The Indian football team had a 15-day training camp in Dubai just this past month which culminated in two friendlies against Oman and UAE. While both of these teams are ranked much higher than India, at 81 and 74 respectively, the presence of a number of youngsters in the squad perpetuated a sense of optimism amongst Indian football fans. However, after a 1-1 draw in the first game and a 6-0 drubbing in the second, it feels like another false dawn. But it really isn't, here's why.
Igor Stimac needs to find India's best formation
For too long now, head coach Stimac has chopped and changed India's starting eleven in games in an effort to find the best combination and more importantly, the best formation. However, that hasn't yielded great results as yet. Since he was appointed in 2019 following India's disappointing exit from the AFC Asian Cup, the side has won just once in 12 outings, a pretty underwhelming number considering the overall trajectory of the ISL during the same period.
That suggests a lack of organisation and maybe, just maybe, Stimac has been at fault in terms of tinkering too much with the squad. Furthermore, playing a flat 4-3-3 on the counter is a good tactic when you have players who can put in a shift on either end of the pitch. Unfortunately for India, such a strategy has exposed the lack of a creative outlet far too often, especially in the absence of both Brandon Fernandes and Sahal Abdul Samad. As a result, our counter-attacks don't last for more than 3-4 passes, something that is unacceptable for any international outfit. When you are conceding six goals in a match anyway, being pragmatic should probably take a backseat.
The youngsters need to play together more often and against strong teams
For the two friendlies, Igor Stimac picked as many as 13 young players who hadn't put on the Indian national team jersey before. While most of them were chosen on the basis of their form in the Indian Super League (ISL), that doesn't change the fact that these are all 19 to 25 year-old kids who have absolutely no experience of playing at that level.
Therefore, we need to be patient with them and provide them with the opportunity of playing together more often, if possible, against tougher opponents. More exposure at the top level will enable them to understand each other better and make adjustments accordingly. Otherwise, they will keep impressing in the ISL where they have foreign players alongside them but never really develop the speed of decision making that international football demands.
The one area that needs addressing immediately is the centre-back position
Apart from Sandesh Jhingan and Chinglensana Singh, and to some extent Pritam Kotal, India have a real dearth of quality centre-backs at the moment. Mashoor Shereef is young and still learning the ropes. Having played just a handful of matches in the ISL, he still needs time to develop. Adil Khan, to be fair, is past his prime and needs to be moved on. Sarthak Golui is another prospect but his performances for SC East Bengal this season have rarely inspired confidence. Deepak Tangri, Narender Gehlot and Sumit Rathi are some of the other names in contention but these youngsters have to first show consistency in the league before they are drafted into the national squad.