Singapore Premier League champions Albirex Niigata (S) face transitional challenges but deserve patience

In what is proving to be a challenging transitional season for Albirex Niigata (S), the reigning Singapore Premier League champions' 7-1 loss to Lion City Sailors on Sunday was their joint-biggest defeat ever. Leo Shengwei / PLAYMAKER

As champions in six of the past eight seasons, Albirex Niigata (S) have been the dominant force of the Singapore Premier League in recent times.

Never one to stand still, the White Swans' constant quest to evolve initially saw them go from primarily a satellite team for the J.League club of the same name consistingly solely of Japanese players to one that looked had a handful of young local prospects they were looking to nurture -- and then eventually becoming a squad that even boasted established Singapore internationals.

Ahead of the 2024-25 SPL season, the next chapter began for Albirex when it was announced that they would be transitioning into a fully-local outfit -- meaning they would be predominantly made up of Singaporean players and had to adhere to the standard foreign player quota imposed on most clubs.

They always knew this transitional year would produce its fair share of challenges, acknowledged by both chairman Daisuke Korenaga and coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga during the club's preseason launch back in April.

But five rounds into the new campaign, the White Swans are learning exactly the magnitude of the obstacles that lie ahead for them.

It is not just the fact that they have won just once and lost four of their opening five games, not including another defeat in the campaign-opening Community Shield to Lion City Sailors.

Instead, their last two outings will not only have been a reality check but might even be cause for some serious concern.

First, there was a shock 3-2 loss -- where they twice threw away a lead -- to Young Lions, a team who have finished bottom of the league in the past three seasons and have not achieved a top-half finish in 14 years.

Then, on Sunday, what ordinarily would have been a potentially decisive clash between two title contenders saw Albirex humbled in a 7-1 loss to the Sailors - a result which equalled their record margin of defeat from when they lost 6-0 to the now-defunct SAFFC in 2009.

In fact, that second result might even have been far worse were it not for the usual heroics of goalkeeper Hassan Sunny, while Albirex's solitary effort was somehow allowed to stand even upon VAR review despite Shuhei Hoshino being clearly offside.

For a team that has enjoyed so much success over a prolonged period, this is undeniably the trickiest position they have found themselves in for a long time.

Yet, subsequent knee-jerk reactions and even questions over whether Yoshinaga is still the right man for the job are far too premature.

Albirex were never going to throw in the towel even before a ball was kicked but, unlike recent years when it was clearly stated that the title was the target, the fact that club hierarchy expressed reservations in preseason suggests that expectations should be tempered this campaign.

For all he has previously achieved, with four league titles to his name, Yoshinaga deserves a proper opportunity to show what he can do with a different hand dealt to him.

As much as incoming players or coaches usually need time to adapt to fresh surroundings, Yoshinaga should also be afforded patience to solve the teething problems stemming from the unique situation of a near-wholesale change not just in playing personnel but also environment and culture.

The White Swans still boast an impressive-enough squad led by seasoned campaigners such as Hassan, Hoshino and Ho Wai Loon, while new imports like Yojiro Takahagi, Yohei Otake and Arya Igami Tarhani will only get better with time.

Albirex are also among the SPL's most professionally-ran clubs. Despite not originating as a local team, they have been extremely active in their community activities and have always viewed themselves as Singaporean.

The transition to a local club was always going to be the next logical step in their trajectory.

On the previous occasions when they emerged as champions of the SPL, Albirex were never able to go on and enjoy the prestige and challenge of representing the country in continental competition.

The next time they do so, the White Swans will get the opportunity to fly the flag for Singapore on the Asian Football Confederation stage.

It might just require a bit of patience to get through the current challenges of this transitional period.