There were a few key takeaways from the two friendlies involving the Blue Tigers and the neighboring nation.
The Indian national football team played two friendly games during the international break with Nepal recently. The Blue Tigers drew the first game by a 1-1 scoreline, while they won the second 1-2. India head coach Igor Stimac had a lot of questions to answer after the first game vs Nepal, as there was widespread disappointment amongst the fans.
One generally expects India to easily defeat SAFF countries, but failing to do so in the first game invited a lot of criticism. The second match provided a better performance from the team, but the tie was close nonetheless. The Indian team looks far from a settled unit and there are several factors responsible for the same.
These two friendlies were particularly important in preparing for the upcoming SAFF Championship in October. Now that the two games are over, here is what we learned after watching Igor Stimac’s men in action against Nepal:
5. Need to find a stable centre-back partnership in absence of Sandesh Jhingan
Chinglensana Singh has cemented his place in the starting lineup, but needs a stable partner alongside him. India lack a third centre-back who can step in if one of Sandesh Jhingan or Chinglensana are injured. The two friendlies did not feature Jhingan who is nursing an injury. He will most likely miss out on playing in the forthcoming SAFF Championships as well.
Clearly, Pritam Kotal or Shubhasish Bose cannot be the future centre-backs alongside the Hyderabad FC defender. Stimac must look for a recognized stopper, who can step in and form a stable partnership alongside ‘Sana’ Singh. There was a clear lack of communication between the defenders and a better side than Nepal would have hurt them.
4. Possession play for the sake of it will not work
Igor Stimac has been a strong advocate of playing possession-based football since he took over the team. Building up from the back with ground passes has been the go-to tactic. This is in sharp contrast to the direct football adopted by previous manager Stephen Constantine. While the ideology is progressive and ambitious, it should not be done simply for the sake of it.
India need to adopt possession as a tool rather than a philosophy. Furthermore, the opponents do their homework and the tactics have become predictable. Hence, there is a need to be adaptive in terms of gameplans. The second game vs Nepal saw India use long-balls as the pitch, according to Stimac, was not fit to play ‘normal’ football.
3. Still reliant on Sunil Chhetri’s brilliance
India are still quite reliant on their skipper for any sort of inspiration. Sunil Chhetri was the difference-maker in both fixtures and this reliance could backfire in the future. Anirudh Thapa scored the equalizer from Chhetri’s long range effort in the first game. In the second, the skipper provided an assist and scored the second goal to help India secure a 1-2 win.
Igor Stimac must find another focal point in the squad. The relatively young squad needs more players to stand up and make a difference. A long-term replacement for Chhetri is still out of sight and this is one of the biggest headaches facing Indian football at large.
2. Find a stable playing XI
Between the first and second game against Nepal, India made plenty of changes. The second match only had four players that featured in the first friendly. Clearly, the chopping and changing of the starting lineup has not stopped. However, this is unsettling the players and the result is uncoordinated football on the pitch.
The tactician should have found his preferred playing XI by now. The time for experimenting is over and the players need to be clear about their roles in the setup. There was a lack of cohesion and communication between the players. This was clearly visible in defence, which is a department that needs stability more than any part of the field. India must field a stable playing XI in the forthcoming SAFF Championship.
1. Pressure is increasing on Stimac to deliver results
Lastly, the biggest revelation from these friendlies was that Igor Stimac is under pressure. The fans are becoming restless and losing patience with the tactician. They have been patient with his approach towards the national team and his ideology to revamp their playing style. However, results have been poor under his regime, without a doubt.
India failing to defeat Nepal in the first friendly led to widespread criticism of Stimac on social media. There was a hashtag that demanded Stimac’s dismissal on Twitter and other social networking sites. While the Croatian remains defiant and unaffected, he must realize that results must get better. The upcoming SAFF Championship is are perhaps the biggest litmus test for Stimac, who must deliver good performance and positive results.