Hugo Martins talks about spinning webs. And the need of having a strong ‘defensive structure’. They have had countless drills to have functional defensive lines. But India’s assistant coach insists the team won’t be defensive. “Instead, it is fair to say the team will defend well,” he says.
On Friday, India will make its debut at a football World Cup of any denomination when Amarjit Singh & Co take on the USA at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. The anticipation within the playing group is at fever pitch. But they are also acutely aware of the possibility of them being outclassed if they go for the jugular. “So we need a pragmatic approach,” Martins says.
Martins is the right hand of India under-17 team’s chief coach Luis Norton de Matos. The Portuguese duo came to India in March after the All India Football Federation (AIFF) sacked German Nicolai Adam following a player revolt. Adam, the players wrote in a letter to the AIFF, ‘physically abused’ them.
The incident left the team divided and scarred. And the Portuguese coaching staff was given eight months to prepare the players mentally and tactically for the World Cup, which begins on Friday. It’s hardly a sufficient period, especially in a country where tactics are barely taught at age-group levels.
De Matos has more or less continued with the same style that Adam designed. But he has made slight variations by borrowing ideas from Portugal’s most famous tactician, Jose Mourinho. Like most other Portuguese coaches, Martins says they too are heavily influenced by the styles and strategies of Mourinho, which they are trying to use here in their own ways.
He talks about ‘tactical periodisation’ — a training approach developed by Vitor Frade, a lecturer at Sports University of Porto. It is a method of preparing teams around four key moments in a match — the transition from attack to defence and vice-versa, defensive structures and the organisation of players during attacks.
This philosophy existed in theory for a long time. “Until Mourinho implemented it practically,” Martins says. “It proved that everything starts with tactics. So the first thing we did with this team was to focus on our defensive organization.”
During the practice matches, the team is seen working in two lines of four players each. The players are taught to identify situations where the opponents are under pressure and press them for the ball. But they have been advised against applying pressure high up the field because ‘they have not had a tactical culture’. “Other teams have more experience. Our pressure is more close to our goal. To play high press, the players should have high tactical knowledge. Because we are not in that level yet, our pressure is medium,” he says.
The team adopts a zonal marking system with heavy reliance on counter-attacks. The coaches are banking on the team’s ‘fitness and hard-working’ nature to ensure the tactics are implemented on field.
“When an opposition player has the ball, it doesn’t look like he is playing against one player — it feels like he is playing against 10. Everyone is behind the ball,” Martins says. “We have put a lot of hours working on this process. There is focus on the offensive part and transition, too, but first phase was the defensive organization.”
The players are shown videos of Xavi. “When he receives the ball, he already knows the direction of his pass. His awareness in the midfield and decision-making is what we teach them,” Martins says. Homework for these teenagers includes watching Champions League matches. “Because in our opinion, the Champions League is the best level of football. We watch a lot these games,” Martins adds.
Notes from Champions League
Players are told to make notes, which are shared during team meetings. During their last session, PSG’s transitions from defence to attack and vice-versa against Bayern Munich in their Champions League match were shown to the players. Before that, the fluid movement of Mourinho’s defence lines during Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Southampton in the Premier League was studied closely. “He finished that game with a line of five players after starting with four,” Martins notes.
Mourinho’s influence on the team swings between tactical to philosophical and psychological.
Moments after he learnt the news of his father passing away, midfielder Ninthoinganba Meitei had to make a decision that would impact his and his family’s future. He was considering the option to return home and be with his mother and sister. But he had promised his father he’ll play the Under-17 World Cup.
Meitei feared he would lose his spot in the team if he left the camp just two months before the World Cup. He did not know whom to turn to for advice. Until the coaches stepped in. “We told him ‘don’t worry about your position in team. Family is first’,” Martins says. “It was sad. He is one of the youngest players of the team. We told him to return when he was ready. It’s natural, no?”
In Portugal, Martins says, they call this ‘football humanism’. It’s a made-up term to describe the other facet of Mourinho’s style of coaching. As much as tactical, Mourinho’s coaching style is known to be heavily influenced by psychology. Martins says this aspect features prominently in the Portuguese coaching curriculum.
“Mourinho gives humanism to training. There are lots of studies on his style which are not just tactical but also focus on how he handles the human nature,” Martins says. “Football is more than football. We work with emotions and feelings. Players have families and they too face problems. We need to understand this.”
In April, when India travelled to Portugal for an exposure tour, Mourinho’s guru Manuel Sergio dropped in at the training centre for a pep talk. Sergio is one of Portugal’s biggest philosophers. His lectures helped Mourinho form his coaching ideology. And Martins says he and de Matos — who are likely to continue even after the Under-17 World Cup — are trying to do just that with the Indian players.
“It’s the theory of chaos — we need to accept there will be problems. So we will resolve it rather than hide it. The boys have feelings and need to treat them like that,” Martins says. “That’s what Mourinho does. And that’s what we will try to do.”
Defence is the best Attack
The primary focus, in India’s case, is to have strong defensive structure. The defence forms two lines of 4 players each. Say Row 1 and Row 2. Row 1 operates in the mid-field, Row 2 positions like a conventional back four.
How it operates
An advancing forward from the rival team is met by a player from Row 1, who will mark his zone.
The two players in Row 2 behind him will mark the players in their zone, blocking the angles for the obvious pass, thus forcing the forward to either go sideways or backwards. Other players from the Row 2 keep a check on the over-lapping rival players.
“The idea is to make a web. When opponent player has the ball, it doesn’t look like he is playing against one player — it feels like he is playing against 10. So like that, we push him sideways or backwards.” Hugo martins, India U-17 assistant coach
It’s a coaching philosophy which gives priority to the emotional needs to a player, tactics are secondary in this approach. Made popular by Jose Mourinho, the concept is now at the core of Portuguese football coaching manuals.
Professor Manuel Sergio, Portugal’s most influential football thinker, spoke to the India Under-17 team during the European tour. Sergio, who Mourinho calls his guru, spoke about the importance to building human relations.
India Under-17 Assistant coach Hugo Martins says there are several theses done on Mourinho’s style and as much as tactics, the focus is also on how he handles human nature.
Mourinho was the first embrace this fluid training approach.
Vitor Frade, a lecturer at Sports University of Porto, was the one who thought of this structure.
Four key moments when the format changes:
Transition from defence to attack,
The Transition from attack to defence.
I refer to a teacher of mine, from a subject not really connected, but that always pushed me to a determined way of thinking: Professor Manuel Sergio. He would always say that a coach who only sees football is weak, but it will never be so if he becomes a specialist in human science. I cling to that and play with people’s emotions: Jose Mourinho, Manchester United