In isolation, Indian football team’s 1-0 defeat against Oman in the 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifiers on Tuesday in Muscat isn’t a bad result on paper. Facing a team 22 positions above them in the Fifa rankings away from home, the players and staff can perhaps be excused for not being too disappointed with the outcome.
But sometimes results aren’t always the only factor that influences emotions and thoughts after the game. The performance or simply put, the manner of the defeat also has a bearing on how an outcome is received.
On that front, and in the context of poor results and performances over the last few matches, India’s defeat in Oman is concerning despite the small margin of defeat.
On Tuesday, India as an attacking force were almost non-existent. It was perhaps a reason that Oman decided to protect their 1-0 lead after the interval and sat deep, looking to catch India on the break.
As risky and unnecessary the ploy seemed at the time, especially having dominated the first half, it worked out for Erwin Koeman’s team who saw off the game fairly comfortably.
Oman are a strong defensive unit, but India’s attacking numbers from the game were alarmingly poor. Despite enjoying 51% of possession, Stimac’s men failed to test the Oman goalkeeper in the entire game. It is quite remarkable to let the opposition goalkeeper go with such an easy night in any game of football, but it’s even more outrageous when you have more of the ball than your opponents.
And the worse part is that this was not a case of an off day for the Indian attack. Even against Afghanistan and Bangladesh – teams who have conceded 19 goals among them in the ongoing qualifiers – the men in blue had created precious few chances, scoring just twice in two matches, with both goals coming through set-pieces late in the game.
Set-piece joy but open-play woes
Against Oman, the Blue Tigers once again appeared more threatening from dead-ball situations, further highlighting the contrast in open play. Under Stimac, India have scored just three out of the ten goals from open play with the rest coming from free kicks or corners.
The numbers appear to be perplexing for the possession-based style of football that Stimac advocates.
However, it is not the first time that his team has looked listless in open play but dangerous in dead-ball situations. Croatia under the 52-year-old were similar. They scored the majority of their goals from set-pieces and counter-attacks, while carrying little threat in open play despite enjoying plenty of possession.
In his homeland, he was often criticised for the team’s poor performances even when they managed to get desired results initially. Unfortunately, with India lacking the kind of quality and talent that Croatia possessed, they have seldom managed to get a positive outcome under Stimac. In his ten games in charge so far, India have just one win. They have drawn four matches while losing five, scoring only ten goals in the process at an average of just one goal per game.
This poor average doesn’t come as a surprise with the team struggling for goals from open play and stronger teams being better at defending set-pieces. As we saw all second half against Oman on Tuesday night.
Lack of clear game-plan
The Croatian coach has often used a shift in India’s style of play as the reason to perhaps justify poor results. In the ten games, the Blue Tigers have shown glimpses of possession-based football he wants them to play, but those spells have been few and far between and have diminished as his tenure has progressed.
“We are teaching them not to put a straight long ball from midfield. Before I got here India played 25% long balls but now it is 15%. Passing accuracy before me was 67% and now it is 82%,” Stimac said after the game against Oman.
However, despite his insistence on passing the ball, it has been hard to figure out a specific pattern to India’s play in the last few matches, especially going forward.
Oman, on Tuesday, refrained from pressing India high up the pitch despite possessing the quality to do so. They instead waited at the half-line to close down the passing options for the Indians who often ended up going long or passing square among the defenders or midfielders who dropped deep to receive the ball.
This way, they struggled to get the ball to their forward players in promising positions, thus starving them of service. The safe passes may have helped pad up the passing accuracy statistics that Stimac pointed out, but it has barely affected the numbers that matter: goals.
It was a tactic used very successfully by both Bangladesh and Afghanistan and repeated equally effectively by Oman. In 270 minutes of football, Stimac and India have struggled to find a way around it, so much so, that they failed to even have a shot on target in Muscat on Tuesday.
In these last three matches, India looked most threatening in the second-half against Afghanistan when they created a few chances to score. That was when Stimac’s men adopted a more direct style of play and bombarded the opponent box with crosses and long balls.
Accordingly, the Croatian picked the same eleven that was on the field in the second half in Dushanbe against Oman with Ashique Kuruniyan starting at left-back, Farukh Choudhary playing on the right-wing and Manvir Singh playing up top just ahead of Sunil Chhetri who had a free role.
However, the team reverted to a more non-direct approach on Tuesday with a set of players that looked effective in a direct style of play in the last game. Even when India went long, the better quality in the Omani ranks was enough to deal with India’s threat much more easily as compared to Afghanistan.
Thus, the selection and the subsequent game-play further makes it hard to understand what exactly are Stimac’s tactics in the final third.
For the Croatian, it is the lack goal scorers in his team and poor shot accuracy upfront as to why the Blue Tigers have struggled to score goals recently. It is an assessment that one has to take with a pinch of salt especially when his team failed to create any chance of note all night and had their all-time leading goal scorer playing in front two. Chhetri has rarely looked more lost in an Indian shirt than in the last three games and you have to wonder if there is more to India’s scoring woes than just finishing.
As it is, Stimac has plenty of answers to find.
Just six months into the job, it would still be early to judge Stimac properly, especially considering the long injury list he has at the moment in defence.
However, failure to improve the results and performances of the team in the remaining qualifiers, might leave Indian football further behind in the Asian pecking order and that suits nobody.