After tasting success under Spaniards Antonio Habas and Jose Molina in 2014 and 2016, ATK’s board decided to go the British way for a couple of seasons. Four different coaches associated with English Premier League clubs came and went, but the Indian Super League (ISL) club could manage only ninth- and sixth-place finishes in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, respectively.
That was followed by a massive overhaul of both players and staff. Eighteen players came in during the off season, while 16 were offloaded. ATK turned once again to Habas — who had been without a coaching gig since his stint at FC Pune in 2016 — to rekindle the magic.
Habas’ football hadn’t won many admirers in his first stint in India. His style in his first year at ATK, of setting up his team to primarily stop the opposition from scoring, was not particularly enjoyable. But the club won the title with just five outright wins in 17 matches.
Another facet that made ATK difficult to watch then was the physicality of its game. In 2014 and 2015, the team attempted 378 tackles (the most) and 479 tackles (third most), respectively, and committed 250 fouls (the most) and 208 fouls (third most). Under Molina in 2016, the tackles and fouls were even higher.
In the two seasons that followed, ATK’s figures on those two criteria dropped under English managers in the revamped 10-team league.
But, with Habas returning for the just-concluded campaign, the physicality soared — ATK ranked second in both tackles (693) and fouls (294).
Habas, who has worked as assistant to Rafael Benítez, a shrewd tactician, at Valencia, fused his cautious approach with the quality at his disposal to bring out a rapid counter-attacking style. ATK’s defence starts from the front line, and among the off-season arrivals were the Wellington Phoenix strike duo of Roy Krishna and David Williams from Australia’s A-League. The duo has been key to ATK’s revival this season with their pace, work rate, power and goals, which translated into 32 direct goal contributions. Krishna and Williams are also among the top five offenders in both fouls and tackles.
In 2014, Habas allegedly punched FC Goa’s Robert Pires at half-time and was banned for four games, which was later reduced to two. This time around, it was his team that was throwing punches — only, they were on the pitch.
ATK scored 33 goals in the league stage and conceded just 16 goals – the second best on both fronts. The philosophy was not to give the opposition space, win the ball back and blitz teams on the counterattack. And when required, Habas had his team play the waiting game to break down the opposition, as it did in the comeback semifinal win over Bengaluru FC after being 0-2 down. The team also pulled out the stop-start approach in defending leads to grind out wins.
Habas revealed that he had tried eight or nine different formations in the pre-season before settling on 3-5-2 for 2019-20. Krishna and Williams operated in a similar system at Wellington, and Habas seemed to have made notes on how to get the best out of them. Winger Michael Soosairaj, who became the most expensive signing in the off-season, was deployed as a wing-back through the whole of last season.
“After the pre-season, we kept 3-5-2 because we had two very important players in attack like Williams and Roy and we had to use this system. More importantly, during the pre-season, we had to learn what the fundamental principles were. We had to impart the concept and the ideas to the core 14-15 players and after that I could settle into one system and one formation,” said Habas.
Among the core players were Javier Hernandez and Edu Garcia, who played as ball carriers in the central midfield. Wing-backs Soosairaj and Prabir Das in particular had a stellar season with defensive contributions and crossing. Central defenders Pritam Kotal and Sumit Rathi, just 18, were constant at the back despite injuries to players around them. Goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya, who copped a fair share of criticism despite his nine clean sheets, pulled off crucial saves in the final against Chennaiyin FC.
In between all this, there was also the merger with Mohun Bagan, which won the I-League in the same week as ATK’s triumph. ATK got a glimpse of what 131 years of football heritage it was going to be part of when Bagan fans willed the Red and Whites on in the semifinal win over Bengaluru. The Salt Lake Stadium saw more than 55,000 people on that night — the highest attendance since the inaugural season.
More than the ISL title, Habas coveted the league winner’s shield, which would have taken the club into the AFC Champions League group stages next season, and ATK had remained on course until the last two matches. The Spaniard pointed out that season-ending injuries to key central defenders Carl McHugh and Agustín Íñiguez cost the team dear. Habas’ achievements this season are more than commendable considering the injuries he had to contend with, and during the league stages, Habas was able to put out the same starting XI only twice.
With the final being played behind closed doors at the Fatorda Stadium in Margao, Habas wanted his players to “create the atmosphere with their performances.”
ATK’s opponent in the final, Chennaiyin FC, was riding high on confidence, knowing that its front four could penetrate any defence. When Rafael Crivellaro’s shot was cleared off the line in the first minute and Nerijus Valskis’s shot thundered off the bar in the third, it seemed like it would be Chennaiyin’s night. But ATK thwarted the opposition’s efforts, while not squandering its own to made it a 3-1 win on the night.
At the end of the game, Chennaiyin’s coach Owen Coyle, still seemingly coming to terms with the result, repeatedly said: “Don’t tell me they were the better team on the night.” He later conceded that if “you don’t take your chances, then you will be punished.”
The Scotsman had taken over a squad that had seemed to be heading for another bottom-of-the-table finish and had turned it into a goal-hungry machine. Chennaiyin had run down ATK 3-1 in the league stage on its way to a playoffs run with an eight-match unbeaten streak. The defeat had derailed ATK’s chances of finishing top of the league and qualifying for the AFC Champions League. The men from Chennai then stunned table-topper FC Goa in the first leg of the semifinal before prevailing 6-5 on aggregate.
As the curtains come down on the 2019-20 ISL season, the ATK-Mohun Bagan combine will begin plotting for a historic season. Habas has been picked as coach ahead of his compatriot Kibu Vicuña, who lead Bagan to the I-League title with four games to spare.
After the ISL win, Habas had expressed his desire to help the club maintain its position as the best in the country. And he will have a rich pool of talent to assemble his squad from.
The rest of the teams in Indian football, beware.
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