The build-up to the 2019-20 Indian Super League final between ATK and Chennaiyin, was dominated by the attacking riches at the two teams’ disposal and the potential fireworks they could produce.

The hype was to an extent justified as Chennaiyin FC had outscored FC Goa, the league’s most prolific team in the semi-finals, while ATK had pumped three goals past Bengaluru FC, the competition’s most stingy defence, becoming just the second team this season to do so in a single game against them.

ATK’s Roy Krishna and Chennaiyin’s Nerijus Valskis were locked in a close race for the ISL’s Golden boot award and the final was to be the last lap of this exciting duel. The Fatorda stage, although devoid of spectators, was all set to host this great shoot-off between the two famed strike forces.

However, what the build-up largely underestimated was ATK’s ability to more than hold their own in defence, and stand up even to Chennaiyin’s rampant brigade that had won seven out of their last ten matches, scoring 27 goals in the process.

Antonio Habas’ side was the second-best defensive unit in the ISL coming into the final both in terms of goals conceded and clean sheets. ATK had nine shutouts this season, a tally equal to the combined count of FC Goa and Chennaiyin.

ISL 2019-20 - Teams' stats comparison

Teams Goal scored (league rank) Goal conceded (league rank) Clean Sheets (league rank)
FC Goa 51 (1st) 29 (4th) 5 (3rd)
ATK 39 (2nd) 19 (2nd) 9 (2nd)
Bengaluru FC 24 (7th) 16 (1st) 10 (1st)
Chennaiyin FC 39 (2nd) 35 (7th) 4 (6th)

Although they weren’t the best in any particular departments, they were strong in all of them. This balance proved to be crucial for them in the final as they beat Chennaiyin 3-1 to win their third title.

From offensive 3-5-2 to defensive 5-3-2

Chennaiyin put ATK under pressure from the word go at Fatorda on Saturday. The champions rode their luck a bit in the opening exchanges when Valskis hit the bar and Chennaiyin squandered a few more chances, but soon came to terms with what their opponents were throwing at them.

ATK were playing with an unchanged team from their semi-final win over Bengaluru FC. Against the defending champions, Habas’ side attacked with their wing-backs who almost functioned like wingers. But in the final, they adopted a defensive approach against Chennaiyin who were in the ascendancy and enjoyed more of the ball.

The Kolkata-based outfit were forced into a 5-3-2 formation and at times a 5-4-1 from their usual 3-5-2 during the game due to Chennaiyin’s constant pressure. But they remained compact in their shape, just as they did against Bengaluru FC, sticking to their basic playing principle.

“The most important thing is the fundamental principle of play,” Habas said after the game.

“We kept the 3-5-2 system because we have to use two important players in attack like (David) Williams and Roy. But you have to learn what the fundamental principles of the team are. After that, you can change. You can move this formation,” he added.

The difference between the two formations was the positioning of the block. In the semi-final, ATK had used a high block to squeeze the space inside Bengaluru’s half and thus made it difficult for them to build attacking moves.

Against Chennaiyin, ATK remained compact in a defensive low block, allowing Chennaiyin to build up attacks freely till the final third where they would squeeze the space and make it difficult for them to break ATK down.

It was a smart switch from Habas’ side from the Bengaluru game after assessing the different challenges that Chennaiyin posed.

Different tactics in attack

There was a change in ploy in attack as well. In the game against Bengaluru, the emphasis was on stretching Bengaluru FC’s deep and narrow defence and pick out either Krishna or Williams inside the box with a cross from out wide.

In the final, with Chennaiyin dominating majority of the ball and their defence line pushing up the pitch, Habas’ men had plenty of space to exploit behind them. The two forwards, especially Krishna in the short time he played before leaving the field injured, ran the channels extremely well.

The Fijian would make runs behind, at times out wide, dragging the Chennaiyin centre-back out of his position. Williams would then engage the other centre-back while runners from midfield wreaked havoc in the Chennaiyin box. That’s how they scored their first goal.

John Johnson picked out Krishna’s run behind the defence with a long ball that dragged Eli Sabia out wide on the right. Williams then made a perpendicular run inside the box that dragged Lucian Goian out of his position. Sabia did a poor job of stopping Krishna’s cross that landed at the feet of Javier Hernandez who had made a late run into the central space inside the box, that Goian had vacated, to score a fine volley and give his team the lead against the run of play.

ATK could have exploited Chennaiyin’s weak defensive organisation further had Krishna not got injured as his substitute Armando Sosa Pena couldn’t run the channels that efficiently.

“With the injury to Roy (Krishna), the team was nervous. We couldn’t find the necessary personnel to keep scoring and kill the match off,” Habas said.

Against Bengaluru FC, ATK enjoyed 56% of possession compared to the 38% against Chennaiyin and sent 17 crosses into the Bengaluru box as against seven in the final. Prabir Das alone had eight crosses against Bengaluru, but against Chennaiyin, the count was down to two.

ATK's stats in SF vs ATK's stats in final

Opponents Possession  Passes Touches Crosses Shots on target
Bengaluru FC in SF (2nd leg) 56%  433 593 17 5
Chennaiyin FC in final 38% 239 441 7 6

In both games, ATK won by an identical scoreline of 3-1. However, the contrasting manner in which those results were achieved is clear from the above table. The Kolkata side was able to get almost the same number of shots on target in the final despite having much lesser possession and sending ten fewer crosses into the box.

The match-winners for ATK too came from all quarters of the squad. Williams starred in the semi-final, while Javier Hernandez, Johnson and Arindam Bhattacharja stepped up in the final. Even Pronay Halder made a big impact coming on from the bench and assisted in the third goal. They were a complete team.

Unlike FC Goa and Chennaiyin, for whom attack was the best form of defence or unlike Bengaluru who banked on their rearguard action to get them over the line, ATK won football matches in more ways than one. They did an FC Goa in the semis and pulled off a Bengaluru FC in the final.

As for Chennaiyin, they were beaten by the better team on the night, and perhaps by the best through the full course of the season.