Jordan’s appointment of Ray Wilkins was completely unexpected, but fascinating.
To a Western audience, he’s probably the most recognisable manager at this tournament, after a playing career at the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and AC Milan preceded high-profile assistant roles at Chelsea and Fulham. This is Wilkins’ first full-time coaching role – he’s got no previous experience in Asia, was only appointed in September and is taking over a country with high expectations. It’s no easy task.
Jordan aren’t a complete minnow, however. They made the quarter-finals of the last Asian Cup, qualified for this tournament with a game to spare and made it to the Asia v South America play-off, missing out on a place at the 2014 World Cup after a two-legged defeat to Uruguay. Pertinently, in comparison to the other teams in their group – especially Iraq and Palestine – they really should be better placed than they currently are to progress to the knockout stage.
However, defeat to Qatar in the West Asian Football Federation Cup final, and a sobering 3-0 loss to Uzbekistan in a friendly, seemed to prompt real concern from Jordan’s FA over the direction of the side. Wilkins was as a touted high-profile appointment able to bring lots of experience and English know-how behind the scenes – so far, all he’s brought is defeats.
Specifically, there have been six of them, in seven games in charge. Under Wilkins, they’ve scored just twice, despite scoring ten in the Asian Cup qualification stage. Five of those defeats have been by a 1-0 scoreline, which rather sums up Kuwait – they try to be defensively strong by frustrating opponents, but simply aren’t that great at doing so.
In a friendly against South Korea, for example, Jordan sat very deep in two banks of four. They rarely committed numbers forward, and tried to keep things tight at the back. Wilkins is obviously starting from a ‘defence first’ philosophy, but it’s coming at extreme cost to their ability to score goals – which becomes even more of a problem if you haven’t even kept a clean sheet with a cautious approach.
Jordan have two notable names of considerable experience in the attacking positions. Upfront, there is Ahmad Hayel, who has 18 goals in 87 appearances for his country – he works off very little service, and sometimes has to lead attacking forays by himself. Abdallah Deeb will probably tuck in just behind him as a second striker.
In sporadic support is Odai Al-Saify, who’s approaching a decade as a senior international. Capable of playing on either flank but likely to start from the left, he cuts inside constantly and unleashes shots at goal. His directness makes him a good fit for the counter-attacking Jordan inevitably end up relying upon.
The experience of these players will be tremendously important in a very young squad. Eight of the players have made ten or less appearances for their country, with the likes of Amer Deeb and Hassan Abdel-Fattah left out, despite combining for 185 caps between them. The situation could get even worse if captain Amer Shafi, who plays in goals, is ruled out due to injury, as has been rumoured in the build-up to the opening game.
In such a wretched run of form, and with Wilkins struggling to get the best out of those at his disposal, this Asian Cup could be a steep learning curve for Jordan.