A lot of time on the ball and not much penetration with results on the slide. The Blues are bringing back memories of the Dutchman’s dour Red Devils…

For a club in just their 4th season in the top flight, Bengaluru FC have come from being a newbie to one of the most well-run and respected clubs in the country that have married success with eye-catching football. Two I-League titles, a Federation Cup win and the first club to feature in the AFC Cup Final says a lot about the quality that the Steelmen possess in their ranks.

A change in guard from the inaugural BFC gaffer Ashley Westwood to the more possession oriented Albert Roca was seen as the next step in the club’s quest to become a continental superpower. While the first three games proved to be an extension of the dream run last season, the club’s form has taken a nosedive since then.

Three defeats and a series of draws see the Blues sit in 5th position (currently), a location that they are unfamiliar with. While Roca ponders over how and what he needs to change to get his team purring again, one cannot help but draw a parallel with the situation Manchester United were in before Jose Mourinho took over and brought back a sense of winning and identity back to the club. The club needed changes from a personnel front and also a mentality point of view.

Captain Sunil Chhetri has been asked to do a lot on his own this season.

While Roca has checked one box with the arrival of several new players, it is the mentality among other things that needs a re-look after this series of poor results.

Albert Roca: A coach who failed as a manager

Albert Roca has never been a high-profile manager throughout his life. He was a coach (fitness) at Barcelona and has been an assistant manager at Galatasaray too. At Bengaluru FC currently, only 15-16 players feature in the first team training sessions. The rest of the squad trains with other coaches. 

According to a Khel Now source, Roca has said to 6-7 players that they do not feature in his plans. Sadly, the incoming Indian players have not been as inspirational as they were expected to. The core of the squad which went to the Final of the AFC Cup was created by Ashley Westwood and the erratic transfer dealings that brought in 5-6 new players without trimming the old squad has not helped proceedings.  

Looking in retrospect, the final was played with the same squad Ashley Westwood had created, Alvaro Rubio being the only new signing. Post the Final, the team has seen a huge transition, with several new signings, none of them working out the way they should have. 

Since the turn of the year, Roby Norales has been a forgettable signing and has been loaned to Ozone FC. The Indian players, too, have been painful to be honest. He has been a good coach for sure, but has sadly been a poor man-manager. 

The team had Nishu Kumar, Mawia and Keegan Pereira as left backs, and yet, Roca went ahead and signed ISL strong-performer Sena Ralte. The team has no right-back as Rino Anto has been injured for a while now and typical central midfielder Harmanjot Singh Khabra has been filling in at RB.

Nishu Kumar has been called up to the national team and still, at Bengaluru FC, Sena Ralte continues to be picked as the first team left-back.

Albert Roca has been disappointing as a manager at Bengaluru FC.

Lenny Rodrigues has not been outstanding, having come in the place of Malsawmzuala, he has not been even closely as effective as Sawmtea. Sawmtea featured in 10 games last season clocking 636 minutes in a double pivot with Collins, even scoring a goal. This partnership provided Euguneson Lyngdoh and Sunil enough freedom to create chances and attack at will. 

Lenny, throughout this season, has only played parallel to Watson as a screener in front of the defence and has rarely created opportunities. Similar to Maraoune Fellaini in the United setup of Louis van Gaal, Lenny uses his height and sideways distribution on the pitch, usually having no effect on the game. 

Chief Technical Officer of Bengaluru FC, Mandar Tamhane must take a lot of the blame on this. Tamhane brought Roca to India and also masterminded the signings of Indian players this season. Pradyum Reddy, assistant coach to Ashley Westwood, was the person dealing with the Indian signings prior to this season. 

Time to give the fringe players some game time

The Blues have assembled a quality squad with a mix of youth and experience both at national and international level. The likes of CK Vineeth, Sunil, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Lenny Rodrigues, John Johnson and Harmanjot Khabra have proven footballing pedigree for both club and country. However, in the last few weeks, some of these star players have looked bereft of ideas and at times burnt out.

The likes of Seimlinen Doungel, Mandar Rao Desai, Alwyn George and Beikhokei Beingaichho have not been given enough chances to prove their mettle on the pitch when the first team is below par. While Sandesh Jhingan and Salam Ranjan Singh have been handed starts, partly due to the injury to John Johnson, it almost indicates Roca’s reluctance to look beyond his first team.

Eugeneson has not been at his best this season for Bengaluru FC.

A defensive pivot must be sacrificed in favour of another attacker

Roca’s preferred system now is a fluid 3-4-3 which sees the full-backs bomb forward at every opportunity with Cameron Watson dropping back into a back three with Lenny providing the defensive cover. However at times there seems to be a lack of connection between the midfield and the front four and has seen Sunil Chhetri dropping deep to provide that link.

While defensive stability has been hard to come by for the Blues in the last few games, it would help if they gave one of the pivots in Lenny and Watson a breather and bring in a more forward-minded player like Eugeneson or Alwyn to add more numbers forward. With Lenny’s ability to cover ground extremely quickly and his impressive passing range to launch counter-attacks, it would be an option that Roca could look to exercise as he aims to stop the rut his team are currently in.

Pattern of play becoming all too predictable

One of the major traits of Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United was that opposition teams knew that the Red Devils would emphasize on possession a lot more than an attacking threat. A similar scenario is seen at Bengaluru now. Having been part of a famous Barcelona side that taught teams a lesson in football, Roca was expected to bring that famed approach to the Garden City.

While the plan worked for the first three games, it was only a matter of time before teams sat back and hit the Blues on the counter. The Steelmen have racked up possession stats for each game, but it has seen a compromise on the attacking third. Teams know that there would be two full-backs bombing forward and that the team would try to route their play through these channels.

This was seen clearly in the East Bengal game when Sena Ralte and Khabra were expected to provide CK Vineeth with crosses. But the team did not have a plan B when this did not work. Routing play through the middle was a dead end as Trevor Morgan simply asked his players to stick tight with the Bengaluru midfield and deny them any space. Add to that the fact that the speed of passing was all too slow giving each opposition player time to recover their positions.

CK Vineeth has not been able to hit goals at critical junctures in the league.

Westwood’s BFC were known for their swift transitions and often hit opposition teams with pace and ferocity, much like the Manchester United sides under Sir Alex Ferguson. Roca’s philosophy needs a bit more time to gel in as it is a new way of working for Indian football.

The transfers have been very poor ever since Roca has taken over and his attitude as a defensive-minded coach has not worked well for his team. Sources have revealed that Bengaluru FC can re-sign Ashley Westwood, but they will have to pay a compensation of four months to Roca, a pretty hefty sum. 

While his long-term future remains a matter of conjecture Roca faces more immediate hurdles to overcome. The team’s trechourous form, without a win in seven games, has seen them become very real contenders for relegation. The Spaniard has to galvanize his players for what remains of the domestic season. If they fail to show marked improvement as a team, substabtiated by results in the coming games, the Spaniard could well receive his marching orders despite his pedigree of previous success, just like his Dutch peer did.

Roca’s sacking after just a season in Indian football would be harsh but not surprising. The Blues’ owners are pragmatic, ambitious and forward-thinking. While stagnation itself would not be acceptable tp them, the team has infact gone backwards under Roca, something they are unlikely to take kindly to. In such situations, they have previously shown they are not afraid to take tough decisions. So, it is clear that in the weeks ahead Roca faces not only the challenge of getting his team back on track, but also a fight for his own job.