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Happy Birthday Antonio Habas - Why is he one of the greatest coaches ever in Indian football?

On the occasion of his 64th birthday, we take a closer look at exactly what makes ATK Mohun Bagan head coach Antonio Habas special.

Happy Birthday Antonio Habas - Why is he one of the greatest coaches ever in Indian football?

Sayan Chatterjee

Published: 28 May 2021 10:42 AM GMT

An unassuming career as a defender notwithstanding, Antonio Lopez Habas was always destined for great things on the other side of the touchline. The Spanish head coach of ATK Mohun Bagan, who turns 64 today, has had laudable spells in various capacities at clubs like Valencia and Celta Vigo amongst others. It was there that he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Rafael Benitez, Claudio Ranieri and the great Hristo Stoichkov himself. However, what might have left a more lasting impression on him from his initial years in coaching is the need to be efficient while squaring off against 'better' opponents.

Indeed, if there is one word that encapsulates what he stands for in football, it is 'efficiency'. Be it his Indian Super League (ISL) title-winning ATK sides or last season's ATK Mohun Bagan, all of his teams believe in well-rehearsed and measured offensive moves where players know exactly where they are supposed to be. But what they believe even more in is an absolutely impenetrable backline, the kind of which will tire out any opponent just through sheer stubbornness.

A robust spine, flair players down the wings and a quality striker upfront; although this mantra seems to be quite easy to devise, it is extremely difficult to implement in a side that plays its football for, at best, 6 months in a year. And that is where Habas has been in a league of his own, in achieving that immaculate balance between pragmatism and ruthlessness. So to those who say that his pragmatic approach towards football is 'boring', I posit that it is not, on two counts.

Firstly, he has offensive stars like Roy Krishna, David Williams and Manvir Singh in his ranks, players who are not at their best while exchanging short passes near the centre circle but who can take apart any defence when the game is in front of them. That is the reason why playing on the counter works for the Mariners, and that is also why comparisons with Jose Mourinho in terms of the effectiveness of his team's defensive rigidity and offensive flair, aren't really out of place.

Secondly, even though they rely on a deep block, Habas' teams' attacks mostly initiate from the midfield. Very rarely do they ping long balls from defence to the man upfront, something that usually typifies an inferior counter-attacking outfit. This is because despite the robustness of his midfielders, they are all very astute with the ball at their feet and are always on the lookout to release the attackers. Maybe a glimmer of the Spaniard inside him which is mostly kept on a leash.

Be that as it may, one aspect that he has always been a little circumspect about is protecting leads. We even saw ATK Mohun Bagan set up shop with a 5-man defence immediately after taking the lead more than once last season, which some people may argue isn't the hallmark of a champion side. But they ARE a champion side, not just because they can grind out results, but also because they know exactly which buttons to push when things don't seem to be happening for them. And if you don't believe that, maybe you need to take off your nostalgia-tinted glasses, for Habas is here to stay, and Indian football stands to gain the most out of it.

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