The Blue Tigers showed glimpses of their promising selves in attack but were once again let down by mistakes at the back.

“In the second-half, we came out with our heads up. We had the courage, and confidence when we decided to play football. In the first-half, we played without courage and self-confidence,” said Indian national team manager Igor Stimac during the post match conference after losing 2-5 against a spirited DPR Korea side. 

The last time the national team had conceded four or more goals on two consecutive occasions was during the AFC Asian Cup 2011, when they lost to Australia 4-0, to Bahrain 5-2, and to South Korea 4-1. But that was a continental tournament, this is an invitational one. Bob Houghton had created his team since 2006, whereas Stimac has had just two 10-day training sessions. 

Watch: Igor Stimac full post match press conference after game against DPR Korea

As a matter of fact, the team is indeed nearing its best shape and first XI. If you look at the side that played the second half, it was similar to the side that played the first half against Tajikistan in the last game. Amrinder Singh, Subhashish Bose, Jerry Lalrinzuala and a few others may have been different, but the core of the side that plays the game with the ball remained the same. 

Here, we’ll analyze the game as India saw their chances to feature in consecutive Intercontinental Cup finals fizzle out of thin air. 

The Stephen Constantine nostalgia!

Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Subhashish Bose and Jerry Lalrinzuala started the game. This quartet has time and again (mostly when Anas Edathodika was either out injured or suspended) started in the Stephen Constantine era, and boy, was the gameplay nostalgic! Most of the first half, the ball was pinged from the left of the screen to the right, in hope of finding Jobby Justin, Manvir Singh, or even the diminutive Sunil Chhetri at times. 

Sadly, it didn’t work. It pushed Brandon Fernandes out of the game, a man who’s game depends when the ball is on his team’s feet. Brandon received the first pass of the game in the 15th-odd minute, when Jerry found him with a half-weighted ball down the left flank. The FC Goa playmaker thrives on confidence, and teammates with poor ball-abilities are never going to help his effectiveness.

In the 30th minute or so, Jhingan was in space, had no pressure whatsoever, and Amarjit Singh Kiyam had dropped close to him, asking for the ball. The Kerala Blasters’ captain, instead, heaved it long. The idea had Stephen Constantine written all over it. At another point, he cleared a ball for a throw-in – he was under no pressure. Stimac from the touchline asked him to play the ball more. 

On the contrary, Adil Khan, in the second half, made some good use of the ball, finding both Anirudh Thapa and Kiyam with ease. The forward play directed by these two from deep midfield was at times global. Yes, it indeed was world-class smooth. They found Jerry and Chhangte with consummate ease regularly and did not really look breathing out for air. 

Constantine, though, always made sure that the midfield was defensively-inclined and made sure conceding more than two, ever, was India’s last problem. Here, against DPR Korea, the midfield involved Rowlin Borges who looked absent at times and Kiyam, who wasn’t given enough of the ball to take it forward. 

With Adil Khan stepping in, passes started to grow and after the arrival of Anirudh Thapa, the midfield started looking as good as ever. India did concede twice in the second half as well, but it was due to the spaces left behind as the team was trying to score. 

A bad outing for several players

Pritam Kotal, Jobby Justin, Rowlin Borges, Brandon Fernandes, Sandesh Jhingan, Manvir Singh and Jerry Lalrinzuala all had days to forget and when more than 50% of your players have such performances, you are in deep trouble. Kotal, clearly, didn’t do enough on the ball. Bheke in the first game had tormented the right side of the pitch in the first half, but nothing like that happened between Kotal and Manvir Singh, who was being played out of position. 

The striker played a few proper exchanges and kept the ball glued to his feet to find his teammates, but it was too few and far between. Brandon just couldn’t deal with the sort of game-play that was on display and had he been on the pitch in the second half, things could’ve been very different for him. Jhingan made a hash of his tackle en route to the second goal from Korea, earned a useless yellow, and got injured. A bad day at work for the man from Chandigarh. 

Lalrinzuala and Justin gave their best, but at times, best is just not enough. The Chennaiyin FC left-back had a role to play in the first goal, overholding the ball and then placing a mispass. Justin was better than most strikers India have played in recent times, but his off-the-ball hard work is not as good as a Balwant Singh, and his ability on the long ball is not as good as a Robin Singh. If he needs to thrive, he needs to be on the pitch when crosses come in, and he’ll have his time. 

It was forgettable for most of these players, certainly. Rowlin Borges, for instance, didn’t look sure of his role. He kept switching from No. 6 to No. 8 and vice versa at times, looking uncomfortable and slow in both. The man from NorthEast United needs to find his voice again and needs to rethink on his positioning when he’s employed in the pivot-double in the centre of the pitch. 

Stimac looks nearing his starting XI

If you’re bold enough a tactician to give Amarjit Singh Kiyam starts in the midfield at the age of just 18, he should be continued. The former Indian Arrows captain, now a Jamshedpur FC player, has rarely stepped wrong and plays as a metronome that keeps recycling possession. With Adil behind him, it seems sensible as the FC Pune City player knows how to find a pass. Thapa always makes himself available, and whenever the going gets tough, so does Chhetri. The goalkeeping duties may keep switching from Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Amrinder at the moment, or so it looks. 

Adil will start with another centre-back, and it could be anyone ranging from Sandesh Jhingan to Narender Gehlot to Subhashish Bose. It would depend on the training session. Bheke takes the right side, and Mandar will adorn the left. With the midfield pivot settled, Chhetri will take the role up top and will be supported by Chhangte, Udanta and Sahal. Brandon, too, at times will come in at No. 10. 

This side was making things happen in the second half, and can create opportunities against any defence on a given day. Khel Now previously wrote that Udanta and Chhangte need to put on their shooting boots, and the pair did. Both had some handsome efforts on the goal. In the same vein, things will start going right eventually. With the qualifiers the next challenge, matters look settled for now. 

Gaping holes at the back

Attacks win you matches, defences win you tournaments. Sir Alex Ferguson struck gold with this analogy, and Stimac needs to work on his team’s rearguard to take them to the next level. The positioning of Kiyam is a lot more central than it should be while defending, forcing him to make errors in covering the lines. Thapa, meanwhile, has enough experience under his belt to perform that task. 

If the midfield duo cover the ground lines well, the full-backs will just need to take care of the aerial balls. This is where India’s defence was split open by DPR Korea, who continue their blot-less record against the Blue Tigers.Even in the second half, this problem persisted. Kiyam should move a little towards the right while defending, allowing the number 10 to slot back in the midfield and make it a defensive three in the midfield. With the wingers also helping, the shape should turn to a 4-5-1 flat. 

These things, eventually, will help the side see out games, something they haven’t done too well under Stimac so far.