After a disappointing loss to Lao Toyota FC in the first group stage game of the AFC Cup, Bengaluru FC faced defending Champions Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT). The Malaysian side came into the fixture as heavy favourites having trounced Ayeyawady United 8-1 in the previous gameweek. There was to be no such drubbing on the night as the game finished Bengaluru FC 0-1 Johor Darul Ta’zim.
The AFC Cup does a great job of bringing some of the lesser known clubs of Asian football to the fore and giving them an opportunity to rub shoulders with the continent’s more well known clubs. The 2015 AFC Cup Champions arrived in Bengaluru as heavy favourites with 3 important points at stake. Ayeyawady United’s win against Lao Toyota FC had set up the group nicely and it was the turn of arguably the two favourites of the group to lock horns.
Westwood rings in the changes
The announcement of the teams certainly raised a few eyebrows at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. A defeat to Lao Toyota FC in the first game week meant that the Blues had the unenviable task of trying to secure their first points of the campaign against the competition’s defending Champions, JDT. With the likes of Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Josh Walker, Shankar Sampingiraj, and Curtis Osano all ruled out due to injury, the Blues’ squad was stretched. The presence of Sunil Chhetri, Kim Song Yong, and Rino Anto on the bench further fuelled the notion that Westwood had fielded a second string side with Vishal Kumar and Salam Ranjan Singh making their first starts of the season.
The changes weren’t limited to personnel either as the Englishman opted for a 3 man central defence in the absence of Osano with John Johnson at the heart of the trio, flanked by Salam Ranjan Singh on the right and Keegan Pereira on the left. Vishal Kumar and Chhuantea were the men trusted with the important roles of wing-backs in the 3-5-2 formation. The three man midfield had a familiar shape to it as Michael Collins slotted into the deepest lying midfielder position while the duo of Thoi Singh and Siam Hanghal played as the 2 more advanced midfielders. The youthful duo of Seiminlen Doungel and Udanta Singh led the attack on the night.
It was a set-up one would expect in a continental game, albeit from the away side rather than the home one. The absence of star names from the starting line-up surprised many including JDT manager, Roberto Gomez, as he admitted in the post match press conference. To be fair, the team put out by Ashley Westwood certainly held their own against the Malaysian side. The trio at the back made few mistakes as they were marshalled expertly by the experienced Johnson. Missing his regular partner in crime Osano, Johnson was at his combative best and did a brilliant job of maintaining the defensive line, catching the JDT attackers offside on multiple occasions throughout the game. The away side were deprived of opportunities from open play and it took a set-piece to separate the two sides.
Outside of the Boot wasted little time in quizzing Westwood on his tactics and whether he was perhaps guilty of paying too much respect to the opposition. The Englishman said, “No, not at all. They had 4 foreigners on the pitch, [and]the Malaysian captain. We had two foreigners on the pitch and some good young Indian players. That was our gameplan and it worked, as simple as that.” He added, “If we had put our chance away, if the referee hadn’t given them a foul which wasn’t, we would have won the game. We completely spooked them, they didn’t know what was coming. We swapped our formation, we changed. They were the ones running around in the first 15 minutes trying to work out what was happening and we did everything right. It worked, so for me, if we didn’t adapt the tactics, we might have got beaten by three or four because they have the players to do that. We kept the two centre-forwards relatively quiet. The captain who scored the free kick was fairly quiet; I don’t think he got a lot of touches on the ball and the shape was perfect. Exactly what I was looking for.”
It’s difficult to argue against what Westwood said as his approach definitely worked in keeping JDT quiet and Alwyn George’s glorious opportunity should have resulted in BFC coming away with a share of the spoils. However, one could perhaps look at the substitutions and point a finger at the manager. By his own admission, the away side visibly tired towards the end of the game and with the home team only a goal down, the duo of Chhetri and Kim could have posed much more of a threat than Alwyn and young Daniel Lahlimpuia. The Englishman instead opted to keep his key men fit ahead of the away game against Ayeyawady United. If the Blues can come away with three points next week and JDT beat Lao Toyota, as you’d expect them to, then questions of what might have been will be firmly dispelled.
Udanta Singh impresses in a central role
India may have slumped to defeat in the final of the South Asian games against Nepal but the tournament wasn’t without its positives, the form of Udanta Singh being near the top of the list. The youngster has been touted as one of the stars of the future and it came as little surprise when he was called up by Stephen Constantine for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. The youngster responded with a mature performance against JDT in a more central role.
The 19-year-old was paired with Len Doungel upfront in a striking partnership perhaps unfamiliar in style to the club. Be it an attack of 2 or 3 members, Westwood generally likes to have a physical presence up top as can be seen in his choice of strikers for the club. Robin Singh, Sean Rooney, and Kim Song Yong are all good in the air and adept at holding up the ball. Udanta Singh is not a player you’d associate with such qualities and yet his performance on the night showed that he is ready to break the stereotype of a pacey winger.
The duo of Doungel and Udanta aren’t going to win many aerial duels and as such BFC’s build up play focused on playing balls to the feet of the strikers or down the channels. It was Udanta who caught the eye as he often received the ball in tight areas and did exceptionally well to hold on to the ball and then find a teammate when the support did arrive. The youngster from Manipur showed good physical strength and skill to serve as the focal point for transitions from defence to attack – a crucial component of any counter-attacking set-up.
Westwood doesn’t dish out praise easily, at least in front of the media, but certainly had good things to say about Udanta Singh’s development as a footballer, “We sent him to England for that reason – to toughen him up, to make sure that he realizes how important it is to keep the ball, make sure he uses his body well. One thing is for certain, when you play in the English leagues, you quickly learn to sink or swim. You need to use your body and he’s come back really tough and that’s what the experience was about. That’s something he’s added to his game and that’s the reason we kept him out of certain situations. To make sure he improved and that’s what we are about; improving players. We see that Ranjan was on there, at 19, Daniel’s 18-19, Udanta 19, Len Doungel 21. There’s not many Indian sides that could put out a young side like that and give the AFC Champions a game.”
Alwyn George continues to disappoint
Having made his name as a youngster, much was expected from Alwyn George but it just hasn’t happened for the midfielder. A move to Bengaluru FC was seen as an opportunity to fulfill some of that potential and perhaps even earn a recall to the national team. His attributes match that of a number 10, a position that doesn’t fit into most of Westwood’s preferred formations. There have been attempts to integrate him into the side and take advantage of the skill he possesses on the ball but it hasn’t worked out with the side always looking a bit unbalanced with him in it.
As such, it is up to the midfielder to grab every opportunity with both hands and force his way into the manager’s plans. A late equalizer against the defending AFC Cup winners would have certainly given him a confidence boost but after squandering a glorious chance, Alwyn will have to wait a bit longer to light up the Kanteerava. One can only hope that he finds a way to rediscover his form of old, not only for Bengaluru FC but also the national side.
Written by Arnab Ray