CHENNAI: There had been disappointment writ large on Igor Stimac’s face when he faced a deflated press room in Guwahati and conducted a brief post-mortem of how his team had thrown away a win versus Oman.
“We could see that the defence was losing shape in the last 15 minutes,” he had said, last week. “That was the time we should have been patient, keeping the ball, holding on to the result and waiting for chances to counterattack.”
Five days later, Stimac’s team held Asian champions Qatar to a 0-0 draw and the most encouraging aspect of that performance was that India looked like they had actually learnt the lessons from Guwahati. This was a team that, in the past, had walked away from even harsher classrooms with their notebooks empty. Yet, here they were, sitting on the front bench with their homework all done.
Stimac would have been forgiven for fearing the worst when that clock started ticking down on the last 15 minutes in Qatar. Indeed, that period began with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu being forced into a fingertip save. But soon it became evident that his players had taken the three main points of his post-Oman evaluation to heart. Keep the shape, keep the ball and wait for a chance to counter.
Unlike against Oman, Qatar’s increasing desperation to find a goal only looked to make India’s shape even more compact. Whenever the hosts would advance with the ball, nine Indian outfielders would neatly arrange themselves into two walls — four midfielders forming an outer wall while another dropping into defence to form a five-man backline. That these two lines had little gap in between meant that whenever a Qatari attacker tried to knock the ball past the outer wall, someone behind was always there to clean up.
The Indian defenders also appeared to have quit their habit of hoofing the ball up and hoping gravity would make an exception. The last 15 minutes against Qatar saw at least five occasions of the defence taking two or more touches while playing the ball out of danger and attempting to feed it into the two main attacking outlets — Manvir Singh and Udanta Singh. And this meant that the third part of Stimac’s doctrine naturally followed. On no less than four occasions in the final quarter did Udanta find himself bearing down on the Qatar box. In one of those instances, his shot, which buzzed narrowly over, might even have found the net had he stumbled upon an ounce of precision.
This was no happy accident as Sahal Abdul Samad’s post-match comments revealed. “At the interval, the coach told us to come out and attack, and enjoy our football,” he said. “That motivated us further. We played it around, and stretched them while maintaining our shape throughout.”
So many of Stimac’s press conferences since taking over have been punctuated with the same message — the importance of playing out from the back.
In his inaugural match in the Thai King’s Cup, he even played wing-back Rahul Bheke in the centre, an attempt to have a defender there who is comfortable with carrying the ball out from the back. That backfired against Curacao of course, but you could see what the plan was, right from day one. That Stimac has managed to get his wards to implement that when it mattered, after less than six months in charge, is quite the achievement.