Sitting pretty on top of the ISL table with three wins in three matches (nine points), Antonio Lopes Habas is surely not only about good fortune?
In his time in Indian football, Habas has rarely been an innovator. He is more of a methodical tactician, a reactive coach who works backwards from the opposition, who does not necessarily believe in the concept of a ‘defined style of play’, particularly against the stronger competitors.
It’s an approach that invites criticism, as is often seen. His team is described as one of the most defensive teams, sometimes even the word ‘ugly’ is thrown around. But then again, in three games against three decent teams, Kerala Blasters FC, SC East Bengal and Odisha, the Green and Maroons have collected three clean sheets and more importantly, nine points.
ATK Mohun Bagan have had a perfect start in their ‘debut’ ISL campaign, even the erstwhile ATK FC never enjoyed such a start. Habas’ approach here is particularly interesting.
It is very evident that he has instructed his players to defend as a five-man backline whatever the situation. He has primarily deployed a three-man defensive system in Pritam Kotal, Tiri and Sandesh Jhingan whilst using Prabir Das and Subhasish Bose (initially Michael Soosairaj) as the two wing backs.Both Prabir and Subhasish have the license to carry the ball forward, down the flanks, and deliver crosses for the strikers.
But what makes the team so compact defensively, even when the wing backs are attacking so frequently, is the swift transition that takes place between midfield and defence.
In situations where the opposition is counter attacking, the players dropping in aren’t the wing backs, but two of the central midfielders. Carl McHugh, in this role, has been tremendous for the Kolkata giants and consequently, Arindam Bhattacharya has claimed three clean sheets in three games.
Another factor is that opposition teams have been afraid of the threat of Roy Krishna and that meant they would not take the kind of risks required to upset Habas’ defensive system. Kerala Blasters and East Bengal, the first two teams that ATK Mohun Bagan have faced, managed to keep a large share of the possession and mostly passed the ball accurately.
However, they were so cautious about not losing the ball that they almost invariably took the safe options.This is a team taking advantage of the respect earned simply by its attacking threat and if you can command that respect, you must be doing something right.
In the Odisha game, Habas had to tweak his style a little bit. Instead of absorbing the pressure and counter-attacking, his team had to keep the ball and try and create chances and they didn’t look as sharp as a title contender should look like. They struggled to find the back of the net until the 95th minute, almost the last play.
But that doesn’t worry the Spanish coach.“Maybe it wasn’t the best match for ATK Mohun Bagan. But we only have to see the results. That is the most important thing. It’s good that we won 1-0 today to get that result,” he said at the post-match press conference.
“In every top competition in the world, be it the World Cup, the Copa America or any other tournament, 70% of the goals scored are through counter-attacks.
“But, I had to play possession football today. We had to march our players forward, but the real possession we enjoyed was in the opponent’s half, where we created some good chances,” he added.
In the end, another battle was won and no other team has looked more like title contenders than ATK Mohun Bagan. True, the team is yet to face the likes of Mumbai City FC or FC Goa but would you bet against Habas?