Just like domestic rivals Hekari United, Lae City blew a huge chance to qualify for the quarter-finals of the 2020 OFC Champions League in Vanuatu in February, after a win, a draw and a defeat were not enough to see the side progress from Group B. The side, coached by Peter Gunemba, were unable to make it three successive quarter-finals in the competition after a disappointing 3-0 collapse to hosts Malampa Revivors in their final group game. This was a stunning reversal in fortunes, after Malampa were the first side that Lae City ever defeated in continental competition, winning 5-2 in the 2016/17 competition, before beating them again 4-2 in the 2018/19 competition. This year’s defeat demonstrates that while the Vanuatuan side have progressed, Lae City have stagnated.
The club have enjoyed incredible domestic success since debuting in the 2015 National Soccer League, having won every single domestic competition they have taken part in so far. They are currently the reigning five-time champions of Papua New Guinea, and have impressively and consistently performed on the big occasions against massive rivals Hekari United to upstage their Port Moresby-based brothers in Grand Finals and playoffs alike. However, they seem to have become too reliant and starry-eyed when it comes to their veteran star players, and their investment in foreign talent, while exciting, showed a certain naivety when it comes to bringing in players from abroad. Let’s delve a little deeper below.
Let’s compare two line-ups: the first, that debut victory against Malampa Revivors on 11 March 2017, and the second, their opening group game against Henderson Eels in this year’s competition on 14 February 2020:
The team on the left is Lae’s triumphant team that won that historic victory against Malampa Revivors in 2017. The team on the right is the side that drew 3-3 with Henderson Eels in February.
Now, stability for any football club is key, and it’s encouraging that the teams look vaguely similar: seven of the players who started that victory in 2017 also started their opening group match against Eels this year. However, aside from a couple of exceptions, the core of this side was at its peak in 2017, and now, three years later, the players in question have, through no fault of their own, lost that extra yard of pace, that ability to react as quick as a flash, and that acute level of fitness which comes with being younger than 30.
Let’s take a look at the defence for starters. The three men that started both matches are goalkeeper Ronald Warisan, now 30, and central defensive partners Mosie Milubwa, now 35, and Valentine Nelson, now 32. When you look at those ages now, they look old. Warisan, at 30, is still well within his peak as a goalkeeper, but even back in 2017 when Milubwa and Nelson were 32 and 29 respectively, it was clear that the pair needed replacing sooner rather than later. And yet, three years on, the pair were still a crucial part of the Lae City defence, with Milubwa now partnering 25-year-old Philip Steven at center-back, and Nelson being asked to play as a right-back. (Steven, by the way, is an excellent prospect brought in from Morobe Wawens, and should be given more game time going forward)
The solution to the center-back problem was the signing of brothers Alwin and Felix Komolong. The pair already have experience outside of Papua New Guinea, and both have a handful of international caps despite still being in their mid-twenties. However, the news that the transfers didn’t go through in time for either player to feature for the club at the OFC Champions League was a huge blow for the side, and their absence was noted in Lae’s matches against Eels and Revivors, which both saw the side ship three goals. Had the pair been available for Lae during the competition, then we could have been writing a completely different article. Whether it was Lae’s lack of diligence which led to the late arrivals or the Komolong brothers holding out for better offers from elsewhere, we will never know, but surely both parties must see it as a missed opportunity all around.
Coach Peter Gunemba’s solution to the full-back problem against Lautoka was to play two players who more accustomed to playing further up the field as attacking wing-backs: Joshua Oscar and Emmanuel Airem replaced Nelson and Managu on either side of the center-backs. For the Lautoka game it worked: Lae ran out 7-0 winners and were barely challenged at the back by a weak Lautoka side. Raymond Gunemba spoke to OFCe after the game, saying that they had identified that Lautoka’s back line was very sluggish, and their tactic was to run at them with pace. It worked, because they didn’t need to be particularly strong defensively in that game, but playing the same formation against Malampa Revivors in the final group game was a mistake, given Malampa’s far superior attacking prowess compared to Lautoka’s. The Lae defence was tested against Malampa, and it failed the test, and in the meantime, the attacking threat was well neutralised by the home side. This goes to show that while a switch in tactics may work for one opponent, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily work for another.
Age-wise, Lae also have a problem up front. Raymond Gunemba has been a fantastic player for club and country. Since joining Hekari United from Eastern Stars for the 2011/12 season, he has won eight consecutive domestic titles – three with Hekari and five with Lae City – and he has earned 21 career senior international caps, the second highest in PNG history, and scored 11 senior international goals, also the second highest in PNG history. He is the definition of a legend. But even legends fade eventually.
Gunemba is now 33 years old. By all accounts, he is past his peak as a footballer. Sure, he can still bang in the goals – he has six so far in the National Soccer League this season – but physically, he is not as fit, fast and sharp as he was five years ago. And because of Gunemba’s (well-earned) reputation, and because Lae play only one up front, Gunemba starts every game, and, crucially, there’s no wiggle-room to blood a younger, fresher striker alongside the veteran. We have seen that potential replacements for Gunemba exist: two weeks ago, on their return to NSL action, Lae thumped FC Kutubu 8-1, with Albert Morgan Jr scoring a hat-trick. Attacking midfielder Alu Awi has also hit three goals in a handful of starts this year. But while Gunemba retains that starting spot in the team, the club have no way of developing anyone else to take his place once he retires. Am I saying that there are better options than Gunemba in the team? Not necessarily. But given Gunemba’s age, I am saying that he is not as good a player as he was three or four years ago. That’s just biology.
What does this mean? It means that at center-back, at full-back, and up front, Lae are less young, less sharp, and less fit than they were when they debuted in the Champions League, because the players they had back then are the same players that they had now, and because of the ages of these players, they have naturally gone past their peak during this time. If Lae are to make any inroads into the continental competition, the long-term replacements for Milubwa, Nelson, and Gunemba need to be ready now, and I’m not sure if they are.
The midfield is another matter. The trio of Jacob Sabua (25), Obert Bika (26) and Emmanuel Simon (27) are all at their peak, and combine to form what ought to be one of the finest midfields in Oceania. However, there’s one problem: there’s no defensive cover. All three men are excellent midfielders: they’re good in possession, tidy passers, strong and energetic going forward, and far from goal shy: Simon alone has six goals from midfield domestically this season, and scored four goals in three games for the club in this year’s OFC Champions League. But none of them are particularly good in that role just in front of the midfield, which was a role that needed filling, especially with Airem and Oscar attacking aggressively from the full-back position.
If you add quasi-striker Nigel Dabinyaba to the mix, you already have heaps of attacking talent in the side, which begs the question: why did Lae decide to recruit two Ecuadorians that merely add to the attacking talent, and don’t address the issues elsewhere in the side?
Abdias Aguirre, 21, and Gustine Icaza Vergara, 19, arrived at the club before the start of the season with some excitement. It took a while for their International Transfer Certificates to be sorted, but gradually they were introduced to the starting eleven. While there’s still time for things to change, generally, the pair have been underwhelming so far. Vergara started two of Lae’s three matches in the Champions League, but was ineffective in both, and hooked early in both: he played a total of 61 minutes. Aguirre was better: he assisted the opening goal for Lae against Lautoka – his only goal involvement in the competition – and played the full 90 minutes against both Lautoka and Malampa Revivors. But neither player really had the experience to perform consistently throughout the tournament, and therein comes our final flaw.
Bringing in two South Americans was always going to be a gamble; bringing in two that were both under the age of 22 is simply a lack of foresight.
When you sign a young player, you invest in that player’s future: you expect the player to stay at the club for several years, and after some time, the hard work in developing that player from youth to peak pays off when they begin to deliver top-class performances week-in week-out and become a key part of the team.
However, it is unlikely these two Ecuadorians will stay at Lae City beyond the summer.
One thing Hekari United do well – and are continuing to do during the short domestic transfer window – is recruitment. They understood that when bringing in players from outside the OFC, they need to be mature and developed enough to be dropped straight into the first team and become key players almost immediately. They need to make a difference from the first whistle. Brazilian Erick Joe, 24, has been a rock at the heart of the Hekari defence, solidifying a position that was weak in that team. His fellow countryman Vinicius Reis, also 24, has made the central midfield position his own, demonstrating some classy touches and control of the midfield possession, even if his efficiency and final product has thus far left a little to be desired.
At Lae, Vergara and Aguirre seem to be not much more than rotation options. In fairness, Aguirre is starting to impress more and more in the pivoting midfield role, but Vergara in particular has failed to live up to the excitement we all shared when the pair arrived in Papua New Guinea. Both men have time to turn things around and enjoy a successful season at the club, and both have an excellent shot at gaining some silverware at the end of the season, but why invest the time and money to bring foreign players to the club if they’re not going to be key players in the side? Hekari’s Brazilians are a good age, cover clear weaknesses in the side, and are probably some of the first names on the teamsheet every Saturday. Lae’s Ecuadorians are a touch too young, reinforce already strong areas in the side, and are struggling to hold down their places in the first team.
If the players were to stay at the club for four to five seasons, then their acquisitions would make a lot more sense. The club would benefit from their presence for a lot longer, and the players themselves would develop and become key figures in the Lae side. But if, as expected, they leave at the end of the season, there is simply not enough time for either player or club to reap the benefits of this time together.
Furthermore, while we know that Hekari United used a Brazilian agency to find Erick Joe and Vinicius, how did Lae City find these two young Ecuadorians? How much did they know about their skill and ability before they arrived in the country? How much of a gamble were these two signings, in reality? These are questions the management will know the answers to, and things that the management will also be able to learn from.
To conclude, it’s clear that Lae City has come a long way since forming in 2015: five domestic titles and two OFC Champions League quarter-finals attest to that. For the first time ever, they were able to secure talent from outside Oceania; they are still riding high in the domestic league; and they have an exceptionally exciting midfield of players who are all at their peak in the game. But lessons can be learnt from this exit, and if the management is smart, they will learn these lessons and come back for the 2021 Champions League wiser, less naïve, and far better off.