‘Man is not the creature of circumstances;
circumstances are the creatures of man’.
Poet and philosopher Isaac Disraeli had made this profound observation centuries back while noting the changes individuals effect on society. In 2019, it seems this observation remains as pertinent as ever, especially where Indian football is concerned.
Under new coach Igor Stimac, the Blue Tigers finished third in the Kings Cup, but that would hardly justify the reason for the upswell in excitement among those who follow the national team.
Under former manager Stephen Constantine, the Indian team usually played a bland and decrepit type of football that did get those results and a trophy now and then, but it failed to inspire or excite the masses. There were preset players; preset styles and an overtly defensive style, which meant that the potential was often not fully met.
Kings Cup showed the Indian team could offer much more
Despite it being his first tournament in charge, former Croatian international Stimac gave debuts to six new players. His 23-man squad missed some prominent names like Jobby Justin and Redeem Tlang, but also included long-overlooked players like Adil Khan and Michael Soosairaj.
In the first game, India was blown away by the mighty Curacao who scored thrice in the first 35 minutes. India did get one back, but the gulf in class between the 82nd ranked side with most players in top European leagues and the Indians was there for all to see. Curacao had the level the Men In Blue aspired to match and beat someday soon, and to that end, the noteworthy performances from youngsters like Sahal Abdul Samad, Raynier Fernandes and Amarjit Kiyam, especially in the second half was tangible proof of a plan in place, it could undoubtedly be achieved soon.
Following the loss, India was up against the home team Thailand in the 3rd-place match. Having sensationally beaten the War Elephants in January 2019, the Blue Tigers eked out a 1-0 victory thanks to a smart tap-in by Anirudh Thapa. India rode their luck till the very end, but fortune probably favoured the brave that day and Stimac’s side left the field with their heads held high.
Key observations from the tournament:
Igor Stimac will not have favouritism in his selections
If your CV includes that you dropped Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic for a crucial World Cup qualifier against a European rival, the chances are that you are someone who believes in the system more than the individual. Igor Stimac clearly works on the same lines, because following the defeat against Curacao, he dropped eight players from the teamsheet and replaced them all with fresher talents. Only Sandesh Jhinghan, Rahul Bheke and Subhashish Bose were retained from the first game, and even the likes of Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu were dropped. If this is a sign of things to come, the likes of Jobby, Brandon Vanlaremdika, Nishu Kumar and Tlang can rejoice: they will be called sooner in the squad.
A possession-based pressing game will be developed
Although being far from perfect, Stimac’s mantra for the Indian team somewhat follows Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing. Against Curacao in the second half and against Thailand in phases, the Indian midfield hounded and harried the opposition to make quicker passes, and thus more mistakes. Of course, Stimac will have his work cut out for him, teaching players how to press, recycle the ball and fall back as a unit takes years of practice, and it is unlikely that he will have that much time on his hand.
Youngsters will be given priority
Unlike Constantine, it seems certain that youngsters who have shown their quality will be called up for the national team regardless of who they will be replacing. As it was shown during the Kings Cup, Stimac is yet to settle on a final XI, so more experiments are likely to continue. However, there is little or no doubt that the future of Indian football is in the hands of someone who plans for the long-term.
Stimac will have to finalize his personnel
With one loss and one win in his opening two games, Stimac has a long way to go before one can judge his efforts. His most pressing challenge; however, is to develop a fixed squad whose spine remains intact for the next five to seven years. There is no doubt that Amarjit, Sahal and Raynier, whose combination in the middle of the park impressed both fans and pundits will be an integral part of the side. Under the bar, Amarjit Singh will probably be his first choice while the defence will consist of Jhinghan, Bheke, Bose and Adil Khan, who was one of India’s best performers in the tournament. Having been on national team exile since 2012, the FC Pune City defender not only shut down the Thai forward line but also set up the goal for Thapa. Bheke and Bose, however, have a lot of work to do if they are to hang around and with Pritam Kotal — not in the best form of his life either, it is feasible that the likes of Jerry Lalrinzuala, Salam Ranjan Singh, Nishu and Narayan Das will be auditioned for the roles.
The midfield, however, will continuously evolve, so it is hard to predict who will finally stay and who will go. Given the fact that Stimac took 11 midfielders to Thailand, it is evident that he sees the space between defence and attack as the most key region on the pitch. Sahal and Thapa’s performances, especially against Thailand were eye-catching and will surely be accounted for by the 51-year-old gaffer. Jackichand Singh, Rowllin Borges and Germanpreet Singh will also be hopeful of getting chances, while the likes of Lallianzula Chhangte and Michael Soosairaj will be hoping to show their mettle to the manager sooner. What is certain is that the midfield needs to be fit, technically adept, have a strong positional sense and control the tempo of the game against all types of opposition. It is a colossal task, but one that is most likely to set an example for future generations to follow.
Up front, Chhetri had a disappointing tournament despite scoring a goal against Curacao. He played like a number 9 and in spite of having a mean header; he was mostly rendered neutral by the Caribbean side. He did not get a shoo-in against Thailand, but his replacements failed to spark any inspiration either. Manvir Singh and Farukh Chowdhury were both lacklustre against the Thais, whereas Balwant Singh did not get any service at all during the game. Finding a potential replacement for Chhetri is probably Stimac’s biggest worry right now, and he would be well-advised to give a shot to the likes of Jobby Justin or even bring back out-of-form striker Jeje Lalpekhlua if the need be. A robust and comfortable-on-the-ball midfield and a good striker could make all the difference for the Blue Tigers in future games.
India’s record against ASEAN and South Eastern countries has been staggering over the past few years, with wins over Laos, Cambodia, Macao, Myanmar, Chinese Taipei and now, twice over Thailand. The next logical step will be to match the levels of Middle-Eastern countries, who have historically always got the better of the Men In Blue.
All in all, the Kings Cup was an excellent tournament for Stimac to get a feel of the squad and the skill level of his players. With India set to take on Syria, DPR Korea and Tajikistan in the Intercontinental Cup in Ahmedabad in July, the former West Ham defender does not have a lot of time in hand. The signs have been promising, but it remains to be seen whether Stimac and his charges can build on them.