The number of Spanish coaches in the country has increased considerably in recent years.

The ISL has been anointed the tag of India’s premier league, but for the last five-odd years, the FSDL-organized league has been one of the main providers to the national team. Barring Salam Ranjan Singh, there hasn’t been any major name from outside the league who has been a regular in the national camp, both under Stephen Constantine and now Igor Stimac.

Indian football inarguably has been influenced most by Spanish and English coaches, both having 10 representatives each since the league started at the helm at different clubs. If we look at the winning teams, Antonio Lopez Habas, a Spaniard, started proceedings. Italian legend Marco Materazzi stood at the podium with Chennaiyin FC in the second season, but the trophy went back to a Spaniard at the third attempt.

Jose Molina lifted it with ATK yet again. John Gregory, a fiery and temperamental manager who had managed Aston Villa and QPR prior to his stint with Chennaiyin, remains the only English coach to have won the title, winning it in the fourth season. Carles Cuadrat, another Spaniard, won the trophy and this year, it was Habas’ magic with the Kolkata side yet again.

Given the numbers, it is only logical to say that Spain has the bragging rights. But let’s delve deeper into styles and results.

The Spanish Style

The Spanish model is possession-based. Originating from La Masia under the watchful eyes of Johan Cruyff, possession football took the world by storm as dimunitive warriors in Xavi and Andres Iniesta brought the world to their feet between 2008-2012, both at club and international level.

This style involves players keeping the ball and not being afraid to pass on the ground and in spaces where they believe their teammates would reach faster than the opposition. It has a lot of complex shapes and variants, but most of them involve a single striker up top, akin to the style used by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City or Sergio Lobera at FC Goa.

Antonio Lopez Habas used a 3-5-2 to accommodate his most prolific strikers, both Roy Krishna and David Williams, anchoring ATK to their third title. Cesar Ferrando used a singular No. 9 at Jamshedpur FC during his time and so did Carles Cuadrat and Josep Gombau at Bengaluru FC and Odisha FC respectively.

The entire system is based on overloading the midfield, to ensure control of the pitch and have most of the ball. The tempo is controlled by one of two midfielders who play a part of the double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 or a deep-lying playmaker in a 4-3-3. These two formations are mostly used by such managers, with stress on central midfield. They need able passers of the ball and players who have vision to thread opposition defences regularly.

Under Stimac, India is starting to attempt to keep control of the ball. Amarjit Singh Kiyam, his blue-eyed boy, who plays deep in midfield, is integral to his ideas because of the same. Amarjit has the ability to control the tempo of the game. India lack strikers and playing with just Jeje Lalpekhlua is a good option in the Spanish style. The Blue Tigers, though, need to find a support line that has the ability to not just provide, but score.

For instance, let’s assume Sunil Chhetri (left winger), Brandon Fernandes (central attacking midfielder) and Udanta Singh (right winger) are playing behind Jeje. While the “Mizo Sniper” remains the marksman, it is the responsibility of these three to constantly try and breach opposition defences as well. They are equally responsible for creating space and chances for their striker.

While Chhetri has taken most of the workload as Jeje awaits a return from a prolonged absence, the other two (Udanta has been a underwhelming regular down the right, while the No. 10 has been constantly changing) have to step up. This style, if implemented, will help Indian football grow. Players here aren’t physical specimens, but they can master the craft by practising it from age-group levels.

With Stimac at the helm, it will be a good idea for India to believe in this style and take it to lower levels.

The English Style

With a single or double striker who is a physical monster and crosses being bombard from the wings, the English style has failed to undergo any major transformation for years. The advent of diminutive striker Michael Owen brought hopes, but it fizzled out too soon to have any major effect.

None of the top six clubs in the Premier League feature an English manager and thus, reading the style of these clubs would be irrelevant here. Let’s take an ISL coach for instance. Phil Brown at Hyderabad FC used both Robin Singh and Bobo together in several games, with club captain Marcelinho also starting several times as a striker.

The wingers play a key role in this style. This system, too, has several variants, but stresses more on changing width according to the situation. The 4-4-2 and other variants of this basic lineup remains most widely used. Steve Coppell has time and again used the dual striker setup during his time at ATK and Kerala Blasters. At Jamshedpur, however, he mostly played a single striker system and threw in an extra one when the need arose.

Under Stephen Constantine, Halicharan Narzary, Udanta Singh and Jackichand Singh became key figures because of the same philosophy. Under him, the Indian backline stressed a lot on hitting long balls looking for Robin Singh’s head and Sunil Chhetri’s industrious runs. That, under Stimac, has changed.

The Ideal Way

India will benefit by not opting for either styles to the T. While possession football and ball retention is a must-learn for all players at all clubs, breaking down stronger sides from the wings isn’t a bad option whatsoever. India, a developing country in the beautiful game, still needs more than just two definite styles to adapt to several match situations and oppositions.

Indian football will benefit by taking a leaf out of both, but the Spanish style is what we need to put into practice more aggressively, with the English style of dynamism a good backup option. The Indian Super League has in recent times hired more Spanish coaches than English ones, clearly suggesting that clubs are investing in the ideology and style. Kibu Vicuna, too, defined the I-League this term, with Mohun Bagan lifting the title under him with four matches left to play.

The success rate has proven that India should go the Spanish way and ensure that players can adapt to the passing game in due course. The Dutch style, too, can help India and it is down to clubs and the AIFF to show the way in the long run.  

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