Words by Tom Danicek
Straight out of the gate, let’s deal with the lingering tinge of scepticism in the room tied to the often annoying Lionel Messi tag. Is it at least a tiny bit justified when it comes to Nguyễn Quang Hải, the 21-year-old Vietnamese sensation?
After all, we’ve been here before with generational talents coming out of South(East) Asia. Chanathip Songkrasin was always bound to be the Thai Messi due to his stature and a fabulous left foot, and he’s indeed universally known as “Messi Jay”. Fair enough on this front, I suppose. Less so as we continue down the line. Wu Lei started off as a Chinese Maradona and ended up being a Messi, as some Spanish outlets clumsily attempted to modernize the whole thing in the aftermath of his move to Espanyol; with both tags frankly having next to no merit, playing style wise. Meanwhile, the jury is still out and rather optimistic on the Japanese Messi, 17-year-old Takefusa Kubo, whereas South Korea have gone from Nam Tae-hee to Lee Seung-woo in what can only be praised as better judgment. It turns out even Indonesia, who had disappeared on us following their 2015 FIFA ban, and the neighbouring Malaysia have their own Messi-esque gems nowadays, while DPRK didn’t seem to be happy with their Rooney a while ago.
Honestly, I am having way too much fun with this, and finding myself this close to googling what’s the appropriate adjective for Timor Leste, so let’s stop right here…
Curiously enough, Nguyễn Quang Hải isn’t even the first Messi to come out of Vietnam. And I am not talking just ever, I am talking the last few years. Nguyễn Công Phượng was the first one in 2015, largely courtesy of the Vietnamese media. As far as ability goes, it wasn’t wrong to label him like that. He was arguably the most impressive Vietnamese at this year’s Asian Cup, after all. Yet it’s Quang Hải’s relation to the Argentine idol that actually holds up to several tests. For one, he wears the jersey number 19, just like Messi used to back in the Ronaldinho days. Then there’s his lateral hopping when defending space, appearing seemingly lax yet at the same time ready to pounce in the event of the slightest hesitancy (like here and here; situations amazingly separated by less than five minutes of one match), and that light jog with both arms half-stretched alongside the body, resembling a power walk. Finally, the free kick taking technique, the “scoop”… just uncanny.
There is really no doubt that Messi inspired Quang Hải growing up. After all, the Vietnamese promise was 8 years old when Leo signed his first professional contract in 2005. Perfect timing, isn’t it, witnessing the breakout of one true superstar of the era just as you’re entering your formative years. Accordingly, a grown-up Nguyễn Quang Hải indeed does seem to be imitating Lionel Messi in more ways than one.
Yet still, reducing Quang Hải to a Vietnamese Messi tag would mean doing him an injustice, naturally…
The birth of a phenomenon non plus ultra
There is currently no greater poster boy for the Vietnamese football, let’s kick off with that statement.
Since the 2013 introduction of the Best Footballer in Asia, an award given out annually by Chinese newspaper Titan Sports to either an Asian playing in Asia, a foreigner playing in Asia, or – somewhat confusingly – an Asian not playing in Asia (because it makes total sense to have Son Heung-min as the runaway winner here and there), Nguyễn Quang Hải is the only Vietnamese to have received a single vote (13 votes to be precise, just last year), while at the same time cracking the Top 15 ahead of Akram Afif. Additionally in 2018, he also became the youngest recipient of the Vietnamese Golden Ball for the best footballer in the country since the record holder Phạm Thành Lương won it for the first time in 2009 at the same age (21).
This obviously isn’t just a random splash. Both these significant individual accolades came against the backdrop of the most successful year for Vietnamese football in the recent memory. First, a silver from the January U-23 Asian Cup, following up on a shameful group stage exit from two years ago. Then a maiden quarterfinal and semifinal appearance at Asian Games in August. And finally the long overdue end of the 10-year drought at the regional AFF Suzuki Cup in December; with the third youngest squad at the tournament and the best goal differential in Vietnamese history (15:4).
You can probably guess the punchline by now: Nguyễn Quang Hải was, of course, central to all of that.
From the beginning of the U-23 Asian Cup semifinal till the very end, he remained the only Vietnamese scorer – with two markers against Qatar and one more vs Uzbekistan in the final. Previously, he stunned South Korea and Australia, too. At Asian Games, he missed a crucial penalty in the bronze-medal game shoot-out, but he nonetheless made it into the FourFourTwo’s Best XI of the Tournament. And finally, the golden AFF Championship aka Suzuki Cup, that was his big show. Quang Hải received the Most Valuable Player award, having scored three times and collected an extra two assists, becoming – quite remarkably – the only Vietnamese outfield player in this century to receive such an honour at the prestigious regional showcase (at the title-winning 2008 edition, goalkeeper Dương Hồng Sơn edged out the final hero Lê Công Vinh).
Statistics, courtesy of the phenomenal V.League Stats, back up the eye test; Quang Hải shone brightly. At 2018 Suzuki Cup, he produced 2,3 key passes per 90 minutes, comfortably topping the whole team. In the final double-header vs Malaysia, he would create six chances, three of them classified as “big” by V.League Stats plus another one resulting in a goal. He wasn’t necessarily Vietnam’s prime creator at the U-23 Asian Cup earlier in the year, but then he compensated as the prime finisher, so all stays intact as far as the sheer influence of his goes.
Interestingly, for all the hype he’s generated on the international scene, Quang Hải has hardly lit up the V.League 1. On a strong Hà Nội team, the runaway champions with a near 20-point lead last year, he had a well-balanced record of 8 goals and 6 assists, which ranked him only third on the team in both categories, though. Or is it only? One needs to consider that he’s not the team’s go-to corner kick or indirect free-kick taker, and that is a dramatic change, as two of his three assists in 2017 came from corner kicks (that he no longer takes the corners is a bit of a travesty, to be honest, as he’s capable of producing a really stingy flat cross to the near post, which I am personally a big fan of). The total of second assists, meanwhile, remained unchanged from 2017, at 4 – highlighting that many of his contributions come further away from the six-yard box. On balance, Quang Hải has definitely improved and has become a more nuanced contributor from open play, albeit without blowing anyone’s mind in the process.
There is something on the initial observation that he’s been more impressive on the international stage than on the club level, however. According to Vietnam Football, he struggles with consistency which fluctuates with his motivation levels. Against lesser opponents, he frequently goes missing; against bigger sides, he traditionally steps up. Now, do I think this is a problem? Not really, though it obviously wouldn’t harm to first witness him dominate the league before getting the expected move to a bigger league. But as far as his skillset is concerned, it does seem easily translatable to a higher level; his first touch is as soft as it gets, and he uses it skillfully to open up space for himself, while his great vision often doubles the effect. That said, he should definitely work on his right foot, since at this point he’d rather side foot the ball instead, which doesn’t mean a bunch of horrible passes, not by a stretch, but still seems like a huge handicap going forward. Other than that, he’s able to create in a variety of ways.
A cautionary tale of *takes a deep breath* Lionel Messi
Positionally – and consequently quite literally, too – it’s genuinely hard to pin Quang Hải down. Over the years, we’ve seen him facilitate plays deeper down the pitch in central areas, and we’ve seen him popped out on both wings – all easily in the space of one game. At last year’s silver U-23 Asian Cup, he’d usually line up as a LCM in a 4-4-2 formation towards the end, at least off the ball, which didn’t mean rarely on a predominantly counter-attacking outfit Vietnam undoubtedly represent; but just as Qatar scored late in the first half of the semifinal, he immediately switched to the right side, to a more advanced position.
Either way, Quang Hải will make more for a roaming playmaker than a traditional… anything. He doesn’t exist to fit any of your typical boxes, he’s out there to just be himself. (That’s not to say he’s not disciplined, off the ball he is increasingly known for adept, patient zonal defending.)
And honestly, that is totally fine, at this age anyway. But I often ponder if a bit more definition to his role wouldn’t hurt in the long run. To date I recall how Takeuchi once made me – the self-proclaimed Lee Jae-sung fan club director – a bit nervous when he suggested, quite rightly, that the ultimate versatile player might suffer from being the do-it-all midfielder for South Korea. Not necessarily suffer as an individual, in isolation, though even that can’t be ruled out, but rather suffer on his quest to develop into a highly influential member of a winning side, one of the first name on the team sheet. A touch of distinction arguably makes you a piece of puzzle that is easier to accommodate from the coach’s perspective.
What is he on about? Quang Hải is clearly integral to Park Hang-seo’s plans.
True. And a lot may change in the near future once Vietnam starts approaching tournaments from a position of strength, which could/should be just a matter of time. But at this point, while Nguyễn Quang Hải is obviously a very gifted attacking player, watching him in action on international stage, I sometimes wonder: are we getting to see the best of him?
Even if not, it would hardly be a disaster at 21. But don’t you ever feel we don’t get to see him operate as close to the penalty area as he could, making those final passes, shooting from well-prepared positions? Quite a large portion of his in-play shooting screams “desperate/rushed” (at 2018 Suzuki Cup, he registered 10 shots off target, twice as many as the next one in the line for Vietnam, and he often pulls the trigger off the rush, which is not ideal) and his contributions to build-up are mostly limited to middle of the park. We saw it against Qatar in the AFC U-23 Championship semifinal; we saw it once more against Shandong Luneng in the recent failed attempt to squeeze into the Asian Champions League group stages; we saw it at times at the otherwise impressive Asian Cup; even vs the Philippines at the Suzuki Cup. And don’t you ever feel he could do with a bit more assertive dribbling? Quang Hải usually does one man and then makes a pass, which is a smart move in many situations, absolutely, and it crucially allows for the many signature crisp passing moves (though I can’t help but feeling he opts for one-time, accelerating passes a bit too often – at times when a tad more composure would benefit the situation), but with his technique, one couldn’t be blamed for dreaming of some more magnificent solo runs on top of all that.
In these two respects – operating deeper down the pitch and not leading too many attacks with the ball on his feet – Quang Hải kind of resembles the late Lionel Messi, particularly in the Argentine jersey. At 2015 Copa América specifically, Messi was pulling strings for Argentina in a deep-lying role, at times seemed everywhere, and could’ve easily accumulated a half-a-dozen assists or more. In the end, he bagged three, in the semi-final, yet ended up walking on the MVP award in quite an understandable frustration. Because other than that, the splendidly talented team struggled to produce much offensively, scoring a mere two goals in the four games against the sides not named Paraguay.
The best player on the planet sacrificed a lot for the team then, and it would be (and was at the time) foolish to pin the blame on him, let alone his effort levels. But one thing was quite clear: he couldn’t have done everything for Argentina in a “just do your thing, whatever that means to you” role, and ended up not being a scorer nor an effective provider for the side that was in a desperate need for, um, both.
Hang on, are we sure he didn’t actually mean to talk about the 2019 Asian Cup version of Son Heung-min?
Now, was Messi’s role and his performances in that role fundamentally detrimental to his side’s odds at the tournament? No, they made the final and appeared largely disciplined along the way. But did it contribute to a superior offensive balance of the side and effectivity in the final third? It decidedly did not. And did it at least allow him to properly flourish individually? Again, clearly not. Good intentions might’ve given birth to the “free playmaking role”, especially as the absence of a renowned playmaker was well known of in Argentina at the time, but a predictably poor outcome was what came out of it after all.
These all statements are not a constant for Quang Hải’s career, but they do ring true at multiple stops along the road. And again, this is not primarily a critique of himself, just as it is not a perfect parallel; Messi was already seven years older in 2015 than Quang Hải is now, and definitely felt the pressure of five senior tournaments disappointments, four of which he was undisputedly central to, weighing on him as he was entering his peak. Quang Hải has, meanwhile, all the time in the world, and all the tools to succeed, too. There’s every chance he will be totally fine, and for that reason, this is titled a cautionary tale rather than a prediction.
But we should remember he didn’t appear to be the most effective Vietnamese attacking player even at the Asian Cup where Vietnam as a collective otherwise caught attention and outright impressed; Nguyễn Công Phượng was just that, plus he offered that vertical runs on top we didn’t get from Quang Hải, and Phan Văn Đức arguably wasn’t too far behind, if at all. Fundamentally, it’s quite unfair to separate these three, since they did a lot together and combined extremely well on occasion, but on the whole, despite his team’s evident success, Quang Hải didn’t quite make the tournament his own as many had expected him to do.
And that’s what I am really getting at here, having his potential on my mind at all times. Quang Hải clearly has a tremendously high ceiling, most probably higher than anyone else in the country; that much has been established, and it must be duly noted as well as appreciated. But as he’s approaching his 22nd birthday (April), we are approaching the point where his coaches need to start figuring out how to get him perform towards that very high ceiling as constantly as possible. A steady incline in the domestic league and youth tournament pedigree are all nice at this stage, but now is the time to really start building his identity within a very talented, arguably generational senior squad.
Argentina had never done that, and it cost them dearly on multiple occasions. South Korea haven’t done that (though you might argue the talent around him is not quite there, but that’s not an excuse to me) and it may well mean Son Heung-min will never play in a World Cup knockout stage or get his hands on an Asian Cup gold like some of his less gifted predecessors have, and actually made possible themselves in the first place.