The Lebanese National Team participated in the 2019 West Asian Championships, which took place in Iraq, and although the results were ultimately disappointing, there were loads of positives to take. In what was Liviu Ciobotariu’s first outing as Lebanon’s head coach, he led the team through four games against teams from the region with the goal of getting to know the local-based players (expatriates weren’t available for selection due to the tournament being outside of official FIFA international break) and beginning to implement his style of play in preparation for the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualifying campaign which begin on the 5th September with a trip to familiar foes North Korea.
After an impressive performance in the opening game against hosts Iraq, in which Lebanon played on the front foot and forced Iraq to play on the break and were unlucky to lose 1-0, the Cedars scored two late goals to come back from a goal down to beat rivals Syria in another exciting performance. However, Lebanon were unable to break down a resilient Palestine side despite spending most of the game in the opposition half and could only manage a 0-0 draw before suffering an embarrassing 2-1 defeat against Yemen after taking their foot off the gas having taken an early lead. Finishing fourth place out of five in their group was clearly not a great outcome, but results were never the priority for Ciobotariu and his coaching staff. It is the lessons that they take from these four games that they will be looking at as these will enable them to prepare for the qualification campaign ahead.
Lesson 1: A change of style
The most obvious thing that all fans would have taken from a first look at this new Lebanon side would have been the complete change in approach by Ciobotariu in comparison with his predecessor Miodrag Radulovic who, despite achieving considerable success, was heavily criticized for an overly defensive approach which supposedly stifled the ability of our talented attacking players.
On the contrary, in the Romanian’s first four games, Lebanon were the team taking the initiative, committing men forward, having the bigger share of possession and putting pressure on the opposition. Its been a while since Lebanese fans have been allowed to see their team play such an exciting brand of football, with most European coaches who have been brought in preferring a cautious, low-risk approach therefore ensuring less chances of taking a beating. And indeed, Lebanon rarely take beatings, but they just as rarely cause upsets as a result of the lack of belief shown by previous coaches in the ability Lebanon has in its ranks. Lebanese fans have grown tired of this and it seems their calls have finally been answered.
Although Lebanon did not get the results they wished for, they played entertaining football and the creative flair players such as Hassan Maatouk, Mohamad Haidar and Rabih Ataya looked a lot more comfortable as they were allowed to play with a certain amount of freedom to express themselves. Assistant coach Jamal Taha, who was known for his attacking style of play while coach of Ansar and Tadamon Sour, surely has a big role to play in this and it is surely a big positive that the National Team has a full-time assistant coach following on from Mohamad Dekka who was also head coach of Al Bourj while serving in Radulovic’s coaching staff.
Another thing that would have significantly helped this stylistic change is the way Ansar have been playing in the last year, first under Jordanian coach Abdallah Abu Zema and now under Syrian coach Nizar Mahrous. Ansar blew local fans away with their attacking game last season and from first observations it seems they are sticking to this style of play under their new coach. In fact, Ciobotariu watched Ansar as they completely outplayed Nejmeh in their 3-1 win in the Elite Cup and we did see him to try to use this to his advantage with the National Team, fielding Hassan Chaito Moni, Hassan Maatouk and Soony Saad alongside one another in the first game, only a few days after they combined brilliantly together in the derby against Nejmeh. The Ansar relationship and attacking style seems to be something Ciobotariu will use as inspiration for his team and this is something that will excite Lebanese fans ahead of the qualifiers.
Lesson 2: Goals still a problem
When I asked Liviu Ciobotariu at the press conference of his unveiling about the teams’ struggle to score goals under Radulovic, he was quick to dismiss this issue: “I don’t look to the past…I am the coach now!”. Unfortunately, for all our attacking intent, scoring remains a problem for the Cedars as they only managed three goals in the tournament, the lowest tally out of all participating teams. Lebanon looked good on the ball and kept possession well in the first and second third, showing the ability to create productive triangles all over the pitch. However, once the Cedars reached the final third, problems arose. The players lacked composure in and around the box and were often rushing things and therefore wasting good opportunities to create meaningful chances to score. This was especially clear through the middle with most of Lebanon’s chances coming from the flanks or from set-pieces.
One thing that remained from the Radulovic era is a massive overreliance on Maatouk to provide the attacking threat. This is a pressure that the National Team captain clearly feels, thus why he seems to be trying too hard to do everything by himself. Other players such as Moni, Matar, Ataya, Haidar and Saad all have ability but are not productive enough in terms of creating proper chances, often getting into good positions before failing in the final ball or in the finish. This explains why most of Lebanon’s attacks came from the wings, but this is not enough if Lebanon want to succeed playing this attacking brand of football. A team that plays on the front foot needs multiple ways to score goals and this is something Lebanon definitely need to improve on. Set-pieces have always been a good weapon for the Cedars and although no goal came directly from one during this tournament, the threat was there and will surely increase when the physicality of the Melki brothers, Helwe and Bugiel are added to the likes of Nour Mansour and Khalil Khamis. The majority of Lebanon’s chances came through crosses, such as Mohamad Kdouh’s goal against Yemen, and Lebanon will score more goals this way once Kdouh settles into the National Team and Helwe and Bugiel come in. One novelty we did see in the tournament was goals coming, either directly or indirectly, from long shots, with both goals against Syria coming as a result of Nader Matar’s long-range efforts. This is definitely something Lebanon will use to their advantage, especially against teams who will sit deep against them, as they have numerous players who pose a goal threat from distance (Maatouk, Ataya, Matar, Saad, Moni).
But Lebanon will also need to find ways to open up compact defences through the middle using quick short combinations around the striker as showed by Ataya and Hijazi when Ataya almost won the game against Palestine right at the death using a great one-two. We did not see enough of this, mainly because the striker was often isolated, with all of the attacking midfielders choosing to come deep to get the ball, therefore leaving a big gap between them and the striker. Lebanon looked more dangerous in the few occasions when they had a player positioned between the midfield and defence of the opposition – in the traditional number 10 role – and they will need to do this more systematically as this creates more confusion in the opposition and also creates more gaps to exploit, with Bassel Jradi being the ideal candidate to fill that role. Finally, Lebanon need to work on their finishing because even with all the problems they had creating chances they had a few real good opportunities in key moments of games that they were unable to take and Ciobotariu can not afford for that to happen in the qualifiers.
Lesson 3: Mentality may be Lebanon’s biggest weakness
The lack of professionalism in the local game has meant that psychology has always been a problem area for Lebanese football players. The Yemen defeat, when Lebanon played with an obvious complacency, was a prime example of how players can behave when they are not proper professionals and this hurts us just as much in games against teams that are better than us as in games against teams that are worse. Given the long history of poor results carried by the Cedars, the Lebanese, whether that be players, coaches, directors and fans, have developed a serious inferiority complex, especially with regards to the larger neighbouring countries. This translates into having players go into games with low self-belief and a defeatist mentality. This in my opinion is the biggest reason why Lebanon has never reached its full potential and if Liviu Ciobotariu hopes to achieve big things, this is probably the first issue he will need to address. He has begun on the right track in that respect with his intention to have the National Team play more attacking football.
It is clear that the players take more self-belief from a coach who trusts in their ability to take the game to their opponents than a coach who sets up to defend deep and counter-attack. The more the players feel that the coach believes in them, the more they will believe in themselves. But Ciobotariu must not stop there. He will need to be able to motivate and inspire the players and connect with them, similarly to the way Theo Bucker did when he almost led Lebanon to the World Cup back in 2014. He will also need to attempt to instill a professional environment so that the players can feel more confident in the structure of the National Team and feel closer to the bigger teams they will be facing. Ciobotariu is on the right track in this regard and Jamal Taha will once again have a big role to play.
Lesson 4: Youth is the way forward
Liviu Ciobotariu has a big advantage over his predecessor Miodrag Radulovic in that he is inheriting a ready-made team and not a team in transition. The bulk of the current group have been playing together in the National Team for years and are all at the peak of their careers. They are also coming off the back of playing the Asian Cup together, and you now have several expatriate players who are settled members of the squad, such as Joan Oumari, the Melki brothers, Samir Ayyas and Hilal Al Helwe. But Lebanon had one of the oldest squads at the Asian Cup and a rejuvenation of the squad was necessary.
From this tournament, it seems Ciobotariu is on track to do just that, and it is working out nicely, with some of the young players who were brought in impressing in Iraq. Ahed’s 24 year-old right-back Hussein Zein was finally selected after fans had been calling for his selection for months if not years, and he duly delivered. Replacing the legend that is Ali Hamam is no mean feat, but Zein settled in seamlessly, looking solid in defence and providing a real threat going forward. In his first start for the National Team, he left a big impression with a fantastic slide tackle to stop a Syrian counter-attack before he drove through the middle to set up what would eventually lead to the winning goal. His Ahed teammate Khalil Khamis was equally impressive in his sole appearance against Palestine and is definitely an exciting up-and-coming centre-back, while another Ahed player in 22 year-old striker Mohamad Kdouh scored his first international goal in only his second cap. But arguably the biggest surprise came from ex-Nejmeh midfielder and current free agent Yehya Al Hindi, who started the first game against Iraq despite having been without a club for a month. The Australian-born 22 year-old played on his own in central midfield and shone with his tough tackling, clever reading of the game and composure on the ball. There were loads or worries following the international retirement of Haitham Faour, who had been such a key component of the National Team for so long, but Al Hindi has shown that he the potential to fill that gap, and he definitely has the hunger for it, something that was evident by the several arguments he got himself into and the aggression he showed in his tackles.
This was clearly a step in the right direction and Ciobotariu has already shown a willingness to give youth a chance, and hopefully we see more young players being brought into the National Team over the upcoming months, with leading candidates being Brazil-born full-back Victor Calarge who currently plays in the Spanish third tier, SV Hamburger Reserves captain Khaled Mohssen, KV Oostende striker Rabah Mazbouh and Melbourne City midfielder Ramy Najjarine.
Lesson 5: a lot of work to do for defence
While loads of fans will be happy at the change in style of play, there is no doubt that Lebanon were a lot more vulnerable defensively than they have been under Radulovic. Now given the big tactical change and the fact Ciobotariu has not had a lot of time to work with his players, this is not a surprise and not too worrying. Under Radulovic, the system was defensive-minded and every player knew their tactical duties in the defensive phase of play. Now that Ciobotariu has come in and changed that, it is totally understandable that the players lack defensive organization. This meant that the players were not always certain of their roles and were as a result defending in panicky manner, often relying on last-ditch challenges to clear the danger.
Additionally, Lebanon were lining up in a back five under Radulovic and have now switched to a back four, which will only add to the uncertainty. And it was obvious to everyone watching that Lebanon were too open at the back and looked very vulnerable to counter-attacks. There was also way too much space in midfield, leaving the defence exposed, although that will be significantly helped by the return of Felix Melki to the midfield. But it is clear that Ciobotariu has abandoned Radulovic’s system, which has left the Cedars weak at the back and it will take more than the return of Alex Melki and Joan Oumari to fix that.