Many in the stands bellowed and hissed when India went down 2-0. It was uncharacteristic of a Delhi crowd which has not seen any prime-time football for some time now (sorry, Delhi Dynamos fans!)

Punished ruthlessly, the crowd which had roared for most of the first half were gutted to see Chris Durkin’s shot ricocheted off Anwar Ali and into the goal. The corner wasn’t cleared properly and goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem, who had played out of his skin to keep India in the game, waved his arms around in disgust.

In the end, the three goals came from a penalty, a deflection and a counter-attack. It could have been a game of ifs and buts, it wasn’t to be in the end, as India were initiated to World Cup football in the cruellest way possible.

Costly errors

Luis Norton de Matos may claim that the scoreline was a punishment for his team but India made some costly errors. ‘Schoolboy’ isn’t the exact word to describe the passing but as an unit going forward, there remains a lot to be desired.

When faced with a superior opponent, ‘just sit back and counter’ is what most coaches would have communicated to their wards. On this occasion, the boys looked overawed in the first half and were penned in, throughout the first half due to the lack of a release ball.

Aniket ran the ball out on a couple of occasions as the forward from Kolhapur struggled to hold onto the ball with his back to the goal. Be it nerves or technical ability, de Matos had claimed after the game that India’s organisation was good. It remains to be seen whether the Portuguese will be more adventurous and look to play a more optimistic brand of football against Colombia, unlikely as it may sound.

Every time they had an opportunity to break or stem the momentum of the US, they were unable to string more than two passes together. Captain Amarjit Kiyam and Suresh Wangjam looked to find the Sikkimese Komal Thatal more often as the game wore on. With the space and time he received, Thatal’s decision making was a tad off the pace.

Although the defensive organisation was solid till the point that Josh Sargent earned the penalty, Dheeraj had to face more than the quota of shots he would have liked to face. The challenge by Jitendra Singh was a clumsy one and it was a lapse of concentration. On the edge of the box, Sargent wasn’t going anywhere. The boy from Bengal needn’t have lost his composure.

(Image courtesy: FIFA Media)

Lopsided formation

When Luis Norton de Matos named three defenders in his starting line-up, it did raise many eyebrows. With Boris Thangjam out through suspension, the popular belief was that Hendry Antonay would replace the Manipuri at right-back.

Instead, what followed was a formation resembling a lopsided 5-4-1. Anwar Ali and Jitendra were the central defenders, but with Sanjeev Stalin tucking in, Komal Thatal and Rahul KP were expected to help out with the defence.

Thatal didn’t track back as expected but instead, with the US heavily favouring the right flank, Rahul and Ninthoi Meetei doubled up on Tim Weah who was getting to the byline with ease. The end-product was lacking though and it took a penalty to finally prise India and Dheeraj’s goal open.

Up front, Aniket Jadhav toiled but was unable to keep the ball when it reached him. The difference in sizes was expected, but there should have been more physicality in shielding the ball when it reached the forward.

Dheeraj plays well

The second half was much more encouraging. Thatal regularly got into good positions and on the brink of the 56th minute, he broke through but chipped the ball above the keeper and well above the bar. The chance came and went and Komal was left ruing his chances.

He was possibly India’s best outfield player but spent too much time on the ball. The glitz, the flicks, the tricks were all on display but the passing was non-existent. To graduate to a higher level, he needs to concentrate on his team play and feeding the balls to the striker.

India had another moment when Thatal’s corner meandered its way through to Anwar Ali, who took a touch but rifled his shot against the US crossbar. At the other end, George Acosta put a ball through to Andrew Carleton as the Americans hit back on the counter. Carleton, left one-on-one with Dheeraj, rounded the no 1 and scored easily.

Those 30 seconds perfectly encapsulated the match in a nutshell. What could have been 2-1 turned into 3-0 in the space of a few moments. But this is what good teams do and the Indians will learn from it, a superior squad will punish lapses in concentration.

Lastly, a word of praise for Dheeraj. The goalkeeper was the best player for India on the night and not once did he lose his head while saving a shot or reaching for a high ball. He has physically bulked up over the years, and that shows in his shot-stopping efforts as he denied the American attackers again and again. The scoreline may not reflect it, but without the Manipuri no 1, it could have been five or six for the Americans.

It has been a steep learning curve for De Matos and his boys and it will continue to be so, till the World Cup is over. Colombia come knocking on the 9th and with the South Americans on zero points, they will be raring to go and snatch all three points. Of course, India will be well aware of that.

The Numbers Game

  • Possession - India (43%), USA (57%)
  • Attempts - India (9), USA (20)
  • On-Target - India (1), USA (8)
  • Off-Target - India (5), USA (9)
  • Blocked - India (3), USA (3)
  • Fouls - India (10), USA (11)
  • Offsides - India (0), USA (3)
  • Corners - India (3), USA (3)
  • Saves - India (5), USA (1)

As India’s shots on target ratio would reflect, they mustered a single attempt on-target. This was down to the fact that the play in the final third was rushed and a bit hesitant at times.

All the three sides in this tournament that India play will be physically stronger than them. In such a scenario, De Matos will be well-advised to find a Plan B, other than crossing it from the wing.

With the US, John Hackworth would rue the excess of diagonal balls and aerial play that his team had employed. Nevertheless, his team enjoyed a reasonable shooting accuracy of 25%.

The home team’s possession statistics did improve by a significant percentage in the second half, but against Colombia, India will need a faster start. In the opening 20 minutes, India barely saw the ball and that was primarily due to nine Blues holding down the fort in their last third of the pitch.

Hackworth would mention later that the Indian team defended in two banks, very deep in their own half and this had resorted to the US team employing the tactics they had. Mind you, with Sargent, Carleton, Durkin, Weah, this US team could have tried to play their natural attacking game, but they were smart enough to understand the importance of the first group stage fixture and weren’t afraid to play it ugly to break the Indian fort open.

De Matos and AIFF will take note of this; this is tactical training that cannot be taught in the space of three years. At the end of the day, the best around always have a plan ‘B’, always.