Six-time Thai League champions Buriram United are never far from the headlines in their homeland, and are increasingly gaining renown on the world stage for their ever-growing exploits.
As the most successful club in the nation’s history, they have fielded a number of excellent teams and hosted some of the league’s greatest players over the years. However, this current iteration of the Isaan outfit, with its youthful squad and incredibly astute coach, may just be the strongest that the club have ever fielded. Montenegrin coach Bozidar Bandovic is currently in his second spell at the club, having coached the side for three months in 2014. Having made his name in Greece coaching AEL Larissa and Olympiacos respectively, as well as FK Baku of Azerbaijan, Bandovic was an unknown quantity to most in the division. Despite taking charge when the club were languishing in 12th after a poor start to the season and leading them all the way to third in the table, the former Olympiacos scout was axed by trigger-happy owner Newin Chidchob, with many assuming he would be consigned to the ash-heap of Thai Football history.
Unsuccessful spells with BEC Tero and Sisaket followed, treading down the path of many unsuccessful journeyman managers in the league. It came as a shock when Bandovic was appointed by Newin once again, this time as Buriram United’s technical director at the beginning of 2017. His second chance at the Buriram hotseat would come after an incredible turn of events halfway through the season. The Thunder Castle were neck-and-neck with Muangthong United at the top of the Thai League table when head coach Ranko Popovic was dismissed for slapping an opposition’s physiotherapist, handing Bandovic a second chance in the limelight. Since that fatal moment, the club haven’t looked back.
Buriram United have developed a reputation for ruthlessly sweeping aside all opposition, but this iteration of the Thai giants may be better at this than any of their predecessors. Since the arrival of Bandovic in June last year, the side have won 21 out of their 23 league games, giving the manager a staggering win percentage of 91%
Bandovic, who is yet to lose a league game since returning to ‘the Thunder Castle’ is closing in on the longest unbeaten run for a manager in the Thai League, currently held by now-Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic, whose Muangthong side won the title as “invincibles” in his only full season at the club. Additionally, the side has only conceded 9 goals in those 21 matches, meaning the side go on average three and a half hours of football between conceding. When the side lifted their sixth league title last year, they did so having garnered a record total of 86 points over the course of the 34-game season.
This season has marked Bandovic’s first opportunity to truly showcase his tactical nous on the continental stage. Buriram were drawn in a group against seven time Chinese Champions Guangzhou Evergrande, Japanese side Cerezo Osaka and Korean outfit Jeju United. Tactical sophistication has never been a strong suit of many Thai League teams, especially when contrasted with that of teams from Japan or Korea.
However, the Thunder Castle’s recent performances on the continent have shattered that perception, consistently putting in top-draw performances which saw them gain admirable draws away at Guangzhou and Osaka, and a remarkable home win against the later. The draw away in Osaka had Fox Sports commentators purring about how well Bandovic had laid down his mark on the team, with both their goals coming from clearly well-practiced corner routines and their system intelligently nullifying Cerezo’s attack. Bandovic’s team have heralded a new age for tactical sophistication in the Thai League, and could have lasting impacts on the division.
This may be the largest mark against Bandovic’s Buriram side. The sheer clinicality and aforementioned discipline mean that the side rarely ever offer truly exhilarating games, compared often wild and erratic rivals, such as Bangkok United. While it is true that the side may fall short to some when it comes to entertainment value, there is a certain appreciation to be gleaned out of watching the seasoned predator slowly and masterfully pick apart their opposition.
Buriram’s two-pronged attack of Diogo Luis Santo and Jaja Coelho worked wonders last season, with the pair scoring no less than 70% of the teams goals in 2017. The side have also adapted to the departure of the later excellently, replacing him with Edgar Bruno da Silva from Qatari champions Al-Duhail to fill the same target-man role. Additionally, this team have absolutely mastered the art of pinning their opposition back into their own box, effortlessly shifting the ball with mesmerizing confidence before applying often beautiful finishing touch to inevitably sink their opposition. This phenomenon is blindingly unavoidable whenever the side take to the field in their home ground, the newly named Chang Arena.
Many have perceived the methodical pragmatism at which Bandovic has approached the Champions League to be slightly dull, detracting from the romanticism so often generated by the adventures of plucky, underdog Thai clubs on the continent. However, if it pays dividends, it could be the necessary step to finally turning the club into the continental powerhouse they have always threatened to be.
Once a side full to the brim with expensive foreign stars, Buriram’s transition to being a youth-orientated club has been admirable. The fact that they have been able to maintain their exorbitant levels of performance and success while doing it has been nothing short of extraordinary. Players like Rattanakorn Maikami, Anon Amornlerdsak and Supachok Sarachart have become key components of the side, despite all being under the age of 21. Rattanakorn in particular has been a major success story, consistently being one of the side’s top performers and already earmarking himself as a future Buriram captain. Since Bandovic’s arrival at the club, the ‘transitional season’ of 2016 which saw them finish as low as fourth and allowed their arch rivals Muangthong United to steamroll their way to the title has become a distant memory. In just over a year, the Montenegrin manager’s influence has not returned the club to its former glory, but has pushed them to even greater heights.