India’s opening game in the 2019 King’s Cup against Curacao may have ended in defeat, but the new playing approach under Igor Stimac and the promise shown by some of the debutants were welcome developments.
The Blue Tigers have shown signs of bucking their inferiority complex against higher-ranked sides in recent matches, but their attacking mindset against the Carribean nation was heartening to see.
The defence was, however, all over the place in the first half of that match, which resulted in them conceding three goals. But the recovery in the second half to keep a clean sheet and take the game to a superior Curacao side was a very encouraging sign.
On Saturday, India were up against a weaker opponent in comparison to Curacao in Thailand. They had a psychological advantage over the hosts having beaten them 4-1 in the AFC Asian Cup five months back.
Stimac made eight changes to the team, resting experienced heads like Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Udanta Singh, Pronay Halder, and Pritam Kotal.
Young Raynier Fernandes and Amarjit Singh Kiyam were rewarded for their performance against Curacao, while Vinit Rai and Adil Khan were afforded opportunities to impress. Anirudh Thapa, one of India’s shining lights in UAE was drafted back into the line-up.
The positive effect of opting for a young side was there to be seen straight away. India began with a swagger, keeping the ball in Thailand’s half and forcing them to play second fiddle on their own patch in the opening exchanges.
Their improved passing and movement were evident during that period. And India broke through after 16 minutes, albeit through an unlikely route of a set-piece. Khan, a centre-back returning to the national fold after seven years, sent an inviting cross from his weaker foot while Thapa lurked at the far post to finish a typical No 9’s goal. Total football? Not really, but it was a quality piece of play nonetheless.
However, after the goal, the game changed. Thailand grew into the game and India were made to sweat hard to preserve their advantage.
India weren’t getting outplayed. They had good control of the central area with three midfielders playing there. The problems were being caused on the flanks where Thailand created overloads using their wing-backs.
The hosts played with a three-man defence with wing-backs, while India played with two up top with a narrow midfield. So it was pretty obvious that Thailand were going to dominate the flanks due to a numerical advantage in that part of the field.
Stimac’s ploy was to tackle this threat by being defensively compact, a risky strategy that needed great discipline and concentration. This was exactly what The Blue Tigers had lacked in the first half against Curacao. But the Croatian put faith in his centre-backs and made a few adjustments to their plan after going in front.
“In the AFC Asian Cup game, Thailand had 70% possession. I think today till we scored the goal we were better in possession. I changed a few things on purpose after we scored the goal because we had many inexperienced players who can lose their head during the game, so I wanted the players to allow Thailand centre-backs to have the ball and focus on closing the gaps at the back. So that was the reason why the game changed in terms of possession after we scored.” Stimac explained in his post-match press conference.
On several occasions, Thailand players got in great crossing positions, but couldn’t convert it into goals. This was down to impressive performance from centre-backs Sandesh Jhingan – captain on the day – and Adil Khan. They were helped largely by Vinit Rai who dropped back to cover the cut-backs. India’s midfielders, unlike the previous game, were more aware of their defensive duties, winning a lot more second balls than against Curacao.
The Indian coach asserted after the game: “In the second half, Thailand played well. They were very organised. They tried to attack us from the wide areas with quality crosses but my defenders were world class today. It wasn’t possible for Thailand to score against us today.”
Adopting a more cautious approach didn’t completely hurt India’s chances of going forward. Unlike the usual precedent in Indian football where a rearguard action was limited to clearing the danger and thumping the ball into the crowd, Saturday saw India having an attacking outlet. Stimac utilised the passing ability of Rai, Raynier, and Amarjit well to build counter-attacks. India should have scored from one at the end of the first half when Choudhary wasn’t decisive enough in the final third after getting a through ball.
India were not as easy on the eye against Thailand as they were in the Curacao game, but Stimac picked grit and discipline over style to swap a defeat for a win.
“We can keep the ball and play a passing game even against sides like Curacao. We showed that in the last game. But today was different. I’m proud of the way they adapted,” Stimac stressed after the game.
“We only had one player from the AFC Asian Cup win over Thailand in this game. We played so many young players. So the result is that I have exactly what I had planned to have after the first phase of my preparation. I have competition for every place in my squad. It makes me feel helpless but says a lot about the team,” Stimac added.
India now play the Intercontinental Cup at home in July and few more quality teams lie in wait. But if the King’s Cup is anything to go by, exciting times lie ahead for the Indian football faithful thanks to Stimac and his young brigade.