A game of two halves saw both sides sharing the spoils on Thursday night in Dushanbe.

India and Afghanistan played out a 1-1 draw at the Central Republican Stadium in Dushanbe, Tajikistan under floodlights. India seemed to have taken a leaf out of Manchester United’s books, scoring goals at the death and picking up points. It was Adil Khan in the game against Bangladesh; last evening, Seminlen Doungel turned rescuer. In both games, FC Goa’s playmaker Brandon Fernandes played the role of provider from a corner.

When the starting XI was announced, most fans thought India would play a 4-3-3 formation against Afghanistan, with Sahal Abdul Samad and Brandon Fernandes positioned in a double-pivot, adding protection for deep-sitting midfielder Pronay Halder. But, that wasn’t the plan. Instead. Sahal was given a free role, operating behind striker Sunil Chhetri and even beyond him at times. This was in an attempt to stretch defenders so as to create space for his captain to build something in tandem with Fernandes, who played in a double with Halder in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Afghanistan came with a plan. They sat deep and attacked through the empty spaces behind India’s full-backs. They knew the key to unlocking their defence from open play was the FC Goa midfielder and Noor Husin started the game fouling him on several occasions. This forced Brandon to retreat a little, positionally and the gaps between India and Afghanistan’s half increased. The No. 10 got enough time on the ball, but not enough runners off it to cater for.

Afghanistan’s Defensive Tactics

Defensively, Afghanistan were setup in two blocks against India – a main back four and a defensive midfield of three that blocked every line vertically. The wide forwards, too, were hardworking, and ensured that Mandar Rao Dessai and Pritam Kotal stayed on their toes at all times. Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan, India’s wingers, were out of tandem for the first 30 minutes and came into their own as the game grew older. Kuruniyan was shifted to left-back in the second half and had a good second 45. Udanta operated more centrally in the same duration, earning some recognition for his efforts.

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India’s Defensive Tactics

India, on the contrary, gave enough space through the lines to Afghanistan. With just one sitting defensive midfielder in Halder and forward-moving full-backs, Afghanistan’s midfielders could find their forwards easily, but to no real effect. India lacked conviction in defending only at set-pieces and must work on it. There seemed a lack of communication in defence, particularly between Adil Khan and Mandar, which they will need to iron out.

India’s first attempt came in the 27th minute and it was more down to luck than ability. Ashique Kuruniyan made a twisting run and found himself outside the box and took aim, only for the ball to fly high.

India Missing Amarjit Singh Kiyam?

Meanwhile, India looked keen on playing wall-passes in a triangle to move the ball forward, but Igor Stimac must understand that Halder isn’t the best candidate for the third pass. Brandon moves the ball swiftly into a forward’s path, who plays it back to the second midfielder – in this case, Halder – who is expected to find an onrushing player in the space created by the forward who has come deep to initiate the pass. The ATK midfielder missed the right pass on several instances and looked equally miffed. How badly is this team missing Amarjit Singh Kiyam!

Mandar left space behind him time and again and it finally hurt India, as a cross from the right was met by Zelfy Nazary, who’s shot, on some other day, could’ve been parried away by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. He wasn’t at fault, though. It was a fine finish from the Afghan player.

India played the second half on auto-pilot, moving the ball faster and pushing men into the box. After the introduction of Seiminlen Doungel, Udanta made his way closer to the box, joining forces with Manvir Singh and Chhetri. Chhetri hit the post with a rising header from another Brandon corner. It all capsized into equanimity when the shortest player on the pitch, Doungel, jumped to meet Brandon’s cross to bring a point home.

In retrospect, India shed everything they did in the first half. Wait for players, look for runs, go via the playmaker. Brandon had the bulk of the share in the second half as well, but other players got involved too. Everything was more direct. Every move looked as if it had intent. The team looked different in the second half. They had more freedom, more directness and more dedication. India need to start games like they finished this one. They need to play on auto-pilot more.