Updated: June 15, 2021 12:04:56 pm
When Igor Stimac took over the reins of the Indian national football team in the middle of 2019, one of the promises he made was to make the team play a more possession-based game.
It was a tall ask. His predecessor, Stephen Constantine, was criticised for a style that virtually bypassed the midfield. The reliance on long, aerial balls was heavy.
Two years from Stimac’s reign beginning, India have six points in seven games in World Cup Qualifiers’ Group E and are currently third among five teams. The team has one more game remaining, to be played on Tuesday against an Afghanistan team that held them to a 1-1 draw in the first leg.
🗣️ @stimac_igor: I have asked my boys to enjoy the game 🙌
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) June 14, 2021
As things stand, India need a draw or a win to reach the third round of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. A loss might also not be the worst news as the Indian NT could move to the third-round qualifiers on the basis of being one of the four best, fourth-placed teams in the WCQs at the moment.
While the results under Stimac can be debated, there has been one difference. In these seven qualifying games that India have played so far, they have cumulatively kept the ball possession at 50.2% while maintaining an 81% pass accuracy. This number should ideally go up after their final game against Afghanistan, considering that four out of seven matches that India played was against Qatar, the current Asian Champions and Oman, a borderline top-10 team in Asia.
The 50.2% possession stat is a 10% increase according to national team assistant coach S Venkatesh, who also said that the passing accuracy has seen a 6% increase while the total number of passes average around 450 as opposed to 338 in the previous World Cup qualifiers campaign.
The Brandon effect
The best version of what the Indian football of today could be was on display during their 2-0 win against Bangladesh, the first win of the campaign after three draws and three losses. Playing three midfielders in Suresh Singh, Glan Martins and Brandon Fernandes, Stimac went for the best technical players the Indian football system could offer and ended up reaping the rewards for it.
The team managed 600 passes while keeping 75% of ball possession against an opponent that had shown them up in their previous encounter. Fernandes, a midfielder who has played on the left for FC Goa most of this season, had all the time in the world and kept being delivered the ball by an able defensive midfielder in Martins.
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) June 8, 2021
The result was longer periods of possession for the national team and a few moments of brilliance. One, in particular, was Fernandes cutting apart Bangladesh’s defensive line with a through ball that pierced through for Manvir Singh. If Singh had played his cards right, Fernandes would have received his fourth assist of these qualifiers.
The right way to play
Fernandes is a player capable of delivering on Stimac’s vision for Indian football. An attacking midfielder with the ability to take a mean set-piece, when absolved of playing in his own half, the 26-year-old has the ability to hold, move and create with the football in an opposition team’s half – an ability that has lacked in Indian midfielders for the past few years.
Fernandes at one point in his career was playing for ASD Football Club in Cape Town, South Africa. The midfielder put up 12 goals in 12 matches and had trials at Leicester City, Sunderland and Reading – all of which never materialised into any concrete offers. Since then, the Goan has continued to play across India, with his latest stint at FC Goa continuing on since 2017, where he has racked up 62 appearances for the club across the ISL and the AFC Champions League. Fernandes has eight appearances to his name for the national team as well, having made his debut in 2019.
Clearing the way
In part, the Indian midfield showed the true extent of their abilities also because of the two next defensive recruits that Stimac has tried to blend in during the WCQ’s and the two international friendlies before. Defensive midfielder Martins and centre-back Chinglesana Singh had excellent performances against Bangladesh.
The rock at the back, @ChinglensanaC! 💪
His performance in numbers vs 🇧🇩:
Passes: 97 (85% accuracy)
Challenges: 13 (62% won)
Ball recoveries: 9
Ball interceptions: 6
Tackles: 2 (50% won)
Shots: 1#BackTheBlue 💙 #BlueTigers 🐯 #IndianFootball ⚽ #WCQ 🏆 pic.twitter.com/h0pP90MZyx
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) June 9, 2021
For long, the national team has lacked a centre-back with the confidence to play with the ball and is an able defender. While the consensus is still out on Singh, his ability to shield the ball in the final third against any opposition pressure, coupled with his ability to stop attacks (17 interceptions and 5 successful tackles in 18 starts for Hyderabad FC this season in the Indian Super League), makes him a valuable asset for the national team.
Martins, on the other hand, has been the find of the season. His performances in the AFC Asian Champions League for FC Goa this season, showcased his abilities as a midfielder capable of shouldering enough responsibilities to allow creative players to flourish. Martins and Fernandes were instrumental in Goa’s Champions League performance as well as their playoff finish in the ISL.
On Tuesday, they will hope for a similar outing against Afghanistan.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.