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WATCH: Saintfiet sticks to his guns despite defensive frailties

Video: Matthew Mirabelli

Tom Saintfiet tried to put on a brave face after the national team slumped to a disappointing 3-0 defeat to Estonia in a friendly at the National Stadium on Sunday.

Two goals inside the opening 14 minutes put paid to Saintfiet’s hopes of a positive start to his career as Malta coach as the side he opted for struggled to come to terms with the new tactics the Belgian tried to introduce.

For much of the past five years, the national team, under Italian Pietro Ghedin, had adopted a 3-5-2 system. The module had helped the team look more solid and organised in defence even though it also left the critics frustrated at the lack of attacking impetus from the Maltese players.

On Sunday, Saintfiet venture with a more attacking style of play, fielding the team in a 4-2-3-1 set-up. However, his plans failed to reap the desired dividends as Estonia always looked in control with the home side unable to adhere to the new system.

The national team lacked any sort of tactical organisation, conceding the opener after only 55 seconds before falling further behind on 14 minutes.

Saintfiet admitted his players were all over the place in those opening minutes but, strangely, still sounded pleased with their general performance.

“I am not happy with the result, losing 3-0 at home is never a good result,” Saintfiet said.

“Yes, at the beginning we had some organisational problems which led to Estonia’s first goal… it was like starting the match already 0-1. Then we conceded a penalty to fall further behind.

“But gradually the players started to gain in confidence and created a couple of chances but we still continued to struggle in defence. The introduction of Joseph Zerafa in the second half eased our problems and we also started to play more offensive football.

“All in all, I was pleased with the efforts of my players. They tried to play attacking football but this is only our first match and there is a lot of work still to be done to reach our objective.”

Luke Gambin’s showing was one bright note to emerge from Sunday’s match as the Luton Town man thrived as an attacking winger.

Perhaps, the most concerning factor was watching established players like Zach Muscat, Ryan Fenech, Andrei Agius, Andre Schembri and Jean Paul Farrugia finding the going tough to adapt to the new style of play. 

Saintfiet told reporters after the match that he has no plans to alter his tactics and has already made it clear that he wants his players to get more acquainted with the new system ahead of next March’s friendly international against Luxembourg.

“We are trying to change a philosophy of football and it’s our intention to keep this process going despite the defeat to Estonia.

“We had different players in different positions so now we have to analyse their performance better and see where we can go,” Saintfiet noted.

“My only regret on Sunday was the decision to play Zach Muscat at right back,” the Belgian conceded.

“He had only joined the group on Thursday night and had little time to fully understand the tactical movements required. But this has nothing to do with his technical ability as the lad is a key player for the team.

“Now, the only way for us to improve is to figure in more friendly matches.

“I hope that before the start of the Euro Nations League next year we can arrange four or five other matches as that will help the players get more acquainted with the new playing philosophy. Hopefully, we can take a step forward against Luxembourg.”

One stumbling block for Saintfiet could be that he may have to wait until the next international break in March to meet up with his players even though on Sunday he revealed that the MFA is trying to reach a deal with the clubs for the national squad players to train at Ta’ Qali at least once a week.

“My wish would be that the national squad returns to the old system where they would be available for training three or four times a week… but it’s not easy to have that,” Sainfeit noted.

“The MFA has been in direct contact with the clubs to regarding this issue and I’m told that the feedback was positive. Hopefully, an agreement will be reached soon so we’ll take it step by step.”

Zach Muscat in action for Malta against Estonia. Photo: Matthew MirabelliZach Muscat in action for Malta against Estonia. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

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