The All India Football Federation (AIFF), on Wednesday, announced a revised Indian football squad (men) for the Asian Games, with several players from the previously announced team missing because their respective clubs in the Indian Super League (ISL) refused to release them.
Skipper Sunil Chhetri was among the nine players who were retained from the previous list which saw 13 overall changes from the squad which was announced on August 1.
Chhetri is also the only senior player to feature in this travelling group with both Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Sandesh Jhingan missing out. The new-look unit, however, has only three central defenders — Narender Gahlot, Deepak Tangri and Sumit Rathi.
The 18-member squad has 11 players who have never played for the senior national team, while six among them have not represented the tricolour at any age.
Some of these players have even struggled to make it to the starting XI in the ISL -- country’s top divison -- while some have never played in the league.
Rathi, for instance, has played for Mohun Bagan Super Giant just twice in the last two (ISL) seasons while midfielder Samuel James and attacker Azfar Noorani have never played in the ISL.
The Blue Tigers finished 26th among the 32 participating nations the last time it played in the Asiad (2014) and will be desperate to prove their worth, this time in China.
And with very limited options in defence, it will be interesting to see how the team shapes up against the host (China), Malaysia and Bangladesh — its opponents in the group stage.
Learning from history — 3-5-2
Croatia, before the glorious runs of Luka Modric and Co., had its first golden generation in 1998, when it won the bronze medal in the FIFA World Cup.
One of the biggest strengths of that side was a 3-5-2 shape, which Igor Stimac (the senior men’s team coach) was part of, playing as a centre-back in a three-man defence.
The team beat Asian powerhouse, Japan, and three-time World Champion, Germany, to make it to the semifinal and then secured the bronze, beating Netherlands.
At the Asian Games, this shape can prove to be very effective for India, with Gahlot, Tangri and Rathi forming the backline.
The blistering pace of Vincy Barretto and Rahul KP would be very effective on either flank, who can be deployed as overlapping as well as inverted full-backs in attack, allowing enough freedom for Sunil Chhetri and Rahim Ali to lead the attack.
Comparing it to Stimac’s batch of 1998, Chhetri can be the Davor Suker in attack — beating the offside trap and playing the role of a perfect poacher.
While defending, Barretto and Rahul will have the job of forming a five-man fortress, which can also help squeeze the midfield area by tucking in alongside the midfielders.
Neither of the two have previously played as a full-back, making the task all the more difficult for the duo. India has the option of Bryce Miranda, Vincy Baretto and Afzar Noorani on the wings.
The problem of getting exposed in this formation lies in the engine room — the midfield with inexperienced players picked for the role. Amarjit Singh Kiyam, who was Stimac’s preferred central defensive midfielder in 2019 before his shoulder injury, will share most of the burden of shielding India’s defence.
Amarjit will have FC Goa’s Ayush Dev Chhetri, who helped Punjab FC earn promotion to the ISL last season, would be expected to join the U-17 World Cupper in the middle of the park. The other midfielder listed in the squad is Samuel James, who signed for Punjab FC from Real Kashmir this summer.
The Cruyffian way — 3-4-3
Johan Cruyff, one of the pioneers of total football, incorporated a method of creating a midfield diamond while in charge of Barcelona in the 1980s and 1990s. His ‘Dream Team’ went on to win four La Liga titles and the Champions League (then called the European Cup) in 1992.
The Indian team for the Asian Games can also take a leaf out of that chapter to prepare a starting XI from a squad of 18, which has plenty of attack-minded players.
Sticking with the same three players mentioned above as defenders, Amarjit can be deployed as the deep-lying defensive midfielder in this case while Ayush and James would form the double-pivot.
Rahul, who has played as an attacking midfielder before, for Kerala Blasters, can shift to the No.10 position.
In attack, this formation supports quick overlaps, where Liston Colaco and Barretto can use their pace, while Chhetri waits to prowl in the centre.
In this shape, Rahim will fall out of favour, as he has usually played as a conventional No. 9 in a 4-3-3 shape and Chhetri’s experience would outweigh the Chennaiyin FC forward.
The primary importance of this shape, however, lies in the team’s control when out of possession, i.e., while defending.
The number of men deployed in the midfield through this formation, with a crowded mid-block, would help India to stop counterattacks because the opponent will find an impediment in every step of the field, which supports minimal damage with limited orthodox defenders.
Plugging the gaps
Any team that plays a three-man defence has a blaring weakness in containing long balls.
Some legendary modern-day managers, such as Antonio Conte and Thomas Tuchel, have used the 3-5-2 as well as 3-4-3 formations very successfully, with the former winning the Premier League, and the latter, the Champions League.
But both formations demand a lot of running along the flanks for constant pressure, which needs players with immense stamina to keep going for 90 minutes.
For instance, a team (playing in either of the two formations) that loses possession in the final third would have to make sure to have its full-backs return to defence before a long ball from the opponent is delivered to one of their wingers.
For a team assembled at the eleventh hour, that would be the biggest challenge for the coach — to ensure team chemistry.
Secondly, the three-man defence also has Tangri, who has primarily played as a defensive midfielder for Mohun Bagan. The Asiad team, thus, could have several players playing out of position, making the team not just vulnerable but also unpredictable.
“Attack wins you matches, defense wins you titles”. Sir Alex Ferguson’s aphorism will be India’s biggest challenge and critique as it gears up for the Asian Games — a tournament where India has won nothing (in football) since 1970.
India has finally got a team at their disposal. And it remains to be seen if it can pull a rabbit out of its hat to strike a medal.
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