Now 27, Yan holds an AFC ‘A’ License and became the youngest head coach ever in the I-League when he took over the reins at Minerva Punjab last season at the age of just 26. His tactical acumen and playing system transformed the Punjab side completely, and they ended joint-second with East Bengal in the 2019-20 season after finishing 9th the previous season.
With Mohammedan Sporting looking to revive their fortunes this season through progress to the I-League, the club hierarchy saw in Yan a young man with immense clarity of thought and an intelligent footballing mind, and swooped in on the first opportunity to bring the Kolkata boy back to the city.
So how difficult was it to take the decision of leaving Punjab for the pressure cooker that is Kolkata Maidan? “It was extremely difficult. Of course, being from Kolkata I know all about the history and prestige associated with Mohammedan and had always wanted to coach one of the big 3 Kolkata clubs. But cutting ties with Punjab was difficult and I will always remain grateful to Mr. Ranjit Bajaj for giving me my first big coaching opportunity and then allowing me to leave for this new adventure without making any fuss about it,” he says before adding that it was the overall project at Mohammedan that convinced him to choose them over other options that he might have had.
A number of early signings suggest that the club management is backing him to deliver next season, but we asked him what his objectives are. “To qualify for the I-League proper. That is all I am thinking about right now. At the moment the I-League does not have Bengali representation and hopefully, we will have the support of even the East Bengal and ATK Mohun Bagan fans this season as we try to change that. We have a good structure in place and I strongly believe that this will be a good season for us,” Yan asserts.
For someone who has been coaching since he was 20, it only seems natural that Yan remains unperturbed by the fact that his authority and command over the team might be questioned by people due to his age.
“I’ve always maintained that it’s about managing individual players and understanding what they need and want. For me, my age has only been an advantage till now because players tend to open up more easily in front of me and treat me like a friend. They know that I’ll be demanding on the pitch but off it they can talk to me about anything. But I also believe that there needs to be a huge change in the football mentality of the city. People here still believe that an established player without a coaching license will do a better job than a licensed coach who was not necessarily a big player. There has to be more accountability in that regard.”
We got a glance of his tactical acumen last season when he managed to completely revamp the playing style of the Punjab team and converted them into an intricate passing side with great off-the-ball work rate. So what exactly is his football philosophy? “I genuinely don’t need the most skilful or the fastest players, what I want is for my players to be intelligent in different match situations and work tirelessly for each other for ninety minutes.
"Tactical discipline is something that I demand from all the boys and beyond that, I want my team to play good attractive football and be protagonists on the field. One of my youth coaches had once mentioned to me that football should be played in a way that makes a hungry fan in the stadium forget about his hunger for those ninety minutes and that is something that I truly believe in.”
It must have been hard to put some of his ideas across though, considering the old-fashioned way in which a club like Mohammedan has always been run. Was it difficult getting on board a data analyst in the form of his former colleague at Minerva, Devrup Gupta? Is the focus on data and performance analysis going to be greater at the club going forward?
Unveiling of new signing Willis Plaza (Source: MDSP / Facebook)
“Absolutely. I truly believe that data is the way forward because if you can use it efficiently it will definitely give you an edge over your opposition, the smaller margins that add up over the course of a season. Getting Devrup on board was again a huge battle. I had to convince the management that we needed him even though they were averse to the idea of extensive statistical data usage. Thankfully my persistence prevailed and I am happy that we have him because he is already making a difference with the players.”
The qualifiers will see all the teams start from scratch after a long break and that means going in blind into the tournament in terms of studying opposition sides, especially because most of them have a number of new players involved. We asked Yan if that is something that is on the back of his mind. “Yes of course. All the 5 teams have their own strengths and weaknesses and we will have to be cautious in the first couple of rounds of matches so that we aren’t caught off guard. It will be difficult but with the players I have, I am confident we will do well,” he replies.
Mohammedan was the first club in the country to start training after the lockdown, and Yan thinks his side are going to be all the more prepared because of that. “When we restarted training, we did not have an example in front of us which we could follow in terms of ensuring the safety of all involved. It was a little confusing and quite frankly, also a little scary for all of us in the beginning but now I feel we are in a much better place, both in terms of our fitness and more importantly, in terms of understanding and abiding by the safety protocols. Even right now, the players have been holed up in their hotel rooms because of the 4-day mandatory quarantining period, and we have ensured that we keep their minds and bodies at work through analyses, curated workouts and team sessions via video calls. It’s all about staying on your feet and doing whatever is required to keep the boys ready and in shape,” he adds.
He wants to develop the young players at the club, and in the process, impose a playing style that is attractive and efficient at the same time. “It makes me incredibly happy that some of the players that I worked with last season have been offered improved contracts at Indian Super League (ISL) clubs. That is something that I care about a lot. As far as this season is concerned, we will try our best to put up a good show for the Mohammedan faithful. The players that we have assembled and the setup that is in place at the club fills me with a lot of confidence for the future,” he signs off.
If ever there was a time for this sleeping giant of Indian football to rise, it is now. Mohammedan have been falling behind the rest of the pack for more than six years but with a new direction and the exuberance of Yan leading their charge back to the I-League, it promises to be an interesting season for the 130-year-old footballing institution.