For the Indian men’s national football team, the 1-1 draw in the SAFF Championship against ten-man Bangladesh, ranked 82 places below them in the Fifa rankings was probably the lowest of lows even in a tenure as underwhelming (three victories in 18 matches) as that of coach Igor Stimac.
But after another rudderless, tactless and heartless display during the 0-0 draw against Sri Lanka, a team ranked even lower in the Fifa charts than Bangladesh, there is just nowhere left to hide for the Croatian coach who has been defiant and almost combative in his defence despite such a poor run of results.
For those, who have followed the Indian team closely under Stimac and watched India’s performance against Bangladesh, the Sri Lanka result wouldn’t come as a huge surprise.
No game in international football at any level can be won by merely turning up on the football pitch and running around for ninety minutes without a plan. India’s display against the island nation was pretty much that.
The intensity of the performances under the Croatian have varied across games, but the common theme in all these matches under the former West Ham player has been a lack of any clear pattern of play, identity and the inability to adapt that comes with it.
India have, at times, got away with decent results thanks to the overall level of competition in Asian football where almost every team has a clear chink or two in their armours.
But two wins in eight matches against Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan would tell you that India are severely underperforming. While these teams have improved over the last few years, it is tough to buy that they are at pretty much the same level as India.
The coach’s system or the lack of it has meant that the players have played much poorly than they should.
There was enough evidence of it in the game against Bangladesh where the team played against ten men and even more proof of it against a Sri Lanka team who seemed incapable of even stringing a few passes together.
On Wednesday, India were locked in a match that resembled an attack vs defence training session. The Lankans were content sitting deep inside their box and clearing the lines. There was very rarely an attempt to construct a passing move or counter-attack as the players never really believed they could pull it off against a superior Indian side. The plan was to frustrate the opponents, hope they would be able to keep their concentration and pray the Indians forwards had an off day.
For India, the game was all about throwing different kinds of problems at the Sri Lankan defence and eventually taking the chances that would come their way. And they had to do this without almost not worrying about conceding at the back. It wasn’t something Stimac wasn’t aware of ahead of the game.
“They play whatever they can to stop the opponent from approaching the final third,” the Croatian had said ahead of the game. “That’s allowed in football. In fact, all the teams here have the ability to fight. They are not giving up and that’s what Sri Lanka have been doing well – fighting till the final whistle.”
Stimac had added: “We need to find a way to get past them, and we can do it by quick passing, with a lot of movement, moving into the final third. We will have our chances and we need to be clever and be patient against them.”
But when India took to the field, there was nothing of that sort. They were terribly slow in their build-up despite virtually no pressure on the centre-backs. As almost every team has done against India under Stimac, the passing lanes to the India midfielders were blocked and as has the story been in each of these games, the centre-backs have struggled to build up attacks.
The players’ inability to do the needful is an issue that will stall Indian football’s progress in the long run but failing to find a way around it 19 matches into his tenure also raises questions about the clarity of Stimac’s tactical instructions.
Most of these players deliver better performances for their clubs in the ISL but haven’t been able to translate it on the international stage. Stimac’s excuse that the level of football on the international stage is of a much higher standard falls flat on its face when the players struggle against lower-ranked teams like Sri Lanka.
The performances of these players seem like they either don’t know what they exactly want to do on the pitch or don’t believe in what’s been asked of them. In both cases, the blame lies with the coach.
It’s not as if the players are faultless. The intensity that they have produced in the two SAFF Championship games is unacceptable on the international stage. Players who have been speaking glowingly about the national team and how it’s a matter of great pride for them to wear that shirt don’t seem to be feeling the same way while on the football pitch.
There has been such a lack of intensity in the players’ performance that their quality or the lack of it hasn’t mattered much especially in games against opponents like Sri Lanka who have very little to offer.
However, when such a level of underperformance is seen across the board and there is not even a single positive performance for a player, the coach can’t escape the blame.
India’s performances and results under Stimac make it very difficult to make a case for him to stay on as the head coach of the Indian football team. While his departure won’t solve Indian football’s problems, there is a likelihood that under a new management, India could at least not have to face the embarrassment of failing to beat team ranked almost 100 places below them in the Fifa charts. It’s a chance that AIFF must take especially with the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers next on the agenda.
India under Stimac have fallen way below the level required to qualify for the quadrennial event and there have been clear signs in the SAFF Championship that the situation can only get worse.
The Blue Tigers in their current stage of development simply can’t afford to miss out on competitions like the Asian Cup especially after it was expanded to 24 teams in 2019. The time to be ready for the qualifiers is running out and India first needs to stop the rot. As it stands, that only seems possible with a change in the coaching position.
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