was quick to pour scorn on their March displays, expressing his embarrassment at the performances, and categorically stating that a “mere” regional title was no sign of progress. Kiatisuk, roundly beloved by football fans from inside Thailand to the rest of Asia, was quick to hand in his resignation in response to the public criticism, leaving the national team’s future up in the air, just as they were starting to find their groove.

Thai football in general has felt an immense lift from the national team’s progress under Kiatisuk. The club scene has picked up it’s game considerably; domestic champions Muangthong United illustrating this perfectly, currently topping their Champions League group (ahead of the likes of Kashima Antlers, Ulsan Hyundai and Brisbane Roar) and heading through to the knockout stages of the tournament, the first Thai club to do so for four years. The quality of the individual players is also rising; alongside the experienced Teerasil Dangda who was the Thai’s star man last year (number 41 in our 2016 #SFGTop100 list), central midfield maestro Chanathip Songkrasin is set to make an eye-catching move to Japan, while a new breed of young players, the likes of Tristan Do and Siroch Chatthong, have been some of the many success stories groomed under Kiatisuk’s stewardship.

With a squad on the brink of something exciting, and a number of players looking ready to compete at the highest level of Asian football, the destabilisation of Kiatisuk’s forced resignation is a sudden speed bump. The subsequent short term penny-pinching recruitment process that followed has emphasised this point further. From the outset the new coach was only going to be brought in on a temporary contract (until the end of World Cup qualification) and little money would be offered, almost certainly ruling out the high profile names that were initially linked with the job, recent English Premier League-winning coach Carlo Ranieri being among them.

Milovan Rajevac stepped in and ticked all the bosses. He wouldn’t mind a short spell with the squad and, going off his CV, he’ll be well used to it if he doesn’t receive an extension, plus his wage demands didn’t surpass that of the outgoing Kiatisuk. Rajevac’s appointment has been pumped up by citing his achievements with Ghana between 2008-2010, where he reached an African Cup of Nations final and World Cup quarter final in his last 9 months in charge. No doubt a set of sensational results but as said before he’s done little in the subsequent 7 years.

It won’t be his first time coaching in Asia; he experienced spells at Beijing Guaon and Al-Sadd as assistant before Al-Ahli Jeddah as number one after he left Ghana. A similarly short spell with Qatar in 2011 was instantly forgettable, while his most recent assignment was back in Africa; taking charge of arguably the most talented set of players ion the continent in Algeria only lasting 2 matches, a period recounted unfavourably by our resident writer in Algiers Maher Mezahi.

On asking what the problems were behind such a short spell with the national team Maher told me: “They went to the Federation (after 2 matches) and asked that he be replaced ahead of the AFCON. It was mostly a communication problem. He didn’t speak English, French or Arabic. On top of that players found his training methods a little bizarre. (Sofiane) Feghouli said he didn’t know their names and he tried playing Yacine Brahimi at centre half in training!”

Initial concerns point to a lack of familiarity not just with the country (he’s unlikely to be anywhere near up to speed with Thailand culturally let alone it’s language), but more worryingly the playing staff at his disposal. These weren’t local players, barely known outside the region which could be something well said about the Thai League players at his disposal now, these were world class players playing in some of the top teams in Europe. He hardly strikes home as a coach that you’d actively go chasing as a national football association.

With these prominent doubts, I spoke to Theo Sakyi regarding his time with Ghana, the highlight in the coach’s career and whether he could foresee such a success being replicated with Thailand.

Rajevac seems to have been appointed purely on his success with Ghana. Making it to the AFCON final and a substantial run at the World Cup, how much of a part do you think he played in Ghana’s success in 2010?

This is a hard question to answer. Rajevac gets a lot of credit for the defensive style implemented, but in truth, Ratomir Dujkovic and Claude Le Roy had already laid the foundations for this. What he should get credit for is having the courage to relegate Stephen Appiah to the bench, whose mobility was dwindling, in favour of a young Kwadwo Asamoah. This allowed him to change the system from a 4-4-2 to a 4-1-4-1, adding more solidity in the middle with the lone striker (Asamoah Gyan or Matthew Amoah) scoring goals on quick counter-attacks.  There were a couple of personnel tweaks in the the run up to the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup, but having a settled structure meant there was stability going into both tournaments.

All in all, he did well to instil discipline into the side and he was just about ok tactically, but I don’t think he was any better than the two managers preceding him – he arguably had more to work with.

Which area do you think he succeeds most in?

Probably style of play. He found his preferred system and stuck to it dogmatically, but he’s hardly a tactical genius.

What were/are expectations like in Ghana? Did Rajevac’s successes there prompt a change in attitudes?

Ghana exceeding hopes at the 2006 World Cup raised expectations of the team after repeated disappointments previously. Rajevac‘s successes furthered that. Fans have also now gotten used to playing tedious football but winning. Ghanaians used to call the Black Stars “the Brazil of Africa”. That’s not the case now.

Was there any complaints over his style? He’s reportedly had numerous failings due to the language barrier.

Yes. I’m still of the opinion that it was unnecessarily negative. The team would concede possession to weak teams and resort to deep defending around the penalty area, inviting unneeded pressure. I wouldn’t even describe the team as compact or very organised – they just got plenty of bodies behind the ball. Ghana’s Africa Cup of Nations run was even dubbed the “one-goal project” because of the amount of 1-0 wins. As for the language barrier, he had a translator with him at all times-though some suspected his English was better than he let on.

Did he bring through any new talent (hard to compare as I assume Euro based players were used exclusively)?

Ghana won the 2009 Under-20 World Cup in Egypt, so he brought through some of the players involved in the win. Jonathan Mensah, Emmanuel Agyemang Badu and Samuel Inkoom became mainstays in the squad. Andre Ayew became a starter in the first eleven, though he was already in the setup prior to this, being an Ayew of course.

What was his relationship with the press?

As mentioned before, he had a translator, so dodging questions was a little easier. Some were a little peeved off with the dull football, but came around when it looked like it would bring success.

Overall, for a side that is reaching a critical mark in their recent history, looking for the right leadership/structure, is he the right man for the job?

No, to put it bluntly. He didn’t actually put any long-term structures in place. Although I look back at those times fondly, I think his lofty reputation in Ghana is undeserved.

Rajevac will take charge for the first time in June as Thailand face Uzbekistan in a friendly ahead of their World Cup qualifier with another side likely to be under new management in UAE. With another simpler match on paper at home to Iraq to come before the end of the year, there’ll be little bedding in time for the new coaching staff before results are required. Talent wise Thailand have what it takes to end qualification on a high, but a lack of long term vision past this current stage doesn’t exactly instil confidence ahead of their return to the Asian Cup in 2019.

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