Shreyans Matani provides a perspective on India’s performance at the recently concluded Tri-nation tournament in Mumbai ahead of the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers
The Indian National Football Team played the Hero Tri-nation series recently which saw India play against Mauritius and St. Kitts & Nevis at the Mumbai Football Arena, the competition essentially serving as a warm up for the crucial AFC Asian Cup Qualifier against Macau on September 5, 2017. India won the game against Mauritius 2-1, coming from one goal down. Against St. Kitts & Nevis, India were held to a 1-1 draw. Let’s take a deeper look into the performance of the Blue Tigers and take the positives and negatives out of it.
Though undefeated (but ending the run of a record 9 consecutive International victories), the performance of the Blue Tigers was lacklustre to some degree considering that Mauritius are ranked 160 and St. Kitts & Nevis are ranked 125 in FIFA rankings; India being in a much superior 97th place. India created several chances in both the games but were unable to capitalize on them fully.
In the Mauritius game, India had a very slow start. For the first 15 minutes, they were completely outrun by the opponents with possession approximating 25% for India. The passing was not up to the mark and the team could not complete more than three or four passes together. The link between the midfield and attack seemed to have been lost. India were reluctant to play longer passes. Mauritius on the other hand, played swiftly, moving the ball well and changing the direction of their attacks with ease. After 30 minutes, the possession for India was 42% indicating that the game was opening up slowly.
The Blue Tigers generally tend to have a slow start to the game before settling in and then picking up steadily. This problem of slow start is conspicuous when one looks at the score line 30 minutes into the last 10 matches, out of which India have won 9 of them (India’s score to the left):
0-0 vs Laos (Away – Asian Cup Qualifier)
0-1 vs Laos (Home – Asian Cup Qualifier)
3-0 vs Bhutan (Away – Friendly)
2-1 vs Puerto Rico (Home – Friendly)
0-0 vs Cambodia (Away – Friendly)
0-0 vs Myanmar (Away – Asian Cup Qualifier)
0-0 vs Nepal (Home – Friendly)
0-0 vs Kyrgyztan (Home – Asian Cup Qualifier)
0-1 vs Mauritius (Home – Tri-nation series)
0-0 vs St Kitts & Nevis (Home – Tri-nation Series)
Although possession stats are not available, for the last 6 matches, India have not scored in the first 30 minutes of the game. Moreover, India have come from a goal behind in 3 of last 10 games to win the match.
The manager, Stephen Constantine acknowledged this ahead of the pre-match press conference against St. Kitts, “We have to start afresh and we’re ready to do so. We’re in a good shape and looking to finish off the job on a positive note. We were slow starters against Mauritius and we cannot afford to do that in every match.”
Conceding or coming back is a part of the game, but the Indian side should look forward to starting the game with momentum and then building on rather than resorting to a more passive start, allowing the opposition to settle into the match.
Rowlin Borges, Eugeneson Lyngdoh two good midfielders?
India were playing a 4-1-3-2 in both the games with Rowlin Borges as CDM and Eugeneson Lynhdoh in centre, Jackichand Singh and Narzary on the flanks. The two central midfielders combined well, covering for each other when either went out of position.
Rowlin Borges, the typical box to box Goan midfielder covered a lot of distance on the pitch. Due to a good height advantage, he is able to cover ground and make important interceptions stopping the opposition attacks. He also closed down the opposition ahead of Eugeneson Lyngdoh (who fell back to CDM) in the opposition half many times early on in the Mauritius game, which was fascinating. When the opposition attacked, he covered enough ground to be back in position, and to cover his man. In the Mauritius game, Borges played a sublime through ball, splitting the opposition defense completely and setting up Robin Singh’s goal. In the second game against St. Kitts & Nevis, Borges put a beautiful cross into the box which was headed in by Jackichand Singh for a goal. Eugeneson Lyngdoh also made his presence felt through his passing ability. In the Mauritius game, he made a long ground pass to Jeje who cleverly flicked to set up Balwant Singh for India’s second goal. The midfield combination worked well in both the games due to Rowlin Borges’ ability to play a more attacking role with Eugeneson and at the same time fulfilling defensive responsibilities.
Having said that, typically, a defensive midfielder would be sitting deep in the midfield and would provide support to the central midfielder who acts as a connecting link between the right and the left wings and initiates attacks for a team. Expecting Rowlin Borges to close down the opposition in their own half and playing an attacking role upfront with Eugeneson would be asking for too much of a defensive midfielder. This puts a lot of pressure on the midfielder shouldering him with a dual responsibility of stopping opposition attacks and at the same time providing attacking support and width. It would result in the defensive capabilities of the player being compromised, allowing the opposition players more time on the ball around the penalty area, thus exposing the full backs. Against a better opponent in the upcoming Asian Cup Qualifiers, this might create a problem, with better sides able to capitalize and penetrate better into India’s defense.
India conceded two goals, one each in the Tri-nation tournament’s couple matches which is not something many were expecting against poorly ranked, inexperienced teams like St. Kitts & Nevis and Mauritius. Defensively, India looked a bit shaky in both the games.
In the Mauritius game, in the 13th minute, a long ball was played on the left flank by Mauritius and the cross was not dealt with by the Indian defence. This gave Mauritius a chance to shoot from the edge of the box and take the lead with a deflected goal. Apart from that, Mauritius had a few chances late in the game where they were not closed down and allowed to shoot from distance. Certainly, better teams than Mauritius would have capitalized on this opportunity. In the match against St. Kitts & Nevis, India conceded from a corner with Gvaune Amory unmarked on the far post. Though the defense was not split and remained organized for most of the period in the match, allowing the opposition time on ball in and around the box could make the Indian goal vulnerable. India should work towards closing down the attacking forces so as to not allow them to shoot from distance.
On the positive side in the defensive setup, Sandesh Jhingan has emerged as a crucial player for the Indian team and proved his leadership capabilities as he took up the captain’s armband in both the matches.
India is on top of the AFC Asian Cup qualifying Group A at the moment, courtesy back-to-back victories over Myanmar and the Kyrgyz Republic. India play Macau on September 5th which will be an altogether different challenge and India coach Stephen Constantine would assess the strengths and weaknesses of his side based on the recent performances. Bengaluru FC players Sunil Chettri, Udanta Singh and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu coming back in the Indian squad would add to the attacking strength and goalkeeping prowess of the team. Whether India can realize their dream of playing in the Asian Cup in 2019 will depend on how well they can take in the positives and the negatives from their recent performances and look to improve.
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