India played Oman in the 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifiers in Bengaluru in 2015 and lost 1-2. India played Oman again in the 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifiers on Thursday in Guwahati and lost 1-2. Sunil Chhetri was India’s scorer on both occasions.
For the Indian football team, there’s virtually no tangible difference between the two results achieved four years apart. If one goes purely by the outcome, it is hard to make case for Indian football making any progress in that time.
But if you look at the balance of play, there is a big difference. In 2015, India conceded a goal inside five minutes and only levelled the game thanks to a superlative effort from Chhetri. They eventually conceded a second and barring a few chances on the break, did little to warrant any points from that encounter.
On Thursday, India took the game to Oman from the kick-off. They rattled the woodwork, outfoxed the opponent to score the first goal and kept the visitors at bay for almost an hour after that without breaking a sweat. Then, for eight minutes, India lost their way and Oman pounced on the errors.
The Blue Tigers matched Oman for most parts but failed to make their improvement reflect in the final result. Oman, on the other hand, didn’t dominate as much as they did four years ago, but when they found the opportunities, they made the most of them.
So, where exactly did India fall short?
India, under Stimac, have had a youthful look to their squad. The Croatian has handpicked a group of young players and put them in the mix. The likes of Brandon Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa, Abdul Sahal, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Ashique Kuruniyan and Amarjit Singh Kiyam have been drafted into the national team along with Rahul Bheke and Adil Khan who weren’t part of the team under Constantine.
On Thursday, Stimac did go with the most experienced youngsters, but they were still relatively inexperienced for this stage.
The lack of experience reflected in the way India managed the game in the second half. Playing largely on the counter, but without pushing up as a unit, India’s attackers were often isolated. The need, especially as the game wore on, was to keep control of the ball but India failed to do that.
“I think we didn’t keep the ball in the second half. It’s not easy if we keep giving the ball to a team like Oman. That’s something we need to work on. It was a good chance of playing at home: 1-0 at 70 minutes. We should have seen out the game,” Chhetri said after the game.
Stimac reasoned India’s lack of possession in the second half to the players’ eagerness to move the ball fast.
“My players, they can run. But this loss is about the experience, not fitness. From the 70th minute mark, we made the mistake of running too much without passing. When you are leading, you have to pass the ball to keep hold of it. We should’ve made the opponent run and chase, we didn’t,” the Croatian lamented.
The gap between India’s defence and forwards during the attacks in the second half, allowed Oman a lot of space to initiate moves.
In the first half, India were the better team. It was because they played in a much more organised manner. In the opening exchanges, the Blue Tigers pressed up the pitch and their defence held a high line.
Due to the lack of spaces between the lines, Oman struggled to build attacks. As the visitors settled down after the first ten minutes, India dropped into a low defensive block, maintaining the distance between their forward and defensive lines to keep a compact shape.
However, India relinquished that compactness in the second half for greater defensive stability. Instead of pressing high up the pitch when in possession, the Indian defence and midfield lines stayed deeper to nullify the threat of a counter-attack.
However, it left the front line on their own during counter-attacks and Oman were able to snuff out any dangerous move with ease.
India, over the years, have been a largely defensive unit, coached to sit back and defend. The instructions to defend deep inside their half have always been more pronounced when they had a lead to protect, especially against sides like Oman.
The tendency to not risk and sit back had hurt India against Bahrain in the AFC Asian Cup when they crashed out after conceding a 90th minute penalty.
This psychological inertia also came into play against Oman as India sacrificed their shape for defensive security. It allowed Oman easy possession in the Indian half thus putting additional pressure on the Indian defence.
“The mentality probably set in that we had to hold the 1-0 lead. I think we gave the ball away too much because of that in the second half,” said Chhetri after the game.
Despite India’s poor shape and inexperience in the second half, Oman failed to make them pay for almost 35 minutes. But just like the hosts, the visitors are also in off-season with their domestic league beginning only on September 14.
The lack of game time was evident in Oman’s play especially in the first half as they struggled to generate any kind of intensity. The loss of concentration during the set-piece that led to the Indian goal was also proof of the lack of sharpness among the Omani ranks.
Coach Erwin Koeman highlighted the lack of match fitness as a reason for his team’s slow start.
“I think both teams suffered from the fact that their domestic season is not on. We were not able to reach our level in the first half because of that,” the Dutchman said after the game.
India’s back four seemed to be a bit rusty at times, and for all of Oman’s possession in the second half, their goals came largely due to Bheke’s errors late in the game.
The blame for the first goal, though, should rest with the entire team. The midfield failed to close in on substitute Mohsen who was afforded too much time and space to pick out a pass behind the Indian defence. The back four were not close enough to each other allowing Al-Mandhar to make a run between full-back and centre-back.
Lastly, Bheke who should have held his position and played him offside made the wrong decision to track his runner and ended up causing the offside trap to collapse.
The right-back was rolled over too easily in the build-up to Oman’s second goal as Al Mandhar had a free run at India’s exposed defence.
Bheke, who was kept away from the national team by former coach Constantine despite impressive performances for the club, has had a torrid time in the Indian colours since his debut under Stimac who may choose to revisit his choice after Thursday’s encounter.
It won’t be unfair to say that eventually, India had to pay for these defensive blunders rather than their mental and tactical deficiencies.
The big stage is not just about learning from your mistakes but also about doing so quickly. As India enters the lion’s den against Qatar on Tuesday, there won’t be any room for mistakes. India will know that they would have to be at their very best just to compete against the Asian champions who are fresh from a 6-0 thrashing of Afghanistan in their first World Cup qualifier.
For Stimac’s wounded men, the task is very much cut out in Doha and they can’t really afford a slip-up.