The eight-time Papua New Guinea national champions squandered a big chance to cause a huge impact in 2020: Hekari United, after a four-year absence from the most important club football tournament of Oceania, had the opportunity to host their group in this year’s OFC Champions League. The team commanded by Jerry Allen, was the only side that hosted their group not to proceed to the knock-out stage – Malampa Revivors, AS Vénus and AS Magenta all sealed their spots in the quarterfinals and two of them topped their groups and will go on to host a decisive quarter-final match in their own stadiums.
Hekari brought well-known Solomon Islands’ coach Jerry Allen back to the club to guide the players, but Allen surely expected a better structured side than the one he had in his hands. Hekari knew they would face three strong opponents at Sir John Guise Stadium – the current champions Hienghène Sport, the New Zealand national champions Eastern Suburbs and the Ni-Vanuatu powerhouse Galaxy FC – so they should have thought very carefully on how they would recruit players for the tournament. The outcome of the competition proved the team management made the wrong choices.
Let’s start with the defence: the first clear mistake of Hekari United management was bringing the Solomon Islands goalkeeper Anthony Talo to its team. Fortunately for them before the start of the regional tournament the player decided to return to his country and did not take part in the Champions League. Talo is certainly a very good player, as is the first choice keeper of Hekari Ishmael Pole. The issue was that Talo would have filled one import spot for Hekari, while Pole did not.
According to OFC Champions League rules, there are 3+1 foreign slots for all teams taking part in the tournament. This means you can bring four foreigners to reinforce your squad, but one of them needs to come from an OFC affiliated nation. It is clever to have two very good goalkeepers in the squad – injuries and suspensions happen all the time in the game – but if you keep in mind the reality of the foreign quota at OFC Champions League, it does not seem very clever to have a player that might be a reserve choice in the squad filling one foreign slot – or would Jerry Allen have benched Ishmael Pole? Why would Hekari United reinforce their squad where they are already covered by a top PNG international player? Unless they’d had the opportunity to sign a world class goalkeeper, it really does not seem particularly clever.
The Brazilian central defender Erick Joe was signed to be the most important defender for Hekari United in the tournament – and he was. The Brazilian scored one of the goals of the Papua New Guinean team in the process and was one the best players of Hekari in the competition: the issue was who was alongside him. The right-back Daniel Joe played as central defender, while on the right was another foreign player – Junior David from Solomon Islands, playing in his natural position.
Before the start of the tournament, there was a lot of discussion around who would be the player alongside Erick Joe in the center of Hekari’s defence. Daniel Joe and Junior David were the most quoted players and it ended up being Daniel Joe, who played all three games as central defender alongside the Brazilian. The question is: why not play a natural central defender to partner Erick Joe?
It is important to note here that there is only one place that still uses the nomenclature ‘utility player’ on the planet: Oceania. It is a retrograde way to refer to a player that can play in more than one position. Koriak Upaiga is known to be a useful player in many places on the pitch, but in modern football elsewhere in the world, players are tuned to play specific roles on the pitch. So, it is correct to say Oceania is ‘stuck in time’ in terms of allowing a player that does not have the characteristics of a particular position to play in that position.
Daniel Joe is one of the most experienced players of Hekari United squad. If there are problems in the team he can fill the gap as a central defender, but he will certainly not perform as well as he could in his natural position. Junior David is a much more attacking-minded full-back than Joe, and is definitely not an option as a central defender: the still very young player would not have been effective as a center-back and could have caused a lot of trouble playing in that position. Junior David was, however, labeled as an ‘utility player’ before the tournament: this is partially true, but he is certainly not useful as a central defender – he could be placed as right-winger or right-midfielder, but not as a center-back. A ‘utility player’, while useful, can cause problems if they’re asked to play a position which they don’t have much match time actually playing, especially at higher levels of competition.
The big question to be asked: why, knowing that Jerry Allen would be forced to improvise a player alongside Erick Joe, did Hekari United not sign a natural central defender on the level they required? It is good to remember Hekari had on the bench players like Langarap Samol and Otto Kusunan that could fill this gap – despite being more useful in another positions in the pitch – but they were not used in the competition as central defenders, so it seemed Hekari only had the tall Brazilian as a natural center-back in the squad.
Hekari could have dropped the Samoan attacker Vito Laloata or even Junior David to sign a natural central defender to partner along with Erick Joe. Daniel Joe would be a top-class player as right-back in place of David and the head coach would have all players in his back-four playing in their natural positions: Upaiga, Erick Joe, the newly signed central defender and Daniel Joe.
The result of the defensive mess of Hekari United was clear: the team did not have clean sheets in their three games and suffered a total of five goals in three competitive matches.
In the midfield there were even bigger problems: the injured David Muta – who was also sent off in their first match against Eastern Suburbs – could not have any impact in the games he was used. His replacement in the second group match, Willie Gia, was also ineffective.
Muta, when he played, was partnered alongside the Brazilian import Vinicius Reis and the Papua New Guinean international Michael Foster. Here we have probably the biggest mistake of Hekari United: three attacking-minded players in the midfield. Who will protect the defensive system?
Muta and Vinicius are natural two playmakers, both are there to create offensive plays to feed their attackers. Michael Foster is a central midfielder that is known for his runs into-the-box. Foster scored many goals at international level appearing suddenly in the area unmarked to finish. Another issue is having two playmakers in the same team: the players can get quite confused to know which of them can start the offensive plays, but it can be solved with long and good training sessions – something that Hekari seemed to not have time to deal with properly.
Both goals scored by Eastern Suburbs in Hekari United first match in this year OFC Champions League came from plays where the defensive back four did not have any help from the midfield to defend the opposition attack: for the first goal, they were forced into making an ineffective offside trap because they needed to go forward to mark the set play and in the second goal – just after the equalizer from Kolu Kepo – the team seemed poorly focused and allowed a cross to be centered, which led to the second goal for the New Zealand-based club.
Foster was not effective in the final third and also could not protect his defensive teammates well in the entire tournament. Muta barely played the competition: he was sent off in the second half of the first game, didn’t appear in the second due suspension, and left the final group game early in the first half due to a recurring injury. Muta is a legend for Papua New Guinea football, but his time is coming and Hekari should not have put so much hope in a player they knew was not 100% fit to compete.
The Brazilian Vinicius Reis is certainly a very talented player. He made most of the Hekari fans at Sir John Guise Stadium excited with his skills, but there is certainly something the Papua New Guineans will not like to hear: he was not effective either. He got angry and frustrated in various parts of the matches with his teammates, and could not combine well with his offensive partners. This is, in part, due to a left-leg injury he sustained just before the start of the tournament and the lack of game time he had. His first game in Hekari colours was the first group game, unlike compatriot Erick Joe, who had played two domestic matches before the continental competition kicked-off.
Hekari scored five goals in its three matches in the regional competition; a beauty from Kolu Kepo against Eastern Suburbs, two-goals scored from dead balls against Hienghène Sport and two good solo effort goals from Ati Kepo against Galaxy – not enough to help them proceed to the knock-out stage.
If the defensive system of Hekari hadn’t allowed the goals they suffered, maybe Hekari could be in the quarter-finals. It is definitively not a bad record to score five in three games, the issue is that Hekari had plenty of more chances to put balls in the net and most of them were wasted.
Hekari United only had one natural central striker in their squad: Vito Laloata. The Samoan striker only started the final match of his team against Galaxy FC from Vanuatu. Most of the time, Jerry Allen played with three players upfront: Ati Kepo, a winger, Kolu Kepo an attacking-midfielder or second forward and Patrick Aisa, another winger.
Aisa was the player who most disappointed his fans when having the ball in the final third: he could not combine well with his teammates and also did not provide a good final touch to the opposition goal. It is not his fault: Patrick Aisa was told, for his entire football life, to run, pass, receive the ball and find his central striker in the area – in this tournament, Hekari expected him to do something that he wasn’t naturally good at. We could say the same about the Kepo brothers: both of them are known for their speed, not for their fantastic goalscoring records. That said, Ati and Kolu scored three of the five goals of Hekari United in the competition – they did very well.
Martin Bueno, one of Hekari United’s opponents in the group, is a powerful central striker from Uruguay, and can be used as a comparison: the Eastern Suburbs player is a classic ‘Number 9’: if he gets the ball in a good field position, he knows exactly where to place it. He is a finisher – he is there to put the ball in the back of the net, and he has been doing that for his entire career. He can be used in another attacking positions if necessary, but he is not going to be as effective as he is when he is playing as a central striker. Bueno impressed in the competition, scoring a brace in each of the three matches of group A – 6 goals in 3 matches. Eastern Suburbs playmakers and wingers knew if they could provide him good balls he would be a real threat. It worked.
Another issue for Hekari is the Samoan international Vito Laloata – the only central striker in the OFC Champions League squad. He is only 23-years-old, and comes from a very different level than is usually played in Papua New Guinea: the Samoan league system. He was a gamble by Hekari United staff, but he should not have been the side’s only natural striker.
Laloata is not playing badly since he signed for the Papua New Guinean powerhouse, but he is certainly not at the level Hekari United needs to breakthrough at Oceanian level. Hekari should have counted on a more experienced player in his place – Laloata also filled one of the four slots of Hekari United’s foreign quota.
The Samoan can still turn into a top-striker at Oceania level, but for the 2020 OFC Champions League he was still not at this level. It can be proved when checking the match sheets of the three games of Hekari: Vito Laloata was not a starter in his team’s first two matches, thus a foreign player spot was arguably wasted on a bench player.
Hekari did not impress at OFC Champions League 2020; they had three hard opponents, but they could have done better if their management had chosen its players more wisely. The same could be said of the technical staff as well: Jerry Allen and his team did not made the best tactical choices.
The Papua New Guinean side had two Brazilian players, one Samoan and another Solomon Islander. They used two OFC players in their squad – according to OFC regulations, they could have had another non-OFC player to replace either David or Laloata. But this was not their big mistake. The real issue came from the bad setup of his squad, the lack of game time players had in their chosen positions before the tournament, and the controversial choices of playing some players out of their natural positions.
It is time to learn from their mistakes and come stronger for the next edition of OFC Champions League – Hekari is currently at the top of the PNG National Soccer League, so they are not too far away from securing another appearance at the most important club football tournament of the region.