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Gurpreet Singh Sandhu goalkeeper of Bengaluru FC saves a goal during match 2 of the Indian Super League ( ISL ) between the Bengaluru FC and North East United FC held at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru, India on the 21st October 2019. Photo by: Vipin Pawar / SPORTZPICS for ISL

Bengaluru FC

Ashique Kuruniyan: Square peg in a round hole?

Arnab Ray dissects the decision to play Ashique Kuruniyan at Left Back with a review of his performance against FC Goa and a brief look at the different ways Bengaluru FC could line up once their injury woes are behind them

While Raphael Augusto was perhaps the most high profile Bengaluru FC signing in the off-season, it can be argued that the capture of Ashique Kuruniyan eclipsed that of the Brazilian in terms of importance. Already an established Indian International, the exciting 22 year-old is a player that could probably walk into any Indian Super League (ISL) team. Two games into the new season, Carles Cuadrat’s words on signing Ashique seem almost prophetic at the moment, “Ashique is the kind of player who can help us in both, attack and defence. His talent, pace and guile gives us the right kind of selection problems, but more importantly, gives us options.”

With both Erik Paartalu and Albert Serran not fit enough to start the first two games of the season, Cuadrat opted to deploy Kuruniyan at Left Back against both NorthEast United and Goa. Despite an assured display at home against NorthEast United, it came as a bit of a surprise to see him line up at Left Back against Goa at the Fatorda given the attacking prowess of Sergio Lobera’s side.

Performance against Goa

Unfortunately for Ashique, his most telling contribution on the night was one that he’d like to erase from his memory as soon as possible. Cuadrat’s record against Lobera is exemplary and the Blues looked all set to secure 3 massive points from the Fatorda when Juanan Gonzalez’s headed clearance fell to Ashique who tried to get the ball under control and turn his man in Brandon Fernandes. The loose ball fell to Ferran Corominas and in his haste to make up for his initial mistake, Kuriniyan further compounded matters by bringing the Spaniard down. Coro made no mistake from the spot and while on the balance of things, getting a point from the home of last season’s runners-up was a good result, the Blues couldn’t help but feel it was 2 points dropped again.

The immediate fallout from the game surrounded the decision to play Ashique at Left Back but it seems a bit reductive to base an entire argument on a single mistake. Truth be told, it can and has happened to the best in the business; a point underlined by The Afterthought in their customary brilliant fashion. Looking at how the game played out over the course of the ninety minutes, Cuadrat was a couple of minutes away from being hailed as the man behind a tactical masterclass but instead has had to field questions about his decision to play Ashique at Left Back instead. Talk about fine margins.

The most laudable aspect of Ashique’s performance on the night was his ability to curb his natural attacking instincts. We are accustomed to seeing him bomb down the flank with aplomb but he showed remarkable discipline in maintaining his position. BFC focused most of their build-up play down the right as they tend to do given Udanta Singh’s threat on the flank. When the away side progressed their attacking play down the right, Ashique opted to hold his position in defence. The primary aim was to ensure that he remained goal-side of ex-BFC player, Len Doungel who featured on Goa’s right. Wary of the threat Goa can pose from transitions, aided by Ahmed Jahouh’s wonderful distribution, Kuruniyan’s defensive mandate was one focused on positioning rather than marking his opposition number. The value of this circumspect approach could be seen as early as the third minute when a turnover of possession in midfield saw Jahouh find Doungel with a delightful switch of play. Ashique was on hand to match Doungel’s run and the attack came to nothing. This tactic was also aided in large parts by Sunil Chhetri’s willingness to drop deep and help out in defence. On the occasions when Doungel took up a deeper position or Seriton Fernandes joined the attack, either Chhetri or Harmanjot Khabra were more often than not on hand to engage with the ball thus allowing Kuruniyan to maintain his position.

When the home side did attack through the middle, Ashique played his part in maintaining the offside line stepping up in cohesion with the rest of the back line. Playing a high line is an inherently high-risk, high-reward tactic especially considering the arsenal of attacking options Goa have at their disposal. Having said that, BFC’s defence held their line well which is a credit to the hard yards put in during training with Juanan probably deserving of an additional doff of the cap. The emergence of Juanan as the leader of the Bengaluru defence over the past couple of seasons has been central to their success.

The offside trap was bypassed with Doungel timing a couple of his runs to perfection in the first half but Manvir Singh was guilty of over-hitting the through ball on both occasions. This is the risk that Cuadrat runs with playing such a high and narrow line but one he perhaps views as manageable given that there are few attacking midfielders in the ISL that can pick out a defence splitting pass at will. Another point in favour of playing Ashique at Left Back is the pace he and Nishu Kumar offer in defence. With a back line that rarely covers more width than that of the penalty area, the space for the opposition is out wide and it becomes imperative that the full-backs have the pace to make recovery runs should the opposition manage to successfully get in behind the defence. From a defensive standpoint, Ashique clocked impressive numbers according to the official ISL statistics, with six tackles, three interceptions, and three blocks. Unfortunately for him, the solitary foul he conceded was when he brought Coro down in the box. He also held his own in what was a physical battle against Doungel, a player who certainly enjoys getting stuck in.

Ashique did venture forward but only in instances where there was obvious space to run into. This space was mostly created by Chhetri either taking up a deeper and/or more central position, thus drawing Seriton Fernandes out of position. The Left Back’s first meaningful foray forward came as late as the 27th minute where he easily got the better of Doungel before winning a corner for the away side. He was limited in his attacking output throughout the second half but a lovely tackle and individual run deep into Goa’s half towards the end of the game relieved the pressure on the Bengaluru defence if only for a short time.

As the game wore on, the Goan side predictably stepped up their pursuit of an equalizer with Lobera throwing on Jackichand Singh in place of holding midfielder Lenny Rodrigues. This saw Brandon Fernandes take up a more central role and Doungel shift to the left with Jackichand slotting in on the right flank. It was a bit surprising to see Jackichand on the bench given how much of an impact he’s had since his move to Goa last season with some of his form reminiscent of his days at Royal Wahingdoh. His introduction posed a fresh challenge and Cuadrat was quick to respond with a move of his own with Eugeneson Lyngdoh making his second consecutive appearance off the bench as he replaced Manuel Onwu. Chhetri moved up top with Lyngdoh playing in central midfield and Khabra taking up a role on the left hand side to help Ashique deal with the two pronged threat of Seriton and Jackichand. As the game wore on, the Bengaluru defence was increasingly penned back and crucially Jahouh moved further up the field. The Moroccan midfielder expertly found Jackichand Singh down the right on two occasions with Ashique caught out of position. There was no damage done with Albert Serran on hand to clear the danger on the second occasion but the additional quality of Jahouh further up the field and perhaps a lapse in concentration from Ashique towards the end of the game showed the first chinks in the BFC armour. It didn’t help matters when Khabra had to be substituted which prompted yet another rejig with Semboi Haokip playing out the rest of the game as the striker and Chhetri returning to his left wing role. Just when it looked like BFC had done enough to seal a crucial win, another ball out to the right flank from Jahouh found Jackichand Singh triggering a chain of events that culminated in Coro expertly finding the top corner with an excellent penalty.

Where should Ashique play?

Having taken a more detailed look at his performance, the natural question is where Ashique is best served playing. As is always the case, it must be noted that the best position of a player may not necessarily be what is the best for the team. The current situation is a case in point where the absences of Albert Serran and Erik Paartalu have forced Cuadrat’s hand and the best XI that he can currently put out probably has Ashique playing at Left Back. The 22 year-old has also responded to his manager’s call by putting in two contrasting and yet impressive performances in the two games thus far notwithstanding the late mistake. Serran played 40 minutes against Goa and one would expect him to start against Jamshedpur which could mean Rahul Bheke shifting to Right Back and Nishu featuring at Left Back. Should Cuadrat choose to go down this route, it leaves him with the choice of starting Ashique either on the left or in a more central role.

Left Wing: In recent years, the left wing position for BFC has been occupied predominantly by right-footed players looking to come in from the flank. Chhetri made that position his own under Ashley Westwood and continues to feature heavily in that position. When he did take up a more central role either alongside, or in the absence of, Miku last season, the likes of Boithang Haokip, Kean Lewis, and Chencho Gyeltshen took up the mantle. When Chhetri does play, he’s keen to drift in-field and participate in the link-up play and also offer a potent goal threat at the back post from crosses coming in from the right wing. Deploying Ashique on the left and tasking him with hugging the touchline could possibly aid the Blues in stretching play with speed and trickery on both flanks in the form of Udanta and Ashique. The youngster certainly has the legs to move up and down the flank all day and playing at Left Back means he’s aware of the defensive duties expected of a left winger in Cuadrat’s system. This frees Chhetri up to focus more on his attacking output as the Blues look to come to terms with Miku’s departure. The question is who drops out of the starting XI to accommodate this new setup. Once Paartalu is back to full fitness, one would expect him to slot into the heart of midfield which leaves 1 foreign slot for either Onwu or Augusto. On the balance of the first couple of games, Augusto has done enough to warrant a place as it stands right now.

Striker: Stephen Constantine opted to play Ashique in a central role in the AFC Asian Cup and the youngster put forth an eye catching display during the tournament. With India sitting deep and trying to hit teams on the counter, Ashique provided an excellent outlet taking up good starting positions down the middle but also had the freedom to venture into wider areas on the break. His mobility and willingness to take opposition players on stood out and there’s a school of thought that number 9 could be the youngster’s best position. Whether his link up play and finishing can justify him playing as an out and out striker are questions that remain to be seen though. The challenge of playing as as a striker in Cuadrat’s system is vastly different to that of the role Ashique played for the national side at the beginning of the year. One has to only look back to the aforementioned Chencho’s travails last season to acknowledge the learning curve required to be a number 9 in a possession-based system.

(Featured Image Photo by: Vipin Pawar / SPORTZPICS for ISL)

Arnab Ray

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