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Croatia, Slovakia drubbings cannot cancel Malta’s progress under Mangia

Matthew Guillaumier (left) looks for an opening against Slovakia on Sunday. Photo; Matthew Mirabelli

After the shambolic performance against Croatia, Malta national team coach Devis Mangia had asked his players to turn the page for a positive finale in these 2022 World Cup qualifications.

Unfortunately, though, Mangia’s rallying cry was not enough to inspire his players as a 6-0 defeat at the hands of Slovakia followed the 7-1 loss conceded to Croatia.

These two defeats have blown away Malta’s chances of breaking the record of points and avoiding bottom spot in Group H, with Cyprus placing ahead us with a better goal difference.

Thirteen goals conceded in two games and 19 in the last four have certainly hurt an Italian tactician like Mangia who hails from a defensive school of thought, even though his playing style can be considered slightly more offensive than some of his fellow Italian colleagues.

In his first six games in charge, Mangia steered his team to four straight clean sheets which arrived against Gibraltar, Andorra, Latvia and Liechtenstein.

Make no mistake, these opponents are no Croatia, Russia or Slovakia.

Nonetheless, it was a solid starting step for Mangia’s project to try and build a fortress at the back against these type of teams before starting to concentrate on how to become more dangerous in the offensive phase.

In the World Cup qualifiers, Malta did manage to secure one clean sheet which arrived against Cyprus, who are in Pot 5 and ranked better than the Maltese side, following a 3-0 win.

During that September window, Malta put up two commanding showings against Slovenia and Russia after the Cyprus win, drawing praises from the likes of Jan Oblak – Atletico Madrid and Slovenia’s goalkeeper – and the Russian media, who went even further and had jokingly asked Mangia whether he would like to come and coach in Russia.

Come October and November and suddenly, the team looked different from what we were used to under Mangia.

Even in the game against Cyprus on away soil, Malta were not up to Mangia’s standards, showing just glimpses of their qualities only in the second 45 minutes where they managed to salvage a draw at the death.

What impressed most, but in a negative way, was the passivity in several goals that Malta conceded and the fact that the players seemed to show an inferiority complex like in previous years.

We can only judge from what we see on the playing field and prior to this month’s games, the pitch told us that Malta joined the Euro 2008 team with a record haul of five points in a qualifying campaign and was contending the fifth place in the six-team group with Cyprus.

Could have Malta aspired for bigger ambitions? Not really. The reality is that Malta is a 173rd ranked team, sandwiched between Mauritius and Puerto Rico and if there is a chance of progress and development, there must be patience.

In all fairness, challenging for the Nations League promotion on the final day, setting a number of records in terms of victories, clean sheet and possession, defeating teams like Latvia away from home or drawing with Slovakia are all signs that the future of this team is bright.

Solid foundation

These thoughts were echoed by the Malta Football Association president Bjorn Vassallo, who pointed out that he will continue to back this project because this is a solid foundation for more positive results in the future.

“It is important that now we stick together for the upcoming commitments that will see us involved in friendly matches in March before the next Nations League campaign in June,” Vassallo said after the game.

Taking the Slovakia game into account, Mangia was asked what the difference was between this game and the first-round meeting, which finished in a 2-2 draw.

“In Trnava, we capitalised on our first two chances whereas Slovakia took their first three chances here after we had the chance to score first,” Mangia said.

This is a perfect statement that sheds light on how a team’s performance must be judged.

Sometimes, the final score does not reflect what happened on the field and that is why there are new ways to analyse a performance, new metrics which rate the quality of the chances that one team created, portraying a holistic picture of how a team fared during the 90 minutes on which the technical staff base their selections for the next games.

In the 20 games that Mangia was in charge, Malta found the net on 23 occasions, which is more than one goal per game – a sign of progress in the offensive phase.

In contrast to the previous management, without criticising what has been done by coach Ray Farrugia, Malta scored only nine goals in 18 games while conceding 43 against the 41 conceded by Mangia (19 of which conceded in just the last four games).

Such statistics highlight the progress shown and it is something that defender Kurt Shaw pointed out in his post-match interview.

“I think this team deserves respect for the performances and the results that have been achieved recently,” the Sliema Wanderers player said.

“There will always be mistakes, like in the build-up phase to which we were not used to before.

Now it’s time to regroup and shift our focus on the coming appointments as our objective is to do well, especially in competitions like the Nations League.”

The coming weeks will be an important reflection time for Mangia, the team and the administrative staff to evaluate the results so far as from March onwards, the commitments will come thick and fast.

“This is a process of ups and downs, but it is important to regroup and restart to regain what we might have lost in the previous games,” defender Zach Muscat, who plays in Portugal, admitted. 

It would make sense if Mangia’s first qualification cycle is only judged by what the Maltese players have shown on the pitch – the structured build-up, team organisation and not shy of creating goal-scoring opportunities.

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