It has been an odd couple of weeks for Bengaluru FC and the club’s Spanish manager, Albert Roca. Until two weeks ago, BFC had lost only once in eight matches since Roca joined in July last year – and that too was a valiant 0-1 defeat in the final of the AFC Cup. Today, however, the team finds itself on a three-match losing streak with the manager searching for answers to questions he had not really faced before at the club.
The latest defeat, against Jordanian champions Al-Wehdat in the qualifying round of the AFC Champions League, may have been expected but the twin losses in the I-League prior to that contest, first to East Bengal in Kolkata and then to Churchill Brothers in Goa, remain amajor cause of worry.
BFC’s possession-based method under Roca has generally been remarkable to observe. It often feels surreal to watch an Indian club play a patient, short-passing style of football which attempts to replicate that of Spanish giants FC Barcelona, where Roca had served as an assistant coach from 2003-‘08.
But no approach, however superior it might be, can succeed on all courses and in all circumstances even in India. This is something the Spanish manager must acknowledge and learn from.
East Bengal, for instance, had offered Roca’s BFC an entirely new challenge. In the Spaniard’s seven months in charge of the club, his team had not gone into an away match as the favourites and had not faced an away opponent willing to cede possession, play solely on the counter-attack and even scrap it out on the pitch.
Tampine Rovers (Singapore), Johor Daril Ta’zim (Malaysia) and Air Force Club (on neutral territory), who were BFC’s only other opponents on their travels under Roca, were all much refined and superior teams and were thus given due respect. Since possession was not expected to come easily against these teams, the setup right from the word go had shifted to the side of caution. Roca had embraced – and largely succeeded with – a more measured approach against the above Asian trio.
Confidence turning into complacency?
There was no such plan in place for the match in Kolkata. Not from the offset and not even when it was abundantly clear that East Bengal were threatening to run riot. BFC confidently – or arrogantly, some might claim – approached the match like it was any other I-league game. They would even go on to hog 61% possession of the ball; the club’s previous highest figure under Roca in an away game was only 48%.
On the pitch, the Blues played virtually like a home team. Full-backs Harmanjot Khabra and Sena Ralte were as advanced as you would find them at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru. Centre-backs John Johnson and Juan Antonio played the usual high defensive line with only midfielder Cameron Watson dropping deep to support the duo. Roca’s men eventually paid a heavy price for such an approach.
While the tactics worked like a charm for around 20 minutes, East Bengal – especially through their feisty midfielder Mehtab Hossain – eventually got stuck into their opponents. Mehtab riled up both BFC skipper Sunil Chhetri and midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh, which helped set the tone and alter the dynamics of a match that descended into a scrap. This played into East Bengal’s hands.BFC lost the composure in their passing and could not regain it. The Blues attempted only 527 passes – nearly a hundred less than their season average of 625.
In the home fixtures, teams usually get away with a lot more errors because opponents are set up too cautiously to pounce on them. Even in BFC’s opening three games of the season, all of which were at home, the performances were not entirely convincing. But the opposition teams were not brave enough to exploit the loopholes.
Adventurous opponents capitalising on Bengaluru’s errors
Away days, with opponents far more adventurous, are much more punishing. East Bengal were brave in deploying two forwards, Willis Plaza and Robin Singh, to exploit the space vacated on the wings by the marauding full-backs. Both Plaza and Singh repeatedly caught BFC on the counter-attack by isolating the two centre-backs and exposing their lack of pace. Manager Trevor Morgan’s side could have easily scored five times – such was the disarray in BFC’s defence – but managed the two goals that were enough for a come-from-behind win.
Five days later, a winless Churchill Brothers side repeated the feat on the champions in what was also Bengaluru’s worst offensive display of the Roca era. A side which had averaged over 17 shots per game in the season managed only eight and conceded twice at the other end. That Churchill manager Alfred Fernandes did not deem it necessary to make any substitution before the 89th minute tells you how comfortable his team had felt against the visitors.
There are parallels to be drawn here with Barcelona. European football aficionados will recall that even some of Barca’s greatest teams of recent years have been found wanting when requiring a plan B and have been prone to being sucker-punched.
No opponent dared to out-pass the great Catalans. That would have been suicidal. What they would do instead is to try and remain in the contest for as long as possible, get under the skins of Lionel Messi and Co. to throw them off their passing game and then wait for a scoring chance to come along – which would usually arrive due to the high-risk nature of the team’s defensive arrangements.
Could the I-League teams adopt a similar template against BFC? Recent results suggest they should. Teams which have adopted a more aggressive style to disrupt BFC’s rhythm have produced better results. Others will likely learn from it and follow suit.
Roca needs to mix pragmatism with idealism
This is a problem for Roca. Much of his methods rely on controlling possession and his players are not fully equipped yet to stick to their manager’s plan for the entire game. He needs a contingency plan. He needs to add a dash of pragmatism to his idealism. In six attempts, the Spaniard is yet to win an away match as BFC manager and has lost four of them. Admittedly, these numbers do not entirely reflect the nature of the team’s results but a few more additions and it could really start hurting the club in the league standings.
There is an immediate need for BFC to grind out an away result and then gradually build on it. The manager certainly needs to ensure there is adequate cover in his defence even if it means compromising on his ball-playing principles.
Johnson’s schoolboy errors – a mistimed header in Kolkata and a misjudged one in Goa – directly led to two goals in two matches. His frustrations then manifested in a horrific tackle against Churchill which saw him sent off and suspended. Did the rock in BFC’s defence suddenly turn into a bad defender overnight? No, it is just that the questions being asked of him today have changed.
Akarsh Sharma is a New Delhi-based writer who contributes to various publications. His work is collated on akarshsharma.com