The origin of football in India can be traced back to mid nineteenth century, when British soldiers and sailors introduced the game. While we have rarely been completely up to date with prevalent tactics of modern football, Indian football has gone through its fair share of tactical revolutions. In this series, we will make an effort to track down the tactical evolution of Indian football.

1) Early Era – Profiling three great 2-3-5 teams

2) First Revolution under Syed Abdul Rahim

3) The Tactical Innovations of P.K Banerjee, Amal Dutta and Syed Nayeemuddin

4) Modern Era – New Generation of Indian Coaches and Foreign Managers


PK, Amal Dutta and Sayeed Nayeemuddin shaped Indian football in 70s, 80s and 90s. While Nayeem came into coaching much later, the other two were involved in the same job for over four decades. PK and Nayeem were both star players during their playing days. Amal Dutta, while talented didn’t enjoy the same level of success. However, as coach he excelled introducing new systems in Indian football.

Amal Dutta

Any discussion about tactics in Indian football will be incomplete without Amal Dutta. Eccentric, loud mouth and controversial Dutta is a headline maker. Amal Dutta gave up a full time job to earn a coaching degree from English FA. Despite struggling financially he emerged as the first ever-professional coach in Indian football. In sync with international football, Dutta would make it a point to watch world cup films to gauge changing tactics. He also learnt from the best – having played as a player under the legendary Bagha Som and then Rahim saab. He learnt from Walter Winterbottom in England. His first big job with East Bengal didn’t yield positive results as he was soon fired. His first success came in Sanotsh Trophy and National Games in 1968 when Orissa played some magnificent football. Mohun Bagan next season employed him. It was in Bagan that Dutta’s first tactical innovation would take place – 4-2-4 with overlapping fullbacks.

football formations

Mohun Bagan 3-1 East Bengal (IFA Shield Final, 1969) Bhawani Roy and Pranab Ganguly created havoc with their interlinking play in Amal Dutta’s 4-2-4

Despite Rahim trying out the 4-2-4 for Indian national team, the clubs still utilized the 3-2-5 system. Amal Dutta was the first person to change this. Initially, Sailen Manna opposed him when he tried to use the 4-2-4. Manna, an ace fullback during his time, didn’t like the idea of defenders moving up to assist strikers. Dutta showed Manna clips of Feola’s Brazil team to convince the latter about his tactic. He was helped by a fleet footed Bhawani Roy who played as rightback. Roy’s overlaps were unprecedented in Indian football back then – it was a time when defenders only defended. Left-back Altaf didn’t go on frequent overlaps but left-half Syed Nayeemuddin did that job.

Mohun Bagan’s right flank was extremely strong with the speedy Roy linking up with crafty Pranab Ganguly. Centre-back Chandreshwar Prasad was a rock at the back and would easily make up for having one less man in defence when Roy went on overlaps. Inside-forwards Habib and Sukalyan Ghosh Dastidar complemented each other perfectly. Habib was the constant threat with his movement and Ghosh Dastidar was the man who could hit long rangers. Under this system Bagan won the Shield-League double as other teams began copying his system. Dutta would also show a negative side of his character later – his inability to sustain success. By end of 1970 he had been sacked by Bagan after poor showings.

After getting success with both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, Amal Dutta would return as the technical director of Indian National Team in 1988, with Nayeem as coach, and make his second innovation – the 4-4-2. He deployed ball-winning midfielder Sudeep Chatterjee in the heart of midfield and used Babu Mani as winger. Amit Bhadra played the role of an overlapping fullback and would launch crosses at physically strong center forward Kuljit Singh. The performance of Indian team in this new system was mixed. While they did well in SAFF Cup, the team suffered badly in Nehru Cup.

Amal Dutta’s third major innovation was the 3-2-3-2 Diamond System in 1997. Dutta’s Diamond System led to one of the most memorable duels of tactics in Indian football.

Amal Dutta was an innovator but he was also too much of a purist. He can be accused to often over-emphasise on the system rather than its adaptability with players. This has led to Dutta lose jobs in big clubs often. Curiously he somehow delivers with the small clubs too.

PK Banerjee

Success in Indian football is synonymous with PK Banerjee. With 66 goals for India in international football, PK was one of the most accomplished players of his generation. He played club football for smaller teams but did capture a memorable Calcutta Football League crown with Eastern Railways. After leaving football in 1967, PK earned his coaching degree under Dietmar Krammer. In 1970, East Bengal’s golden era would start with PK as its charioteer. Using the same 4-2-4 system started by Amal Dutta, PK would perfect its usage in Indian football. A famed man manager, PK knew how to motivate his players and he always got the best out of them.

Indian National team’s last notable performance in International level also came under PK’s tutelage. In 1970 Asian Games India clinched the bronze medal by defeating Japan. Technically it was a silver medal as two teams shared the gold medal. In East Bengal and India, Subhash Bhowmik and Sudhir Karmakar played crucial roles. Bhowmik was often referred as a “Bulldozer” during his peak years. Playing as a right-winger Bhowmik combined lethal pace with bludgeoning strength. He would also cut in from the flanks and surprise opponent goalkeeper with thumping shots.

Right-back Karmakar was an exceptional match reader and smooth on the tackle. His man marking of Japanese superstar Kamamoto in Asian Games ’70 has gone down into folklore. For Indian National team, Karmakar partenered the classy Nayeemuddin and energetic Altaf. Shyam Thapa was another crucial figure in most of PK’s teams. Possessing a lethal turn and poacher’s instinct, Thapa became one of the best strikers in India during 70s. Mohammad Habib, part of the 1970 India team, was renowned for his work-rate and indomitable spirit. According the Chatterjee, Habib was the most dangerous striker he had ever played against.

football formationsfootball formations

PK’s 4-2-4. Left: East Bengal 5-0 Mohun Bagan (IFA Shield Final, 1975). Right: Indian National Team in 1970 Asian Games. Notice the importance of Subhas Bhowmik in both systems

A lethal winger during his playing days, PK’s system also focused heavily on wing-play as well as playing a strong central defensive midfielder. In East Bengal, Surajit Sengputa with his delicate dribbling skills formed a perfect foil for the juggernaut Bhowmik on opposite wing. Goutam Sarkar, one of the most feared tacklers in Indian football in 70s, acted as a defensive shield in the two man central midfield.

PK was also the first manager in India who utilized the 4-3-3 system in early 80s. Few years later, Serbian Ciric Milovan would first use the same system for India National Team with considerable success. He also fielded a 4-5-1 system in East Bengal’s famous win of Pyong Yong Club 1973 IFA Shield final. PK was the pragmatic coach who would always role out systems, which suited his footballers most, unlike Dutta. As coach of Mohun Bagan, PK once fielded the 5-4-1 formation against Ararat Club of USSR. Sudhir Karmakar was used as a sweeper to close down pacy Russian forwards. Adaptibility had always been one of PK’s stronger points.

PK vs Amal Dutta : Battle Royale

Since both coaches were contemporary, Indian football has seen several PK-Amal clashes in last few decades. What made these clashes more interesting was the sharp contrast between two coaches. Pragmatic PK vs Purist Amal. PK, a coach who loved working with superstars vs Dutta, who abhorred stars and preferred young, unknown players. PK, a defensive coach vs Dutta, who was mostly attacking. PK, the coach who has never coached outside East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and India vs Dutta, a man who has coached every team irrespective of its stature. The most famous PK-Amal Dutta clash happened in July 1997. A record 131,000 spectator lined up in Yuva Bharati Krirangan to watch PK coached East Bengal take on Dutta’s Mohun Bagan in Federation Cup semi-final.

Amal Dutta had introduced the 3-2-3-2 Diamond System that season. The three back system was ultra attacking and Mohun Bagan would often have seven players in opponent half. Young Debjit Ghosh was used a defensive screen while Basudeb Mandal played the role of a deep lying playmaker. Amit Das played just behind Cheema Okerie while Abdul Khaleq started on the wings – drifting in as the match progressed. Bagan had pulverised Churchill Brothers, three time Goan Champions, 6-0 using that system in quarterfinal.

PK fielded a 4-4-2 to counter Dutta’s system. He changed his regular fullbacks, ageing Ilias Pasha and inexperienced Falguni Dutta, to play Dulal Biswas and Amitabh Chanda, in order to exploit lack of width of Dutta’s system. Samuel Omolo was given the job to man-mark Cheema while Nousad Musah took turns to mark Cheema and Khaleq. Nazimul Haq played a withdrawn role with Baichung as lone striker. Imposing Nigerian ‘keeper Agende was played to nullify Cheema’s aerial dominance.

The match was added extra colour thanks to Dutta’s characteristic pot shots. He called Omolo “omelette” and Baichung “chung chung”. Wily PK used these to motivate his players.

football formations

Mohun Bagan 1-4 East Bengal (Federation Cup, 1997). Baichung with his lethal pace made runs behind Mohun Bagan’s high back-line, breaking the offside trap.

As expected Mohun Bagan started the match in blitzing pace, earning seven corners in first 25 minutes. Led by Omolo, East Bengal defence withstood these attacks as Bagan players gradually tired after playing in high tempo under a blazing sun. Baichung’s role as lone striker confused the three-back system of Bagan as they left Nazimul unmarked. Nazimul scored first goal of the match as East Bengal went 1-0 up at half time. PK took advantage of Bagan’s high line of defence as he advised Soso to aim his long passes and through balls towards Baichung who was making runs behind Bagan’s defence. In the end, Baichung scored two of his three goals outrunning Bagan defenders as East Bengal registered a 4-1 win.

PK with his practical approach had stumped Dutta’s Diamond system.

Sayeed Nayeemuddin

Nayeem was the first coach in Indian football who took a holistic scientific approach. A successful and popular player during his playing days, Nayeem is one of the most educated coached in Indian football history. He started his coaching career in early 80s and took over from Amal Dutta as coach of national team in late 80s. During 1990s he would find success in East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. His focus on player fitness, their diets and daily routines was a first in Indian football. Nayeem popularised the 4-4-2 in Indian club football when he used the system successfully in East Bengal in early 90s. East Bengal won a host of titles under him with Cheema-Kuljit Singh as striker duo with rejuvenated Krishanu Dey spraying passes from midfield.

Sadly, Nayeem has gradually turned into one of the most misunderstood coaches in Indian football. His over-emphasize on discipline has often led to player rebellions in the clubs he coached in new century.

Some of the players who were crucial under these three coaches would take up the mantle from them in new century.

Sources: “Stories from Indian Football” by Jaydeep Basu. “Goal-less” by Boria Mazumdar and Kaushik Bandopadhyay. “East Bengal-Mohun Bagan Reshareshi” by Manas Chakravarty. Old articles in Khela Magazine and other newspapers. This excellent article by Novy Kapadia.