Igor Stimac came to India as one of the most high-profile foreign coaches in its footballing history but two years on from his appointment he acknowledged that his job is in danger.

“I am honoured to be working with AIFF. I appreciate the support given. We have a good platform for the future. It is now on the AIFF technical committee, AIFF, and President to decide my future. If they are not happy with my performance I am ready to accept that,” Stimac said.

However, the honest admission was sandwiched between a vehement defence of his work in a 68-minute long press conference.

“I could be fired but not even (Pep) Guardiola or (Jose) Mourinho could do more in these circumstances,” he added.

There is no denying that Stimac faced situations that no previous head coach of the Indian football team endured due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Amid the resultant chaos, the Croatian achieved his objective by finishing third in the World Cup qualifiers and thereby reaching the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers.

But the World Cup qualifying campaign that saw India pick up just one victory left a lot to be desired. The Blue Tigers scored just six goals during that time and failed to beat lower-ranked Afghanistan twice and Bangladesh once. It has created doubts among the All India Football Federation’s hierarchy about Stimac’s ability to help India make the cut at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.

As the Croatian enters the final few months of his contract and with his fate in the balance, here’s an analysis of his reign as India head coach.

Results under Stimac

Results are a manager’s most important currency and Stimac has struggled on this front. In his fifteen matches as manager, the Croatian managed just two wins, six draws and seven defeats. His win% of 13.33 is a lot poorer than Stephen Constantine’s 55 who he was supposed to be an upgrade on.

Results under Igor Stimac

Serial No Opponent Result  Scoreline Venue/Tournament Fifa ranking of opponent 
1 Curacao Loss 1-3 Thailand/ Kings Cup 76
2 Thailand Win 1-0 Thailand/ Kings Cup 109
3 Tajikistan Loss 2-4 Ahmedabad/ Intercontinental Cup 115
4 DPR Korea Loss 2-5 Ahmedabad/ Intercontinental Cup 116
5 Syria Draw 1-1 Ahmedabad/ Intercontinental Cup 79
6 Oman Loss 1-2 Guwahati/ W'Cup Qualifiers 82
7 Qatar Draw 0-0 Doha/ W'Cup Qualifiers 55
8 Bangladesh Draw 1-1 Kolkata/ W'Cup Qualifiers 187
9 Afghanistan Draw 1-1 Dushanbe/ W'Cup Qualifiers 149
10 Oman Loss 0-1 Muscat/ W'Cup Qualifiers 82
11 Oman Draw 1-1 Dubai/ Friendly 81
12 UAE Loss 0-6 Dubai/ Friendly 73
13 Qatar Loss 0-1 Doha/ W'Cup Qualifiers 58
14 Bangladesh Win 2-0 Doha/ W'Cup Qualifiers 184
15 Afghanistan Draw 1-1 Doha/ W'Cup Qualifiers 149
Fifa rankings mentioned are at the time of the match

In his defence Stimac was quick to highlight that under him, India played more than 50% of the matches against opponents who were placed higher in the Fifa charts.

India managed three draws in eight of those games. A decent return considering the Blue Tigers were underdogs in all of those games.

The problem for Stimac has been the results against teams who were inferior to his side in terms of the Fifa rankings. In those seven games, India won just twice against Thailand and Bangladesh, lost twice against Tajikistan and DPR Korea, and drew three times.

With the Asian Cup qualification coming up where India will face more lower-ranked sides than superior ones, this record doesn’t inspire confidence.

Another concern under Stimac is the goalscoring record. The Blue Tigers average less than a goal per game under the Croatian having scored just 14 times in 15 matches. Under Constantine, India averaged over 1.7 goals per game.

Defensively, India have let in 27 goals in his reign at a rate of 1.8 goals per game compared to a goal per game in the previous regime.

The Croatian however highlighted how his India were better defensively than the one under Constantine in the World Cup qualifiers. It is true as they conceded just seven goals as compared to eighteen under Constantine.

However, the xG (Expected Goals) and xGA (Expected Goals Against) indicate that India scored more goals than the chances they created and conceded far less as compared to the chances they gave away. The World Cup qualifying campaign thus could have been far worse for India.

Constantine’s India improved drastically after the World Cup qualifiers despite a worse performance during the campaign and Stimac, if given an opportunity, will have to replicate that.

The onus is on the Croatian to not just maintain but also improve the results compared to his predecessor, as he inherited a set of players that progressed a lot after that World Cup qualifying campaign and also gave a good account at the Asian Cup. So far he hasn’t delivered on it.

Consistency in performance and style of play

Poor results can be overlooked if there is consistent improvement in the team’s performances over a period or a definite long-term plan at play in terms of a change in footballing philosophy of the team.

In terms of performances, Stimac’s India have been very up and down. They held Asian champions Qatar on their own soil in one game and then needed late goals from corners to force draws against Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Even in the reverse games against these lower-ranked teams, India huffed and puffed to a win against Bangladesh, thanks largely to Sunil Chhetri’s goalscoring excellence. Against Afghanistan, they were probably second-best and lucky to escape with a point.

“We had good games against Qatar away and Oman at home which were some of our best performances in recent years. But performances against Bangladesh and Afghanistan were not good. So the feeling in the camp is that we have been hot and cold and that is something the group is looking to correct in the future,” Chhetri said recently.

This deviation in the performance levels is something that will worry the AIFF ahead of the Asian Cup qualifiers as they decide on Stimac’s future.

In terms of playing style, Stimac said he was asked to introduce a more attack-minded and progressive playing style when he took over as manager.

There was instant evidence of it in the first five games where he deployed more than five attacking players on an average in his starting line-ups. The big change was in midfield where he used a passer, a more creative midfielder who was mostly Amarjit Singh with a holding midfielder or sometimes another attack-minded midfield player in a double pivot.

India played a more passing-oriented game as compared to the direct approach under Constantine but it led to the Blue Tigers conceding ten goals in those five games. These results forced Stimac to always have a holding midfielder in the team. The absence of Amarjit and more serious opponents in the World Cup qualifiers meant India were never as fluid in the next few matches under the Croatian who kept on tinkering with the team and the formations.

India’s indirect approach proved ineffective against lower-ranked teams who sat deep. The goals Stimac’s men scored in these games and the few chances they created came from the direct route.

“We can say that the last third, the defenisve side of the job work was done perfectly. Then to the middle third, where it was necessary to involve more technical players who are more confident on the ball who can pass the ball with better accuracy. We did a pretty good job there too. But in the last third, we struggled because we don’t have the players can make that clever pass or have the confidence to shoot,” Stimac said assessing his own team’s progress.

After the pandemic enforced a gap of over 400 days, Stimac opted for a three-man defence behind a three-man midfield that included a creative midfielder in the shape of Brandon Fernandes but in a slightly advanced role ahead of two industrious midfielders in Glan Martins and Suresh Singh. The latter’s role was flexible as he functioned more on the flanks at times, allowing Brandon to drop deeper.

The aim was to be even more solid defensively probably as insurance against the lack of goalscoring prowess. In these games after the pandemic, India played four attacking players on an average in their starting XIs compared to five before. The Blue Tigers were naturally more solid in these games but their attacking threat also declined.

Stimac made fewer changes to his team and mostly stuck with a back three especially during the World Cup qualifiers but it wasn’t enough to suggest the tactical or philosophical identity of his team in the long run.

Identifying a core group

The key to building a team’s identity and ensuring consistency in performance is identifying a set of players that suit your plans and then sticking with them. It is something Constantine did quite well despite the poor results in the World Cup qualifiers.

In Stimac’s case, for reasons within and beyond his control, there have been far too many changes. The Croatian has used 45 different players in the fifteen games that he has been in charge and 37 of those have started for him at various points.

Injuries and the break due to the pandemic has forced his hand to an extent, but only four players out of the 37 different starters have started ten or more games under the Croatian. Those are Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Rahul Bheke and Sandesh Jhingan. Three of these names would have been automatic choices on the team sheet for any manager coming into the job. Only two other players have made more than ten appearances for Stimac.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that the Croatian has never named an unchanged line-up since taking over as the manager.

Ten players with most appearances under Stimac

Rank Player Starts Substitute appearances Total appearances
1 Sunil Chhetri 11 0 11
2 Gurpreet Singh Sandhu 11 0 11
3 Rahul Bheke 11 0 11
4 Udanta Singh 9 2 11
5 Manvir Singh 8 3 11
6 Sandesh Jhingan 10 0 10
7 Brandon Fernandes 7 2 9
8 Ashique Kuruniyan 7 2 9
9 Sahal Abdul Samad 6 3 9
10 Subhasish Bose 8 0 8
10 Anirudh Thapa 8 0 8

Stimac has been most consistent in the selection in the defensive area where Jhingan, Bheke and Subasish Bose have been more or less identified as first-choice defenders. Chhetri is obviously the first name on the sheet along with goalkeeper Gurpreet. Apart from these players, Manvir Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Ashqiue Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh have been relative regulars in the starting XI. But Udanta who played in all the World Cup qualifiers before the pandemic has started just once after the break. Sahal Abdul Samad who started six times before the pandemic has not featured in Stimac’s starting XI in the last five matches.

To be fair to the Croatian, he has cut down the changes after the pandemic and has named more settled teams but he is still trying to find the best possible solutions in certain areas of the pitch. Players like Udanta and Bheke who have made as many appearances as Chhetri and Gurpreet for Stimac have let him down on more than one occasion.

The Croatian has been handed a bit of a raw deal due to the pandemic and perhaps deserves the benefit of the doubt. For the AIFF as well, finding a replacement that will be a definite upgrade on Stimac in the current circumstances will be far from easy.

Stimac would be hoping the stars align for him as matters on the pitch don’t paint a great picture of his work. Either way, there’s plenty to ponder for the AIFF bigwigs.