The Blues utilized their defenders as a potent weapon last season, but this time their impact has been nulified by opposition teams.
The modern day full-back is not one who is expected to shut down attacks from opposition wingers or get close to the centre-halves when defending in a game. They now are auxiliary midfielders, primary wingers and at times legitimate goalscoring threats.
A large part of Bengaluru FC‘s success last season, has been attributed to their potent forward line, but in fact, this first-choice attacking quartet of Sunil Chhetri, Udanta Singh, Miku and Xisco Hernandez/Dimas Delgado functioned because they had the constant support of their full-backs in Nishu Kumar, Harmanjot Khabra and at times Rahul Bheke.
However, this season, it has been observed that in both of Bengaluru’s games, the opposition coaches have identified this threat and set out to nullify it effectively. In BFC’s first ISL fixture against Chennayin FC, John Gregory asked his wide attackers in Gregory Nelson and Francis Fernandes to maintain a high line and pin both Nishu and Bheke back into their own half and not let them foray forward as they usually would like. This ensured that Udanta and Chhetri, both of whom need an overlap to create a numerical advantage on the flanks and stretch the backline, were unusually quiet.
In the second half against Jamshedpur, Nishu Kumar was pegged back by the opposition’s tactics
The high line also ensured that the full-backs had a shorter area of the pitch to utilize even if they went back to Gurpreet in goal to relieve the pressure. Bheke’s suicidal backpass in the Chennayin game nearly led to the opener had it not been for Germanpreet’s glaring miss. Fernandes’ pressure on Nishu at the other end, ensured that he could not get higher up the pitch and support Chhetri, who by his standards had a sub-par evening.
While the Bengaluru full-backs got relatively more freedom in the Jamshedpur game to make runs forward, the second half saw the visitors take a leaf out of Chennaiyin’s book and pin both Bheke and Nishu back, which forced the home side to go forward centrally. The numbers spelt the problem, as both of Bengaluru’s full-backs produced a total of one cross in the entire game against Chennayin.
The issue for Bengaluru lies right here. If they are forced to go through the middle of the park, it allows for opposition defences to create a compact block in front of their 18-yard box, thus keeping them at bay. This was a puzzle that Cuadrat’s predecessor Albert Roca faced in his debut I-League season, one which he rectified in the ISL by shifting to a three-man backline and wing-backs, which gave Bengaluru tactical superiority in key areas of the pitch. In addition, the midfield was well marshalled by Edu Garcia and Dimas who rotated possession very well and distributed it wonderfully to the full-backs.
Harmanjot Khabra gets a cross in for his side against Jamshedpur
Cuadrat has reverted to a 4-2-3-1 system that needs the full-backs to provide width to allow Udanta and Chhetri to move inwards and support Miku. Shutting down this avenue has led to Bengaluru needing a more creative spark from the center of the pitch, which is often in the hands of Dimas or now Xisco, as Khabra has so far been overrun in both of the Blues’ games this season.
While Jamshedpur’s full-backs punted in four crosses each, Bengaluru’s again had only one cross to show. These numbers speak of a dual problem for the 2018 finalists. Firstly, it reveals a lack of a Plan B when the full-backs are closed down. Secondly, the side’s renowned defensive solidarity is compromised.
In a league where most sides will adopt a functional workman-like performance to get a result, Cuadrat will need to find a solution to this problem or risk seeing his highly-rated squad being figured out.