The Spanish influence on Indian football was quite evident this season. Sergio Lobera got his FC Goa side playing an exciting brand of football in the Indian Super League, while Miguel Angel Portugal turned Delhi Dynamos’s fortunes around after a difficult first half of the season.
One manager, however, stood head and shoulders above the rest. His side, playing in the ISL for the first time, caught the rest of the teams by surprise and reached the final. On Thursday, his reign ended with Bengaluru FC qualifying for the AFC Cup knockout stage for the fourth time in a row.
Albert Roca’s Bengaluru FC campaign started in 2016 with a run to the AFC Cup final, making the Blues the first-ever Indian team to have done so. It ends with an unlikely qualification for this year’s knockouts. In between, a lot has transpired.
Much of what happened in the first three years of Bengaluru FC’s existence was unexpected if you consider that the team was built from scratch in 2013, with Sunil Chhetri the only marquee Indian signing.
Ashley Westwood had led Bengaluru to three titles in as many years, including two I-League wins. The Englishman was always going to be a tough act to follow.
Roca had little time to settle, as his first match in charge of Bengaluru FC had to be played behind closed doors at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. A run to the final of the AFC Cup had made Bengaluru FC and Roca the cynosure of every Indian club’s eyes.
That high wasn’t meant to last, though. Bengaluru were brought down to earth in their domestic campaign, going seven matches without a win, as Roca oversaw the leanest run in the club’s history. The Spaniard was accused of lacking pragmatism, but stuck to his guns.
True enough, BFC reaped the rewards in Roca’s second season.
As Bengaluru finished fourth in a highly competitive I-League season, the numbers showed that Roca had made significant progress with the team. The Blues played the fastest, shortest game in the country with the best passing stats.
The problem? Teams often sat deep, ceded possession and countered in the I-League as opposed to Asia, where BFC would pay more respect to their opponents. This season, defensive solidity married attacking bite to devastating effect domestically.
Lobera’s team scored the most amount of goals in the ISL (42), while conceding the third highest (28). Portugal’s Dynamos scored 27 (fourth highest) and shipped 37 (highest). Bengaluru? Scored 35, second only to Goa, while letting in only 16, a league record low.
Bengaluru had come a long way in the last season. In Roca’s last match, away against Abahani Dhaka, they recorded a comfortable 4-0 victory in the same fixture that they had lost 2-0 the previous campaign.
He did have his off days, the 2-0 defeat to then last-placed Dynamos, a loss by the same scoreline away to New Radiant in the AFC Cup, and a tactical tweak in the ISL final, which Bengaluru lost after dominating the league stage, the most notable. The former Barcelona man refused to desert his philosophy despite these setbacks and, more often than not, it paid off.
The team clawed back to draw 2-2 against Tajikistan’s Istiklol despite having a man sent off. They came back to win three matches in the Super Cup, after going a goal behind in each. Against Mohun Bagan in the semi-final, they went a man down as they trailed 0-1 but came back to pump four past their illustrious opponents. Roca had ensured that Bengaluru were tactically streets ahead of their domestic peers.
Roca did enjoy the services of stellar foreigners during his tenure – Alvaro Rubio, Cameron Watson, Erik Paartalu, Edu Garcia, John Johnson, Juanan Gonzalez, Miku – but the Spaniard’s work with the Indian players has paid off too, despite the ISL draft forcing Bengaluru to re-shuffle their local core.
Not may three-pronged attacks in Indian clubs play with two local players, as Sunil Chhetri, Miku and Udanta Singh do. Nishu Kumar, given his break in the AFC Cup, received a national team call-up under Roca.
Subhashish Bose and Rahul Bheke look much improved as defenders, with the former making it to the 30-man India squad for the Intercontinental Cup. Udanta Singh, in a first for Indian players in the ISL, lodged the joint-highest number of assists in the league. Daniel Lalhlimpuia, has scored three times in the continental competition. Chhetri, at 33, has scored 20 goals in the ISL and Super Cup, the best season of his career.
The benefits for the national team are all too obvious. Roca’s time in India might not have been that long but its rewards will be reaped for a long time, if Bengaluru and their players can retain the core tenets of the Spaniard’s ideology.