Ahead of the upcoming I-League season, Arnab Ray previews Bengaluru FC as he has a look at their performance in the transfer window, expected formation, and youngsters tipped to shine this season.
It was one of those moments in which time stood still. As the cross was whipped into the box, more than 20,000 pairs of eyes at the Kanteerava Stadium traced the flight of the ball. Unfortunately for the home side and their faithful, the ball was destined for the head of one Bello Razaq who made no mistake. That was all it took. Mohun Bagan were the I-League Champions much to the delight of a sizable away contingent.
The Bagan players and fans all went berserk at the final whistle and perhaps in the end, they got what they deserved. They displayed some scintillating football especially in the early part of the season, and came through a tough fixture against their title rivals. As is often the case in such high profile games, one side’s delight seemed to heighten the other’s despair. Bengaluru FC were minutes away from defending their title and in what seemed like a cruel twist of fate, had it torn away from their grasp right at the death. Despair soon turned to defiance, as it often does, and the home crowd duly showed their support and appreciation to the players and management.
This dramatic end to the I-League season was almost 7 months ago. In the gap, Indian football has seen plenty of action in the form of World Cup qualifiers, the second edition of the more glamorous Indian Super League, and most recently a successful outing in the SAFF Cup for the national team. Yet, for BFC, the loss would have undoubtedly hurt and a long gap before the onset of the next season only making the club more restless as they seeked redemption.
All that said and done, a devastating end failed to darken a successful season for the club. A Federation Cup was added to the trophy room and the club more than held their own in their first foray into continental football. Such is the state of affairs as the Bengaluru based side and English Manager, Ashley Westwood embark on their third season.
The Transfer Front
Ins: Kim Song Yong, Seiminlen Doungel, Alwyn George, Salam Ranjan Singh, Daniel Lahlimpuia, Nishu Kumar, Malsawmzuala, Amrinder Singh.
Outs: Pawan Kumar, Gurtej Singh, Manpreet Singh, Darren Caldeira, Malemnganba Meitei, Karan Sawhney, Sean Rooney.
Last season saw BFC shore up the squad and a repeat of this was necessary this time as well. The successful first season was a miracle in more than one way. The club invested in building a strong spine but simply did not have the luxury of squad depth. This was addressed last window but only now does one look at the BFC squad inspire confidence that it can sustain a challenge on multiple fronts. With another continental adventure on the cards and having released players for ISL, the club wasted little time in adding depth to the squad.
The club has been committed to investing in promising Indian talent and have largely stuck to their philosophy in terms of the players bought. The outgoing Sean Rooney opened up a spot for a foreign import, a place that will be filled by former Wahingdoh man, Kim Song Yong. Len Doungel and Daniel Lahlimpuia will add further depth to the striking department with Alwyn George another one of the incoming names to stand out. The winger was deemed to be the next big thing in Indian football and will be hoping to put in more performances worthy of his considerable potential.
The absence of Josh Walker in the first part of last season was often felt by Westwood and to provide cover for him is India U19 player, Malsawmzuala. In defence, the Blues have done well to land Amrinder Singh, who had a fruitful ISL, to challenge Mawia for the number 1 jersey and centre-back Salam Ranjan Singh to provide cover. Full-back Nishu rounds off the incoming traffic and fits right in the mold of a typical BFC signing in terms of age and talent.
Of the players leaving, Pawan Kumar and Darren Caldeira stick out as players the fans will be sorry to see the back of. However, the duo along with Meitei, Sawhney, Gurtej, and Manpreet are perhaps best served plying their trade in new clubs with the lack of playing time an issue.
How will they set-up?
Ashley Westwood is not the type of manager who has a blueprint and will stick to it no matter what the occasion. The Manager has made a name for himself for his no-nonsense attitude and attention to detail. He often alludes to watching video footage of the opposition and is far from shy when it comes to tweaking his side to suit the need of the hour. This approach will only further be helped by the fact that he now has more options at his disposal after an eventful transfer window.
Even though he’s not afraid of change, like all successful managers, Westwood has his own ideals and philosophy which he never deviates too far from. A characteristic style in terms of tactics as a base is often crucial in the managerial world and it’s something that Westwood has already shown to be in his armour over the past couple of years.
In terms of the set-up, Westwood has shown most affinity to a 4-3-3 in his time here and there’s little indication that he will abandon it in the upcoming season. If needed, the side can set-up in a more traditional 4-4-2 and three at the back has been deployed on occasion too so keep an eye out for them as the season unfolds.
Defence: The solidity at the back is largely down to the partnership at the heart of the defence. John Johnson and Curtis Osano make a formidable pairing as they complement each other perfectly. Johnson is more aggressive in demeanor, and indeed, action often stepping up to follow his man and never afraid to put in a crunching tackle or two. In contrast, Osano is more composed and measured in his play with a calmness on the ball and dexterity in his first touch that fools many an opposition player. The duo are always vocal and from their vantage point do a great job of not only marshalling a disciplined defensive line but also starting attacks from the back.
With the solidity of the defensive duo behind them, the wing-backs, which should be Rino Anto and Lalchhuanmawia Fanai have the relative freedom of supplementing the attack and trying to cause an overload in the attacking third. It’s a delicate balancing act that the wing-backs have to carry out, especially Lalchhuanmawia who has Sunil Chhetri playing in front of him. Chhetri often tends to cut in-field which leaves the left flank a little exposed when the opposition transitions from defence to attack quickly. Apart from the first choice back 4, the likes of Vishal Kumar, Nishu Kumar, Salam Ranjan Singh, NS Manju, and Keegan Pereira are all waiting in the wings and will be looking to make the most of any opportunity.
Midfield: The three man midfield can be classified into two types: the holding midfielders and in Westwood’s words, the “pressing midfielders”. The holding midfielder role is one whose importance has come to the limelight in recent times and this observation holds true when it comes to this set-up too. Former Middlesborough and Aberdeen player, Joshua Walker fits in as the base of the midfield trio and his duties are much as you’d expect from your holding midfielder. Walker often drops in between his centre-halves as the Blues look to build-up play from the back with the possession-based game that Westwood largely prefers. The term largely has particular significance as the team is not afraid of mixing it up with long balls up to the target main an avenue of attack not entirely disregarded by the side. Walker also picks his moments to join the attack especially against sides that defend deep, wherein his average position is more often than not at least a few yards inside the opposition’s half. Cover for Walker is provided in the form of new signing Malsawmzuala, who has acquitted himself well in pre-season albeit against weak opposition, and versatile local boy Shankar Sampingiraj who enjoyed a breakout campaign last time around.
The pressing or box-to-box midfielders are the ones who perhaps the most duality in their roles. Off the ball, they have an important job in pressing and harrying the opposition to ensure that advantage in midfield is never ceded. They are also crucial cogs in attack as they have more freedom going forward be it as a creative force providing penetration to the attack or as extra men carrying a goal threat. The emergence of Eugeneson Lyngdoh in the last year has been down to him filling this role perfectly as the midfielder has gone from strength to strength since joining the club. The other spot in midfield could be filled by Thoi Singh, a tireless worker who is competent on the ball, youngster Shankar, or Siam Hanghal who will be looking to get more time on the pitch under his belt.
Attack: This is the one area where Westwood has the most options and one that will see the most change as the season progresses. As the focal point of the attack, Westwood enjoys having a traditional number 9, a striker who can hold up play and link-up with his fellow attackers while also posing an aerial threat. As mentioned above, while the style of play is often possession based, bypassing the midfield and trying to find the target man with an early ball is a tactic often used to vary the focus of the attack. Robin Singh has been in good goalscoring touch recently but unfortunately picked up an injury while on national duty in the SAFF Cup and is the subject of an increasingly feisty dispute between Delhi Dynamos and the Bengaluru based side. In his absence and uncertainty around his future, it looks like new signing Kim will be tasked with leading the line. The North Korean striker is good in the air and will be looking to hit the ground running this season. New signing Daniel Lahlimpuia will also be an option but it remains to be seen just how much of a role he’ll have this season.
Flanking the main striker are a duo who can be either be traditional wingers or wide forwards. This flexibility is often exercised by Westwood and is varied not only from game to game but also during them. The most high profile name in Indian football, Sunil Chhetri is often deployed on the left-flank drifting in-field to pose more of a goalscoring threat. The captain had a disappointing season last time around and will be eager to make a good start to this campaign. However, with a tight schedule including the ISL and the SAFF Cup and a team ethic of hard work on the pitch a big part of Westwood’s philosophy, Chhetri might see his game time managed a bit. Willing to step in on either the left or the right wing is young Udanta Singh. The youngster saw plenty of game time towards the end of last season and will be looking for more of the same. With CK Vineeth, Alwyn George, Beikhokhei Beingaichho, and Len Doungel all vying for spots, competition is fierce in this area of the pitch.
Talent Radar Key Young Players
Shankar Sampingiraj: Versatility is a great asset to possess as a youngster as it not only points to a varied skill set but also ensures more game time, a crucial aspect in the development of young players. Shankar has certainly benefited from the above as he enjoyed a breakout season last time around. Capable of playing at right-back, centre-back, or in central midfield, the youngster was often trusted by Westwood in the absence of senior players. The 20-year-old has shown enough defensive acumen to slot in at the back and enough ability on the ball to handle himself in midfield. He’s calm on the ball with a decent short passing game, an aspect that perhaps needs some more polish if he is to stake a claim in midfield. A spell in Italy at third division side Unione Sportiva Cremonese in the off-season would have helped his progress. He’s also noticeably bulked up this season and looks more imposing physically as he looks to establish himself as a regular starter and even perhaps try and force his way into Stephen Constantine’s plans.
Udanta Singh: Shankar was not the only promising youngster to venture onto foreign shores in the off-season. Speedy striker Udanta enjoyed a stint at League Two side Oxford United in what was an exposure trip for the youngster. The 19-year-old looked set to play a squad role for the club last time around but an injury in pre-season put paid to those hopes. His return towards the second half of the season saw him given enough playing time to impress. The diminutive forward can operate on either flank although primarily plays down the right. The most potent weapon in the youngster’s armoury is his blistering pace as he appears to not even have to move to his highest gear in order to skip past his opponent. At such a young age, it is foolhardy to expect a finished product especially when it comes to decision making, the bane of many an experienced professional too. Udanta is still a rough diamond but will hopefully see sufficient playing time even with stiff competition for places in attack.
Written by Arnab Ray