Unfortunate Similarity Between The National Team And Young Indian Arrows: A Tactical Mistake

Is the current Indian tactic of playing long-ball or crosses from the wings good enough to get the national team into top 100 of world football?

This must be the 1st question which pops into the heads of many Indian football fans whenever they see  the Indian national team play. Yes, it might occasionally work against teams that are not physically intimidating, such as a few South-East Asian teams, but  one can never bank on it as a winning formula. If we play with the same tactic against any American, African, or European team, even for that matter, middle eastern(western) Asian teams, we are bound to lose the plot as they are generally (if not genetically) better built than us, and that is half battle won in long-ball tactics. Their height and physical advantage over us is huge. While most of our strikers are around 6 feet, the average defenders from those countries are about 6’5’’, giving them a clear advantage in winning aerial battles. If one compares our team with South-East Asian teams, those teams are much more agile, swift and technically better than us, thus anticipating our 2nd ball runs and cutting supplies to our attack isn’t that challenging for them.

What’s done is done, our senior team players have played that way all their professional life, so one can understand their inability to mold their game; however, I was really surprised, rather shocked, when I saw Indian Arrows, the Indian under-19 team – the future of Indian football – playing in the same way.

For those who haven’t seen the young boys play, below is the way the team generally plays –

  • Keeper takes the goal-kick, striker 1 jumps and tries to win the 1st ball, striker 2 tries to anticipate the flick and win the ball, then pass either back to striker 1, who is running towards the goal, or pass it to a wide player, who will cross into the box. Now the end result is, either the ball is out of play or the attack is cut off by the opponent team, sooner rather than later.
  • When the opponents are attacking, our midfield tries to press and win the ball back. If successful, a midfielder passes it onto a wide player, and thereafter, the end part of first scenario is repeated. If the midfield fails, the defenders try to win the ball, if successful, again the first scenario repeats itself.

That’s it, that’s how we play. Even a novice, who hasn’t taken mandatory FIFA coaching exams, can think of ways to nullify the whole attacking intent of Indian team. There’s something tactically wrong with our approach. Their play is so one dimensional that within minutes one can figure out who will pass to whom and how the flow of the game would be.

Is there anyone else who feels the midfield is underutilized? The style of Indian football seems to defy the basic  purpose of midfielders on the football ground. Isn’t the tactics similar to what the senior Indian team has been unsuccessfully deploying over the years? We have miserably failed while implementing it. In the four live internationals that I have seen (3 senior, 1  u-23 Olympic qualifier) and one Indian Arrow match, I could not find even a single instance wherein our central midfielders tried to pass the ball around, looking for an opening for our strikers to exploit. After witnessing same old football for more than a decade, it’s like we can’t just cross that phase tactically. Even with the evident failure of the approach, we just don’t want to abandon it and are  also developing future players to play with the same mind set.

There are a lot of things lacking in our youngsters playing for Indian Arrows presently. Narrowing down specifically to  the two young strikers of Indian Arrows, Je Je and Fella, it’s just not understandable why the manager doesn’t see that these two are not tall players; yes they have a good built to hold the ball, but expecting them to win headers all the time against tall defenders, is unreasonable. Even some of the Indian defenders won’t allow them to win the first aerial ball, something which is a vital clog in the tactics of Indian Arrows team. It would be better if they concentrate on developing their instinct to find gaps in the opposition defense and utilizing it. Our young midfielders have a lot to learn about ball distribution and tackling; they seriously don’t know how to do these two things. Our central defense is decent and the defenders have a good understanding of the game, although they occasionally lose their concentration and thereby their shape. Also, the young full-backs currently playing for Indian Arrows are underutilized and too defensive in their mind set – they are too scared to join in the attack and thus rarely go beyond the half line.

Talent is there, no doubt, what the players need is a guide, a mentor who can direct them to the right track. With the IMG-RIL deal, AIFF now has enough financial backing to afford a high-profile coach to materialize the dream. The Indian football fans can hope that AIFF finds a manager or a coach, who can develop these young kids with  enormous potential into world class players, thus making the Indian dream of playing in the FIFA World Cup come true.

~ Amit Bhat