In seeking to build on the good work of his former boss the Blues’ current tactician has taken a few leafs out of Ashley Westwood’s book.
Albert Roca‘s shock departure from Bengaluru FC for personal reasons, right on the eve of their AFC Cup qualification campaign, came as a huge shock and even bigger blow to the Blues and their supporters.
The Spaniard had enjoyed a wealth of success in the Karnataka capital, taking just four months to bring his side to the final of the AFC Cup – the first Indian club to achieve the feat – before going on to win their second Federation Cup and narrowly losing out to Chennaiyin FC in a pulsating Indian Super League final last year.
In that game, with Subashish Bose unavailable through injury, Roca departed from the usual 4-2-3-1 formation that made the Blues so compact at the back, and dangerous in transition. Instead, the Spaniard opted for a 3-4-3 lineout, switching occasionally to a 4-3-3 on the occasions when Rahul Bheke drifted back.
It was a fatal change of plan from the Spaniard, whose high-pressing and fast-countering style had been so successful – particularly when he could count on the likes of Miku and Sunil Chhetri to hit the target when necessary – as the Marina Machans ran out 3-2 winners.
The Blues’ miserly defence – built around experienced centre-backs John Johnson and Juanan – conceded just 16 goals in their 20 regular season games, the lowest in the league last season, while pacey native full-backs Bose and Bheke offered dangerous overlapping options at a fraction of the price.
That’s been the key to Bengaluru’s continued success since their inception with Ashley Westwood as manager, buying non-flashy, competent foreign signings, and blending them with the best Indian talents, both upcoming – in the case of Bose – and experienced internationals – like Chhetri and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
Cuadrat has kept the Bengaluru way intact this season
It’s also why, when Roca departed, the decision to install former assistant coach Carles Cuadrat was the logical one to take. Despite having missed a large chunk of the second half of last season after a bizarre knee injury sustained while travelling to Pune, Cuadrat promised to carry on his former mentor’s work.
“The philosophy…the way we work has been the same for a long time now. We truly believe in that, we cannot change certain aspects that we like about the game,” Cuadrat said after his appointment.
“I have learned a lot from Roca and I’ve learned a lot from Rijkaard. And now I hope I can transfer that knowledge to my players. I believe in a good way of playing football and that is what we are going to try to do.”
A 3-0 defeat to Barcelona B gave the former Barça prospect a chance to assess his side against tough opposition for the first time since taking over. But having promised consistency, the 50-year-old then changed tack completely as his side entered their latest AFC Cup campaign against Turkmenistan’s Altyn Asyr.
While Roca – when player availability allowed – opted to play Miku as the focal point of a pacey offence, using Chhetri and Udanda Singh to cut in from the flanks, creating a potent three-pronged attack, Cuadrat opted to switch to a flat 4-4-2, handing Chhetri and Miku the opportunity to form a partnership up front.
It was an early risk that wouldn’t pay off for Roca’s successor, as he found his side 3-0 down at half-time in a disastrous first-half of their first leg at home, before clawing things back with goals from Bheke and Paartalu to keep them in the tie. Getting back to basics is what one would imagine Cuadrat would do at that point, but instead, he persisted with the formation change and saw his side go down 2-0 in Ashgabat, and go out of the tournament.
Albert Serran has impressed for Bengaluru FC so far
It was a formation that provided little cover to a back four which had lost half of its components in the off-season, with Johnson leaving for ATK – a decision, with hindsight, he probably now regrets – and Bose also moving to Mumbai. As a cover, Cuadrat brought in fellow Catalonian Albert Serrán, while Rino Anto arrived from Kerala as cover to Nishu Kumar, promoted to the starting XI at left-back.
Xisco Hernandéz was a straight replacement for ‘Toni’ Dovale, who left to ply his trade in the equally lucrative Cypriot league, but with the deadly trio of Miku, Chhetri and Singh, the heart of what made the Blues so good going forward under Roca was still there.
No surprise, therefore, to see the Blues return back to that familiar 4-2-3-1 formation that made them so successful, when they hosted Chennaiyin back at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in their season opener.
With Paartalu and Harmanjot Khabra providing the necessary protection in front of a settling back four, the Blues looked altogether more solid; the pair’s work in transition giving Bengaluru more balance in midfield, allowing that deadly front three to do their work, ably assisted by a Hernandéz who looked comfortable further forward up the pitch.
Since then Cuadrat’s Blues haven’t looked back, drawing one and winning three of the four games since, and using just 16 squad players till now.
While Roca – as we saw in last year’s final – was forced to change things up on occasion, Cuadrat hasn’t flinched from that 4-2-3-1 since the failed experiment in the AFC Cup – bar the sharing of attacking-midfield duties between Hernandéz and Dimas Delgado – much to his side’s benefit thus far in the league.
Even taking into consideration the fact that the Blues have played less games than any other team in the league, conceding just four goals in six ISL games thus far suggests that the early teething problems in their defence have been comprehensively ironed out, and scoring the tied-second most amount of goals in the league despite their bare early-season schedule shows that Bengaluru are no slouches going in the other direction either.
The real test will be after this international break, when the Blues face the prospect of playing six games in three weeks – ending on December 13th hosting ATK – including an energy-sapping trip to NorthEast United.
Then we will truly see what the understudy has learned from his predecessor – who himself had previously commented on the scheduling of the league, having navigated an extremely busy February last season – and how Cuadrat plans to stamp his own authority on the side, having to adjust to the inevitable suspension and injuries a packed pre-Christmas schedule brings.
Expect Roca’s legacy to continue with the club under Cuadrat for some time yet – that winning formula continuing to deliver for the Spaniard well into Season 5. But Bengaluru’s doomed AFC Cup campaign has at least shown that the former assistant manager is capable of stepping out of the shadows and making changes to this Bengaluru squad.
When, and how often, at least for the moment, remains to be seen.
Kevin Galvin is an Irish freelance football journalist currently travelling in India, and covering the Indian Super League on his blog ISLIndependent.