Stephen Constantine has stuck with his tried and trusted group of players but still has many questions to answer about his starting XI.
It has been almost eight years since India made their last appearance in the AFC Asian Cup. Amidst all the huff and puff, the Blue Tigers are set to make their latest appearance in the tournament, less than a fortnight later on January 6. The expectations are high, so is the pressure.
The Blue Tigers are clubbed along with the hosts, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Thailand in Group A. Chhetri and co. will have to punch above their weight to qualify into the next round. India, as a preparation, faced relatively stronger China and held them for a goalless draw on October 13. The result earned wide acclamation from media and fans across the country. The national team also battled it out against Jordan, braving adverse weather conditions, but eventually lost to the hosts 2-1.
Against Oman, India put in a solid performance with a 0-0 draw. Constantine started the match with Amrinder Singh, Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Anas Edathodika, Subhashish Bose, Udanta Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Pronay Halder, Holicharan Narzary, Sunil Chhetri, and Jeje Lalpekhlua.
A vast majority of the regulars have not impressed for their clubs
Starting from the defensive department, which has been considered as India’s Maginot Line, to the attacking department, which has obviously been the Blue Tigers’ Achilles heel, the national side has players who have struggled to stamp their authority this season.
Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika have formed a great partnership at the heart of the defence and have been there to hold fort everytime India faced stiff competition. However, the duo has only delivered mediocre performances for Kerala Blasters. Jhingan may have maintained similar figures from last season, but he has not rendered superimmense performances.
Jhingan’s performance against Northeast United FC sheds light upon his weakness and strength. The 25-year-old absolutely negated the presence of Ogbeche throughout the game but a moment’s carelessness turned the tide. He is a leader in the squad and one would expect him to demonstrate maturity, which isn’t conceding a penalty in the injury time.
Meanwhile, Anas Edathodika has not delivered any memorable performances for his club either and has looked out of gas this season. Salam Ranjan has only made a few appearances for Quess East Bengal this season. Against Jordan, Ranjan started at the heart of the defence and delivered a decent performance. With both Jhingan and Anas not looking solid this season, Ranjan is a viable option Constantine could use during the tournament.
Sarthak Golui is talented and is a star in the making. However, there were more deserving candidates for a spot in the national team and Golui has only made six appearances for FC Pune City. Meanwhile, Rahul Bheke, arguably the best fullback in the country, did not make into the squad, surprisingly.
Pritam Kotal has improved his statistics this season. In ISL 4, he had a passing accuracy of 66.66%. This season, he has ameliorated it and has 71.06% but efficiency remains as a concern for the fans. He has, on an average, made 31 passes per game, seven less than his average from the previous season, and has only one assist to his name this season.
Narayan Das, another regular Indian international, has better stats than his teammate at Delhi Dynamos. Das has made 2.2 tackles, 4.3 clearances, 2.4 blocks per game and also has to his credit, an average of 39 passes per game.
Subhasish Bose has performed considerably well for Mumbai City FC and rightfully deserves to get a nod in the starting XI. Versatile, Bose primarily plays as a left-back and is likely to maintain that position for the nation in the UAE. If Constantine decides to field Bose in central defence, Narayan Das will start for India.
After all, this squad is rickety and unstable. The 34-man initial probable list had 5 left-backs. In the 28-man preliminary squad, two left-backs were ruled out due to injury. What would have Constantine done had they not been injured?
The coach had no options but to stick with their only two right-backs in the squad. As aforementioned, Pritam Kotal has not impressed much while Sarthak has only featured in six matches. So what is the coach planning? If he has any idea of playing Jhingan on the right, ask Ashique once. The FC Pune City lad certainly knows how it harms the chances of the side. The Kerala-born youngster recently exposed Jhingan’s frailties as a right-back when the Blasters hosted the Stallions.
Ashique Kuruniyan has impressed massively and his recent performances prove he is ready to take that big step. Udanta Singh has, as usual, been crucial for Bengaluru FC, wreaking havoc down the flanks. Rowllin Borges has shone for Northeast United, who are fourth in the point table. The defensive midfielder has bettered his stats and is looking sharper than ever.
25-year-old Pronay Halder has excelled as a defensive midfielder and looks set to make a cut into the final squad. He has averaged 3.5 tackles and two interceptions per game. He doesn’t have any assists nor any goals to his name and has only taken five shots from nine games.
In an attack-minded FC Goa, Jackichand Singh has flourished. Jackichand has scored two and assisted as much this season and has taken 1.27 shots per games which is a marked improvement. There is also a marked decline when it comes to crosses/game but that doesn’t come as a surprise since FC Goa do not depend on crosses to score goals.
Delhi Dynamos’ Vinit Rai has a passing accuracy of 76.95%. The 21-year-old is a bright prospect but throwing him into the starting XI is a gamble. However, the exclusion of Lallianzuala Chhangte comes as a shock. The Delhi Dynamos youngster is quick and has the ability to outrun defenders down the flanks.
Defending ISL Champions Chennaiyin are languishing at the bottom in the point table but Anirudh Thapa, on an individual note, has improved his statistics. In India’s recent International friendlies, Anirudh Thapa delivered some decent performances and will be crucial to Constantine’s plans in the UAE.
Germanpreet Singh has only played six games for Chennaiyin FC this season. He doesn’t have any goals or assists to his name but the 22-year-old has made 23 tackles, eight interceptions, four clearances and eight blocks. He also has a decent 77.85% passing accuracy.
Ask any Kerala Blasters fan about Holicharan Narzary and you would understand how disappointing his performances have been. The former Northeast United attacker has truly struggled and has been at the receiving end of criticism for making futile attempts time and again.
In attack, one has many reasons to be pessimistic and demoralized. India will have to once again rely – rather depend – on Sunil Chhetri to produce his masterclass and drive the nation forward. The 33-year-old has in the recent decade held responsibilities on his shoulders and has been there to deliver whenever the situation warranted.
Constantine has overlooked the likes of Jobby Justin, who has been performing consistently for East Bengal, and Thoi Singh.
Jeje Lalpekhlua has struggled in front of the goal and if he keeps misfiring chances, it will negatively affect India’s chances in the tournament. Balwant Singh hasn’t impressed largely this season. The less we talk about Sumeet Passi, the better.
Constantine has stuck with his tested and trusted players
On the flip side, one should not have expected Stephen Constantine to make big changes for the tournament. The AFC Asian Cup is a tougher test than Constantine, as a coach, has faced. India may have seen a rise in their FIFA rankings in the previous years, but we all know how the Blue Tigers achieved it. This is the real litmus test for the coach and the result will act as the yardstick in measuring the progress made.
So, the coach knows its importance and the set of players he has chosen might be those who the gaffer thinks will give everything for him. Constantine has been working with most of the players in the squad for a while now. It might be the reason that forced Constantine to snub a few players who have been performing impeccably and include a few who have not been.
It, in no way, justifies the exclusions but Constantine has a justification. If he thinks he can draw the best of out of those players, who have failed to shine, isn’t it better than playing players who he thinks he couldn’t?
India go into the tournament as underdogs and what the coach needs to do is to envisage the right tactic. We have all seen India’s ability to defend when opponents come blazing in numbers. Defenders have played a crucial role in helping the team qualify for the quadrennial event. India will need them to continue their fine work in the UAE and help keep the opponents away from doing the damage.
Physicality is an area where India lags behind in most of their games. Anirudh Thapa is neither lanky nor robust. The same applies to most of the midfielders in the squad. So, trying to play the game through the centre will not likely bear the results.
Meanwhile, India have players like Udanta, Jackichand, Chhangte, who are agile. In the ideal tactics, defenders should clear or pass the ball to wide areas than to the middle, where it is likely to get dispossessed. Wingers should utilize their pace to get past a defender or two.
Jhingan’s advanced position higher up the pitch left Kerala defence vulnerable throughout their match against Mumbai City FC (Image Courtesy: Hotstar)
As depicted in the above picture, full-backs should not go higher up the pitch unnecessarily, especially when not in possession. During counter-attacks, opponents can take India by shock and leave them flat-footed. Jordan’s second-goal is an example.
Jordan took India by shock and the defenders reacted by chasing the ball, which left space on the other side (Image Courtesy: Hotstar)
In the above picture, Indian defenders focused on chasing the ball and all ran to the left side of the pitch. However, it left huge space on the right. Anirudh Thapa realised the potential danger and headed towards the right, but already was late.
It was already late when Anirudh Thapa realised the potential danger (Image Courtesy: Hotstar)
Jordan No.8 also dragged a defender into the left, which further provided more space and time for Haddad to unleash the shot.
Haddad had enough space and time to score Jordan’s winner (Image Courtesy: Hotstar)
Basically, while the full-backs go higher up the pitch, holding midfielders should be there in deeper position to help the defenders when the opponents counter-attack. Indian defenders are not expert passers of the ball and hence they should not try to play short-passes and build the game from the back.
While attacking, when the wingers get into the attacking third, they should either pass the ball to players in the central or deliver low-crosses. Most of the Indian attackers are diminutive and the crosses, if they are high, are likely to get intercepted.
While defending, India should also use techniques like pressing and cover shadowing to force the opponents to play the ball to wider areas. India can also execute a system where it effectively marks the opponents, hence forcing them to play long-ball.
The movement of Pronay Halder and Anirudh Thapa are crucial for India. Halder plays the defensive midfielder role for India while Thapa does the commanding duty. Halder will have to hold the fort and supply ball to those up front. Thapa will have to drop whenever Halder surges upward. This is to narrow down the space created by Halder’s absence. Against China, Thapa did the same.
While Halder went for the ball, Thapa dropped deep to narrow the space. Had not done it, Chine would have had a counter-attack (Image Courtesy – Hotstar)
If India can execute the tactics the right way, India may, with a little luck, pull off miracles. But the answer to the question, can Chhetri and Co. pull India’s bacon out of the fire and return home proudly, will be delivered on the pitch, and Khel Now hopes the result and expectations go hand in hand.