The Blue Tigers turned their backs on many of the things that had served them well in the tournament, in what was a case of ‘old habits die hard’.
Having started the Asian Cup with brilliant performances against Thailand and the United Arab Emirates, Stephen Constantine’s India went back to the familiar ways of throwing the match away and handing it to their opposition on a platter, in their final group game against Bahrain.
In a game where the Blue Tigers needed only a draw to progress to the knockout rounds, Stephen Constantine’s men seemed insistent on playing for the draw by approaching the match reactively, trying to prevent Bahrain from scoring. Of course, that tactic employed for the entirety of the 90 minutes made little sense and ended up costing the Blue Tigers a berth in the knockout stages of the tournament.
Watch: India 0-1 Bahrain highlights
Formations & Lineups
India started with a flat 4-4-2 once again in the game. This time, however, Rowllin Borges got the nod ahead of the young Anirudh Thapa, who has been impressive in the tournament for the Blue Tigers. Thapa has a wonderful right foot and his long passes from deep are precise and delightful. He is also a dangerous deliverer of set-pieces and is on duty from corners and deep free-kicks.
Instead, Constantine went with a conservative midfield workhorse in Borges, who isn’t technically adept on the ball. The idea was to play a double pivot of Pronay Halder and Rowllin, with the duo sharing the defensive duties ahead of the back four. This backfired as India could not create chances of their own with the midfield looking almost non-existent.
Anas Edathodika had to be subbed off very early in the game because of a knock and Salam Ranjan Singh made his debut. He was decent in defence on Monday night, largely thanks to the impressive performance of Sandesh Jhingan.
Bahrain started with a 4-5-1 that might look defensive on paper, but instead turned into a 4-2-3-1 on the pitch, with its midfield three advancing well up the pitch and also providing width apart from providing support for target man Al Romaihi upfront.
Pressing in the game- or lack of it?
In the game against the UAE, many were impressed with the way India pressed. The Blue Tigers were fearless and relentless in their approach, constantly pressing the UAE backline and forcing them to make mistakes. India pressed in twos and threes whenever a UAE player was on the ball and Ashique Kuruniyan, Sunil Chhetri and Thapa would often trigger a collective press. Whenever India lost the ball, for the first five seconds, the midfield and forward line would converge on the player with the ball and try to recover possession. Failure to do so beyond that point, would see them dropping back into their shape of maintaining two lines of four.
Against Bahrain, however, pressing did not take place, not even once. India almost seemed content to let Bahrain have the ball and would only try to converge on the player when he was in the defensive third, with Halder and Borges being the first line.
Unable to build from the back- old habits die hard
Having played almost the same lineups for three games seemed to take its toll, as the Blue Tigers seemed out of ideas on what to do when they had the ball. Possession was treated very cheaply and there were quite a lot of misplaced passes and bad touches made on the night- almost too many for any side intent on getting a positive result from a game.
Constantine didn’t seem to have a clear plan of attack apart from somehow trying to get the ball to Chhetri. The Indians had four shots against Bahrain, as compared to 15 against Thailand in the match- and not a single one on target. Make of that what you will.
Every time the Indian defenders won the ball, their only approach was to hoof it away as far as possible, or out of touch for a throw-in and ride out the next wave of attacks.
Second half tweaks- or again lack of them?
In the opening game against Thailand, India had similar difficulties in building-up attacks because Thailand had neutralized their midfield by playing an extra defensive midfielder. So, in the second half, Constantine asked Udanta to tuck in deeper to help out Pritam Kotal and shifted Kuruniyan to the right. This would create a strong partnership on the right flank, that would bear fruit and went on to inspire a historic performance.
In the second half against Bahrain, Constantine brought on Jeje Lalpekhlua in place of Ashique and asked him to move to the left. Jeje (or Sunil) was hardly visible for the rest of the match.
Takeaways- lessons to be learnt from a painful defeat
At this point, this is an unsaid dogma in the game of football. It is impossible to defend for the entirety of the 90 minutes, without even trying to counter-attack.
India’s primary creator for the forward line was Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. And he is the goalkeeper of the side.
By sitting so deep, defending narrow and clearing the ball aimlessly at every opportunity, India practically handed the match to Bahrain. A 90th minute penalty might be cruel, but the Blue Tigers definitely deserved to be on the losing end, after the lack of initiative they showed.
The road is long, but the belief is everything.