With 85 minutes gone on the clock Sony Norde received the ball on left wing, then cut back before finding himself just outside the box with a clear sight of goal. Seconds after he unleashed a rasping shot, the modest Barasat stadium became a cauldron of noise as Mohun Bagan fans roared with mirth with Subrata Pal’s net bulging. At 3-1, this game was effectively over and Mohun Bagan had finished half their campaign with a clear lead at the top, without losing a single game. When the club made an ignominious exit from Federation Cup few months back, even the most passionate fans couldn’t have predicted such an incredible turnaround. For a lot of Mohun Bagan fans the I-League era mostly brings nightmarish memories, be it relegation struggle or insipid football. And one man who deserves maximum credit for making these fans dream again is the current coach Sanjay Sen. Sena s tactical acumen should be lauded and Mohun Bagan has played a very flexible game till now.
Mohun Bagan usually lineup with a 4-2-3-1 formation and this formation is significantly modified when Bagan go on the offensive. Of the back four Bello Rassaq is usually an ever present starter while when available, Pritam Kotal stakes a claim to right back. Kingshuk Debnath has started frequently along with Rassaq with Anwar Ali playing as a backup. Souvik Ghosh’s long term injury has automatically made Dhanachandra Singh the first choice left back. The two man midfield usually acts as a defensive screen & has seen two among Denson Devadas, Souvik Chakraborty, Bikramjit Singh and Shehnaz Singh start in most games.
The most vital component of this Mohun Bagan side, though, is the triumvirate of foreigners as attacking midfielders. Katsumi Yusa and Sony Norde start on the right & left wing respectively with veteran Pierre Boya in center. Balwant Singh, Mohun Bagan’s top scorer in I-league till now, plays as the lone striker.
When Mohun Bagan attack, the 4-2-3-1 formation turns into a 4-2-1-1-2 formation. Sony Norde who is a naturally attacking minded player cuts back from the left-wing, almost playing as a second striker with Balwant Singh. Katsumi Yusa, who starts on the right wing, takes a slightly different role. Instead of joining to strikers, Katsumi has been given a free role, which allows him to roam in the gaps between defenders. From time to time Katsumi also moves towards the right wing and when the opponent full-back tires, Katsumi tries to exploit the wings more and can operate as a more conventional winger. Blessed with pace and fitness, both Norde and Katsumi can also switch flanks during attacks, confusing their markers and pulling them out of position.
The role of Balwant Singh is also significantly important. Balwant doesna t possess a whole lot of flair or natural talent but having played as a winger for a while in his career he covers up his deficiencies with hard work. Off the ball, Balwant frequently tries to exploit the gap which often exists between two central defenders. The Punjabi striker is physically strong and does bulk of the pressing among Mohun Bagana s attackers. Balwanta s dynamic style of play was clearly missed when Mohun Bagan played against Salgaocar in their last match. Jeje Lalpekhlua seemed out of sync with rest of the foreigners and failed to act as the tip of Bagan attack like Balwant. As a result, for almost an hour Mohun Bagana s build-up plays seemed to happen without any focal point.
The most vital part of this Mohun Bagan team, though, is the veteran Cameroonian international Pierre Boya. The former Partizan Belgrade player struggled initially with his lack of pace bieng a major problem. Boyaa s impact was maximized when Sanjay Sen took the reins. Instead of playing him as a striker, Sen deployed Boya in a position which can perhaps be best described by a uniquely Italian term of a trequartistaa . Dropping deeper, Boya plays in the space between opponent defence and that of central midfield. By simple analogy, Boya is the centre upon which Katsumi, Norde and Balwant act as spokes of a wheel. The Cameroonian has solid technique and a game sense honed in Europe. By playing a withdrawn role Boyaa s main target is to look out for the runs made by Katsumi and Norde and connecting with them with little one-twos and triangles. This isna t an easy role to perform a Marcos Perreira, the Brazilian who played in Vasco and Mohun Bagan is a primary example of a player in similar role. Boyaa s ability to control the pace of the game is also important and this has resulted in the Mohun Bagan midfield rarely getting over-run in I-League. Boyaa s impeccable sense of space and ability to see the larger picture during interplays makes him difficult to mark, if the opponent midfielders try to do it then there will be a gap between opponenta s midfield and strikers and if the defenders do it then it creates more space for Sony, Balwant and Katsumi.
Boyaa s finishing though, has a lot of scope for improvement. With an ordinary goal tally of 55 goals in 208 games he was never likely to be a 20 goal a season striker and credit must be given to Sen to use Boyaa s strongest points to the cause of the team.
At 31, Pierre Boya is not likely to have enough fitness to continue for 90 minutes. Given how important Boyaa s role is, it was extremely necessary for Sanjay Sen to use midfielders who can cover the Cameroonian. So far, this role has been played to perfection by Shehnaz Singh, Bikramjit Singh and Souvik Chakraborty. With an average age of 23, these three are energetic and usually do a lot of snatching in midfield. Bikramjit Singh can slip in a great pass at times but otherwise the central midfielders most important work is to protect the defence and initially sweep up opponent attacks. Veteran Denson Devadas has also chipped in with good performances. With the central midfield mainly relying on work rate and hustle, Lalkamal Bhowmik, who despite having a terrific array of passes has never been an energetic or physical player, has found himself on the sidelines.
Mohun Bagana s central defence usually plays a very limited and conventional role. Recruited in middle of the season, veteran Bello Rassaqa s leadership has solidified the Bagan defence. Between full-backs, Pritam Kotal is more adventurous and has usually times his overlaps properly. Kotala s link-up play with Katsumi has also developed with time and Mohun Bagana s right wing is one of the most fluid in I-League. The story is a bit different on left side, though. Dhanachandra Singh hasna t yet hit form and at times, his gap with Sony Norde becomes too large, making Boya to shift slightly towards the left side. The left-back remains one of the major weak points in Mohun Bagan and Dhanachandra would need to find his a Aa game before Mohun Bagan face of the wing dependent teams like Royal Wahingdoh or Bengaluru FC in Bangalore.
Sanjay Sen has so far done a wonderful job in Mohun Bagan. He has kept a low profile and mixed it with controlled aggression. Sen had a modest career as a player and worked his way up the coaching ladder. This has made him pragmatic and he rarely makes egoistic comments in media, a common problem with a lot of coaches who were stars as players. He has molded Mohun Bagan into a team and the Green & Maroons no longer play the hopeful game of incessant long balls being pumped at the likes of Odafa Okolie. He is also a result oriented coach and doesna t necessarily go into games looking to outplay opponents. He has shown flexibility to tweak his tactics when needed. A good example of this was the Kolkata derby. Initially deploying Norde in a deeper position to cover inexperienced Sukhen Dey, Sen was forced to watch a first half where East Bengal seemed to run away with the game, only to be repelled time after time by a superb Debjit Majumdar. However, with East Bengal wingers tiring and Dey slowly finding his feet, Sen chose to push Norde up, eventually taking complete control of that wing. One criticism of Sanjay Sen will be his reluctance to make enough subs during the match, which has seen Bagan play some highly nerve wrecking second halves.
Whether Mohun Bagan will end their long and agonizing wait for a trophy remains to be seen. Regardless, Sanjay Sena s efforts till now should be enough to tie him down at the club for coming seasons.