It’s a tale that says much about the kind of culture Antonio Lopes Habas has created.
The next day, they were scheduled to board the flight back to Kolkata before flying off to their respective destinations. Thankfully, the restrictions due to Covid-19 had yet to hit the shores of India. As head coach Antonio Habas was boarding the flight, he was overheard saying, “One, this time. Two, next year?”
It was evident that amid all the uncertainty and speculation regarding the merger with Mohun Bagan, the Spanish coach had already set his mind on winning not only the ISL trophy but also the AFC Cup title, he was already making plans for the next season. He knew he had done enough to stay as the head coach and the club owner was quick to publicly assert the same.
Cut to October, six months and half-a-pandemic apart, the bookmakers have Mumbai City FC, who recently came under the umbrella of the City Football Group (CFG), as narrow favourites for the ISL this season. Maybe that’s down to the Islander’s transfer activity this summer and the fact that Sergio Lobera will be at the helm.
ISL Emerging Player of the Tournament in 2014 ✅
AIFF Emerging Player of the Year in 2014 ✅
Arjuna Awardee 🎖️
To sweeten all #Mariners taste buds.
Presenting you the Guardian of Defence.
— ATK Mohun Bagan FC (@atkmohunbaganfc) September 26, 2020
But the Kolkata giants haven’t kept quite either. In Sandesh Jhingan, Tiri, Subhasish Bose, Manvir Singh and Bradden Inman, they have made some of the biggest moves in the transfer market. Additionally, they have also managed to tie down their Indian prospects with long term contracts and retain the star foreigners.
Habas is known to be extremely meticulous, he keeps on top of every footballing decision made at the club. Before matches, he studies the opposition like it is his own team, he knows the ins and outs of every team he is facing, every coach he is coming up against. Sources say that if one so much as ventures into Habas’ room during the season, all that person would see are match footage playing on the TV and piles of papers and documents lying around. He is as diligent as they come.
Off season as well, the Spaniard, who has two ISL trophies to his name, has a pretty hands-on approach, giving clear instructions on each transfer. It does not take an expert to tell that all the names that have been brought in only make ATK Mohun Bagan stronger in every aspect. If last season the untested Sumit Rathi had to be brought to fore, there is no immediate need for it this time.
Habas certainly won’t change the team’s approach. Both publicly and privately with his players, he has always asserted the same thing — something he had told The Bridge back in June, “Success is very important to build a more competitive and structured team. At the same time, winning gives us confidence. For me, winning games and titles has to be a habit.”
ATKMB’s players are first to reach Goa
Winning a title is tough. Retaining one is even more difficult. No team in the history of the ISL has been able to win the trophy back to back. They themselves had been three-time champions, the most successful team, and yet they had fallen short of defending it. And on top of it, Habas has set a target for his squad — win the AFC Cup, nothing short will do. If Bengaluru FC could have made it to the finals in 2016, then surely this team can go all the way?
Last season, in order to ensure that he had a team ready and capable of challenging for the title, Habas had assembled the squad quite early, planned a detailed pre-season in Kolkata, focussed on increasing the fitness of his players and working on their camaraderie.
This time, the challenge is more difficult. Not only are the other teams stronger and more potent, but also the players themselves face a situation they have never faced. The last time they played competitive matches was back in March, it’s been six months. Plus, there is a high chance that for the entirety of the upcoming season, they will have to stay in a secure bubble in Goa.
Habas wanted the squad to assemble in Goa as soon as possible and get over the quarantine periods so that they could start training early. With new players coming in — the defence line, especially, will have a new look — it’s important to build an understanding between them. As per his wishes, the ATKMB management took it upon themselves to ensure that they are the first team to reach the city.
All the Green and Maroon domestic players, except for Joby Justin, were among the first batches to arrive, after having undergone three rounds of testing, and are already into their second week of quarantine. Star striker Roy Krishna as well is en route to the country, observing mandatory quarantine in New Zealand before he can board the flight.
News from the ✈️ arrival desk:
— ATK Mohun Bagan FC (@atkmohunbaganfc) October 4, 2020
But what the management has managed to pull off next is nothing short of a coup. If you aren’t up to date with the news, ATKMB’s Spanish armada has already touched down in Goa, the first foreign contingent to arrive among any ISL team. Indeed, Habas, Tiri, Javi, Edu, as well as assistant coach Manuel Cascallana, all reached the team hotel in Cavelossim.
To ensure this, the management worked tirelessly, behind the scenes, over the last fortnite. A club source said, “We took proactive actions, consulted with the embassy throughout. But the most difficult part was understanding the travel restrictions and bubble arrangements. Habas and others boarded a flight from Spain to Paris, the city which would act as the corridor to enter India, on Saturday. France has a bubble arrangement with India for flights and it is also near to Spain, so it made sense.”
However, it was not done there. As per regulations, Habas and Co. were supposed to quarantine in Mumbai first before travelling to Goa but the club ensured that they could directly quarantine at the team hotel. This gives Habas a unique advantage of being able to have most of the squad at his disposal before anyone else. In contrast, other teams have only started training/quarantining with their domestic players. This would undoubtedly help ATKMB psychologically.
ATK Mohun Bagan’s best XI
The shear strength of ATKMB’s squad is a privilege Habas will cherish and do his utmost to perpetuate. Aside from working just as hard on the tactical details with Cascallana and co., the 63-year-old will once more emphasise the main aspect of his coaching philosophy: winning and success has to be a habit.
And for that he has players hungry to win. When the ATKMB head coach and his assistants meet the day before each matchday to decide which 11 players would be taking the field against the forthcoming opponent, the lion’s share of the discussion will centre around the make-up of their foreign contingent. Which five foreigners to select?
The Kolkata giants have a quality No 1, a largely new but high-profile and solid backline and firmly established, potent attacking options.
The general consensus is that Habas will again line up with a three-man defence. But it might not be so. Habas is definitely not a one-trick pony, just because he thought a three-man backline would be best suited last season, doesn’t mean he would opt for it again. In fact, sources suggest that he could very well go with a more traditional four-man back line. Pritam Kotal, Jhingan, Tiri and Subhasish could form a formidable defence, and for back up, the talented Sumit Rathi is waiting on the bench.
The attack, also, looks pretty much sorted with Krishna and David Williams leading from the front. The duo enjoyed one of the best partnerships in the ISL last season and will be expected to deliver the goods again. On the two flanks, Prabir Das and Michael Soosairaj should start.
However, in the middle of the park, Habas could easily shuffle his pack, as and when needed. That’s where he could opt for fresh legs and adopt a horses-for-courses approach.
In the bigger games, he could go in with a slightly more defensive set up with Carl McHugh and Bradden Inman or Javi Hernandez, so as to enjoy experience, solidity and control in the midfield. In games where he feels that his team could go for an overkill, Habas can easily line up with Edu and Javi in the centre of the park. With the likes of Jhingan and Tiri in defence, there shouldn’t be too much to worry about in defence.
This is what could be their best XI: Arindam; Pritam, Jhingan, Tiri, Subhasish; Prabir, McHugh, Javi, Soosai; Williams, Krishna
It was more or less this team that turned around ATK FC’s dismal record since 2017 last season but the merger with Mohun Bagan clubbed with the pandemic had cruelly denied them the ticker tape celebration. That’s another source of inspiration among the players as they set out on the path to win the crown again, this time as ATK Mohun Bagan.