Igor Stimac’s first game in-charge of the Indian football team ended in defeat as The Blue Tigers went down 3-1 to a higher-ranked Curacao side in the King’s Cup in Thailand on Wednesday.
The loss exposed obvious shortcomings of the players in the new system implemented by the Croatian, but it also had plenty of encouraging signs for the coach as well as the team.
Stimac wasn’t in the mood of easing his philosophy among the players as he named an attacking line-up. Sunil Chhetri started at the top on his own. Sahal Abdul occupied the No 10 role while Brandon Fernandes and Pronay Halder started in the double pivot in the middle. Udanta Singh and Lallianzuala Chhangte played out as the wide men.
Rahul Bheke slotted alongside Sandesh Jhingan in central defence, while Pritam Kotal and Subhashish Bose flanked them.
There were five purely attack-minded players in the line-up, a big shift from Stephen Constantine’s time when defensive discipline and work rate were the attributes that dictated selection.
India saw a completely new approach to build-up play against Curacao as compared to Constantine’s days when Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s ability to send long goal kicks was their chief weapon to enter the opponent’s half.
In Buriram, India’s build-up was short and brave. The centre-backs split up to receive the pass from the goalkeeper. If they were marked or closed down, the full-backs pushed slightly up the field to become available for a pass from Gurpreet.
The centre-backs weren’t afraid to dart passes into midfielders who were equally comfortable in receiving the ball and kept it moving despite the greater physicality of the opponents. Sahal was the brightest of the lot as he floated between the Curacao midfield and defence lines. He was quite unpredictable with his movement. At times he dropped deep to link-up with the deep-lying midfielders, while sometimes he made runs behind the defence line in an attempt to exploit the space.
In the 7th minute, Sahal burst into the gap between the Curacao centre-back and full-back. Brandon found him with a delightful long pass. However, the centre-back tracked Sahal’s run that force him to send a cross across the face of the goal where there were few Indian takers.
This was just the first of several attempts Brandon made during the game and it had the Curacao rearguard scrambling on a few occasions in the game.
India were even better in the second half when Raynier Fernandes replaced Halder in central midfield, while Amarjit Singh Kiyam played alongside him, pushing Brandon to the left wing.
Raynier and Amarjit seemed assured on the ball, partly because the Curacao players dropped the intensity in the second half, but credit must be given to the duo for maintaining a better midfield shape in the second stanza, thus providing a stronger cover to the defence. In the first half, India’s midfield shape was broken on many occasions, allowing Curacao to profit.
Brandon, Sahal, Raynier and Amarjit were at the heart of India’s improved gameplay as their composure on the ball was telling.
Stimac said he was pleased with the impact his substitutes made in the second half.
“The positive for us was the second half. I made two changes, (brought on) two young players, Amarjit Singh and Raynier Fernandes who gave us something extra. They improved our passing, they covered the spaces well and we were much more in control,” the Indian coach said after the game.
Lack of organisation
India suffered in the first half due to a complete lack of organisation during defensive transitions. They did well to keep their shape while on the ball, but were too slow in getting into their defensive formation, once they conceded possession. Curacao who have several players playing in the Dutch Eredivisie and one in the Premier League (Leandro Bacuna of Cardiff City) were too good to not make India pay for their defensive lapses.
Brandon who was excellent with his distribution in the first half struggled with his positioning. He was at fault for Curacao’s third goal where he failed to block the passing lane to their forward, leaving the backline exposed. In addition, India’s defenders had too much gap between each other throughout the game. Curacao exploited these gaping holes in the Indian defence to score their second and third goals.
There are several factors that led to these defensive difficulties for India. The relative inexperience of playing a high defensive line, new centre-back pairing and players playing in positions that didn’t come naturally to them all contributed to the poor defensive display in the first half. The fitness levels of the Indians who were returning from a break were not enough to challenge the Curacao players who had just finished their seasons with the clubs in Europe.
These are still early days. India’s problems are expected to ease once the players get comfortable in the new system and get acquainted with the newcomers in the squad. Stimac has put India on a very different path in terms of playing style, and as he suggests, The Blue Tigers will have to tread a long way before reaching the level of teams like Curacao.
“Curacao are a different class. You can sense the training of European academies in their touch, movement and the discipline they show. We are at a very different stage. We are moving into a new phase but it requires long hours on the training ground. So I’m proud of my players and the way they played today,” Stimac said after the game.
For the first game in an alien system, India exceeded expectations to an extent, especially if the second half is anything to go by. For coach Stimac though, after spending a week with the players, it wasn’t as big a surprise.
“The good thing about Indian players is that they learn very quickly. I have been very impressed with them over the past week. The amount of improvement they have shown is incredible. It is heartening for me as a coach,” Stimac concluded.
India will play either Thailand or Vietnam in the third-place game on Saturday, and it will be another opportunity for Stimac to bed in his philosophy with the players. It will be another tough challenge for the players, but embracing this turbulent transition is the way forward for Indian football.