Arnab Ray looks back at Bengaluru FC’s first home game of the 2019-20 Indian Super League season as the final scoreline read Bengaluru FC 0-0 NorthEast United FC
As football finally returned to the Sree Kanteerava Stadium after plenty of speculation and uncertainty about the venue, there was almost an air of relief as the focus was back on the pitch months after the Blues sealed their first Indian Super League title. A protracted off-season saw the Blues dip into the transfer market to snap up Prabhsukhan Singh Gill, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Raphael Augusto, Suresh Wangjam, Ashique Kuruniyan, and Manuel Onwu. The loss of Miku was a big, if rather inevitable, blow to the team’s prospects for the season while Xisco Hernandez’s move to
Delhi Odisha meant that the attack would have a new look at least in terms of the overseas contingent.
The first starting XI of the season was a bit of a head-scratcher for those trying to work out how all the pieces would fit into Carles Cuadrat’s latest jigsaw offering. The unavailability of Erik Paartalu and Albert Serran meant that the home side was limited to only 4 foreign players in the line-up. In fact, Cuadrat has been largely unlucky in his still short stint at the helm of the club with his plans for the previous season blighted by injuries to key men such as Miku and Paartalu. As such, it was no surprise to see the Spaniard profess his happiness in the pre-match presser about the fact that he can bank on the versatility of players such as Harmanjot Singh Khabra, Rahul Bheke, and Nishu Kumar, all of whom can play in multiple positions.
As it turned out, the surprise of the night was to be new signing Ashique’s position. The youngster was deployed as a Left Wing-Back on occasion for FC Pune City last season but seeing him line up as a Left Back in a back 4 still came as a surprise. Nishu slotted in at Right Back with India international Bheke and Juanan Gonzalez forming the heart of the defence in front of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. This meant a return to midfield for the hard working Khabra with Dimas Delgado pulling the strings as new signing Augusto generally took up positions higher up the field providing the link to the attack. Udanta Singh and Sunil Chhetri flanked another debutant in Onwu in attack as the Blues looked to get their title defence off on the right note.
Despite the surprises in terms of personnel, the overall shape of the team was one we’ve come to expect from Cuadrat. The back line’s starting position was high and narrow with a view to squeeze the opponents and limit the space in between the lines during the opposition build-up. The press was led by the attackers with one of the midfielders, usually Khabra, augmenting their efforts while the other two midfielders, namely Dimas and Augusto, focused on ensuring that NorthEast United’s midfield duo of Jose Leudo and Puitea were deprived of time on the ball.
The build-up play saw Delgado as the main orchestrator either dropping in between the two central defenders or on either side of the duo in order to form the three man pattern central to possession-based teams looking to play out from the back. The attacking play through the middle would’ve largely pleased Cuadrat as Raphael Augusto had an eye-catching first half. The full-backs had a fairly limited role in the first phase of build-up and instead got more involved further up the field albeit in contrasting fashion. Nishu was a constant on the overlap looking to dovetail with Udanta while Ashique bombed forward with glee as he took on all comers. With Chhetri drifting in-field from the left as is his wont, Ashique was more than happy to push forward combining his speed and dribbling ability to provide a glimpse of just why so many people in Indian football have high hopes for the Kerala lad.
A start of a new season also heralds an opportunity to look at how the new signings have settled in. With 3 players making their full debuts for the club, here’s our take on how they fared.
Ashique Kuruniyan: The 22 year-old’s contribution has already been touched upon in the previous section but an assured display at Left Back ensures that he’s deserving of more detailed look. The home side started the game on the front foot and it took all of 16 minutes for the youngster to make his mark. Having picked up the ball in the middle of the park, the India international drove at the opposition goal, leaving as many as three players in his wake. Ashique could perhaps have been better served cutting the ball back to Onwu but few would blame him for taking the shot on from that position.
Full of endeavour, Ashique moved up and down the left flank throughout the course of the 90 minutes and was a constant thorn in the NorthEast defence. On the defensive front, the youngster dealt with all that Redeem Tlang could throw at him acquitting himself well in 1 v 1 situations. He also managed to maintain his position in the back 4 as the high line succeeded in catching Asamoah Gyan offside on multiple occasions including one in the first half where the Ghanaian’s goal was correctly ruled out for offside. It was a night to savour for the youngster but he can expect sterner tests should he be played in that position against stronger opposition starting with Goa. Sergio Lobera’s team focused a lot of their attacking play down their right wing during last season’s final. A quick diagonal out wide to Jackichand Singh to isolate Nishu Kumar was a common attacking pattern in April and one they may well revisit in the upcoming game. Albert Serran’s recovery could prompt a rejig at the back with Ashique moving forward to a more attacking role.
Raphael Augusto: The ex-Chennaiyin FC man joined the Blues in a major transfer coup for the Champions. Undoubtedly one of the most skilful players in ISL, the Brazilian dazzled on debut as he was one of the home team’s most influential players on the night, perhaps second only to Dimas Delgado. It didn’t take long for Augusto to come to the party as he picked up a loose ball in the centre of the park in the 14th minute. Having drawn an opposition Centre Half out of position, Augusto showed strength with his back to goal to hold off his opponent and pick out Onwu’s run into the space behind the defence on the half turn. The attack came to nothing as Mislav Komorski shepherded Onwu out wide but it was a timely reminder of Augusto’s quality if one was even needed.
Full of his characteristic shimmies and step-overs, the Brazilian also created a massive opportunity for Udanta Singh. Doing well to win the ball in his own half, Augusto drove forward and timed his through ball to perfection to send Udanta through. Unfortunately for the Blues, the 23 year-old winger fluffed his lines as his lashed shot flew wide of target with only the ‘keeper to beat. Miku’s loss is a massive one not only in terms of the goals the Venezuelan provided but also the striker’s crucial contribution in the build-up. The link-up play between the attacking trio Miku, Chhetri, and Udanta was a joy to behold at times and from a BFC perspective, one hopes that Augusto can go a long way in filling that gap in the final third in terms of creating gilt-edged chances. On the back of that first half display alone, it doesn’t look like a long shot. Augusto faded away a bit in the second half as the rain pelted down and pitch conditions worsened but still finished the game with the second highest number of passes for the Blues with 2 chances created.
Manuel Onwu: Perhaps the toughest job on the night was that of the 31 year-old Spanish striker. With the limited number of foreign player slots, there’s always extra pressure on an overseas striker to deliver goals from the get go. The fact that Onwu is tasked with replacing Miku, heralded by many as the club’s best ever number 9 doesn’t help either. It’s foolhardy to write players off on the back of one display but the Spaniard would probably be the first to admit that he had a quiet game.
Often isolated against the 2 opposition central defenders in Komorski and Heerings, the striker drifted in and out of the game. A couple of half chances did fall to him, a notable one early in the second half as Chhetri’s knock down from an Augusto cross found him in the penalty box. Onwu decided to take a touch when he was probably better served hitting it first time. Some of the link-up play left a bit to be desired but the weather and the fact that BFC had a number of their internationals reporting for national duty during pre-season couldn’t have helped. The return of Erik Paartalu and Albert Serran could put Onwu’s spot under pressure but as with every striker, there’s only 1 way to make himself undroppable: by banging in the goals.
It was a night of missed chances for both teams as a number of opportunities went abegging. The normally clinical Sunil Chhetri would be disappointed not to have got his gotten his name on the scoresheet in the first half as he first skewed a shot from the edge of the penalty area wide before blasting a left footed drive straight at the man on the line after some good work on the right by Nishu. Udanta will once again be disappointed as he went for power with only Subhashish Roy in goal to beat when a low, hard drive to the far post would have been the better option.
NorthEast had their chances as well with Martin Chaves somehow failing to hit the target after Bheke first let the ball bounce in his own penalty box and then further compounded matters with a weak header in Gurpreet’s direction. Asamoah Gyan almost made the Blues pay early in the second half as they were caught on the break. The Ghanaian’s rasping left foot strike cannoned off the post as the West Block drew a collective sigh of relief along with Gurpreet in goal. Cuadrat will be hoping that a swift return to fitness for Australian midfielder Paartalu will add to their strength in the middle of the park especially during such transitions. Another welcome aspect will be the big midfielder’s aerial presence in the opposition box. With Juanan the only obvious target, NorthEast United were successful in thwarting Bengaluru’s set piece efforts, a key aspect of Cuadrat’s side.
As the second half unfolded and the persistent rain affected the pitch conditions, Dimas Delgado showed that he’s immune to such trifling matters covering as much ground as his younger peers, if not more, and dictating play. From a Bengaluru FC perspective, even though the sheer number of chances created in the first half was a positive, it still felt like two points dropped at home against opposition that have been weakened in the off-season, at least on paper. Cuadrat refrained from making any changes until after the 80th minute mark where he finally looked to Eugeneson Lyngdoh much to the crowd’s approval. This uncharacteristic reluctance to ring the changes was a bit strange with the home side chasing the win. On balance though, it was a steady return to action for the Blues as the biggest story of the night was probably the venue rather than the events that unfolded during the game.
(Featured Image Photo by: Faheem Hussain / SPORTZPICS for ISL)