The Spaniard addressed a lot of talking points in Indian football including the Mariners’ style of play, Spanish influence and more.

“I’m in crush with the human quality of people in India,” said ATK Mohun Bagan head coach Antonio Lopez Habas as he spoke to Khel Now in an exclusive interview. The 63-year-old Spanish coach, one of the most successful in the history of Indian Super League (ISL) shared his experience from the ongoing season, the Mariners’ gameplay and more as he indulged in a candid chat.

ATKMB have almost cemented their spot in the playoffs this season, with 24 points from 12 matches. Though half the work is now done, the tactician believes, “This ISL edition is very different in many aspects and most of them turned negative for football. We had to adapt to a new form of co-existence, training and competition.” He further added, “I particularly believe that ATK Mohun Bagan have been able to overcome these obstacles and are competing with very good momentum. We’re in a privileged position on the classification (table) from Day One and that says we’re a competitive and reliable team with a margin for improvement.”

Antonio Habas has always been a man of firsts in the ISL. The first Spanish coach to land in the league, the first coach to win the title, the first coach to play a three-man defence and the first coach to bag two crowns. Quizzed about his feeling about these feats, the tactician said, “It always feels great to do well with a team. In the first edition of ISL, Atletico de Madrid was ATK’s technical collaborator and trusted me to lead the team. We won the first edition in the final against Kerala and our professionalism, methodology, and style were imitated in the following editions. For any European, India is difficult to understand at first. But, with time, it turns impossible to forget.”

Antonio Habas is considered to be the first man to sow the seeds of the Spanish players’ and coaches’ revolution the country is currently thriving on. Speaking of it, he said, “It’s for sure that we opened the doors for Spanish players and coaches in India, something that many of those who came after don’t know.”

The ever-animated tactician has always been in the headlines for his bold choices and statements and this chat wasn’t an exception. He took a dig at ‘the younger’ Spaniards in the league, “When I came to India, I had a tremendous respect for my co-workers like Zico, (Marco) Materazzi, (Franco) Colomba, (Cesar) Farias, David Platt, people with a great reputation in football and we never had any problems with.

“It was really a great experience playing against them and we always had constructive discussions. But now, some coaches and players are coming in, who have no professional path and are capable of disrespecting ‘the elders’ in the first play of the game. Of course, not all of them, but it’s a pity,” expressed the former Sporting Gijon and Celta Vigo manager.

Indian football fans have been quite vocal against the Mariners’ style of play this season, as it seems that the Spanish think-tank prefers a more defensive way of play. Quizzed about it, the tactician explained the conditions behind the style. “The secret in the modern-day game is to find a balance between the transitions of attack-defence and defence-attack. In my first two seasons, ATK were a very competitive team because we controlled these transitions and we were champions and semi-finalists. Last season, the same thing happened and we were champions.

“But, this season, we have had many problems with the physical state of our major players. From the very first day, we were dealing with a couple of important injuries which turned very influential in our functioning. Losing two of our key offensive players like (Michael) Soosairaj and Jobby (Justin) was a big knock. This has forced us to change approaches seeking security and balance first and then being brilliant. It’s surely a different and less explored way, but so far we are doing well and we’re right now in ISL’s privileged positions.

“Counter-attack is an option of play. For me, it’s more of a spirit than a tactic, a way of punishing without being punished,” he smilingly explained. “We work with intimidating attacks, positional attacks, counter-attacks, and direct attacks. A team has to run all the records because there’s never a match like another one. I’ve never seen a war in which an army raises battle the same way. Many teams always use the same game system, they start in the same way, defend in the same area. In my opinion, this is only valid for teams with higher individual quality. The hard part for your team is to control 4-5 different systems. That’s a good coach’s job. Above all, the quality and intelligence of players teaches what you have to do.”

Further, sharing his thoughts on possession football, the two-time ISL champion stated, “I think ball possession keeps the ball more in your feet, but it doesn’t let you dominate the game. Usually, teams have the ball possession in areas where the rival team is not there. Thus, playing a lot of passes where the rival is absent, I call that football-hypnosis. That is no good, but people like it very much.”

When quizzed about whether tactical superiority and defensive strength are much more important than possession-based and skillful football (tiki-taka) in the modern-day game, Antonio Habas answered, “Tiki-taka is more visible to the viewers, but less effective for the team. If we look at the statistics of European championships on how goals are scored, you will see 65 % of the goals came from counter-attacks and fast attacks, 20% from set-pieces, 10% from positional attacks and 5% from other situations. Now find your answer!”

After spending more than five years in and around the Indian football ecosystem, Antonio Habas believes, “Football in India has a great future, but we must continue and implement the work at the academies with adequate facilities and trainers.” He added, “Thanks to ISL, the professional football level in India has taken a 180-degree twist. The arrival of footballers and foreign coaches has provided a very interesting and comparative element for Indian players, who now feel prepared equal – technically, physically and tactically.”

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