Mumbai City FC dropped their first points of the season against Atletico de Kolkata as a thrilling encounter – which comprised different tactical ideologies, lightning fast counter-attacks, a late equaliser and even a red card – ended in a 1-1 draw.
Mumbai City FC, who held the appalling record of having the worst defence in the league in the last two seasons, came into this match on the back of two consecutive clean sheets. Gerson Vieira, partnering Lucian Goian at the back, played an excellent defensive game shutting out the Atletico forwards for the better part of the match.
Alexandre Guimaraes' side were on the offensive right from the kick-off, pressing high up the field and pushing Atletico back into their own half. Diego Forlan's absence meant the onus rested on Matias Defederico to find a way through the Atletico defence. The Atletico backline, which had played extremely narrow by compressing space against the Kerala Blasters, crumbled under pressure from the Mumbai forwards.
As the likes of Leo Costa and Boithang Haokip broke the offside trap on numerous occasions within the first 20 minutes, it became apparent that the home side had a specific plan to exploit Atletico's vulnerabilities against pace. Debjit Majumder's uncharacteristic gaffes under the bar (while collecting high balls and coming off his line), combined with the visitors' inability to retain possession allowed Mumbai City FC to thoroughly dominate the first half of the match.
Defederico was at the heart of all the clear-cut chances Mumbai City had and put the hosts in the lead with a well-taken goal (preceded by an exquisite first touch) on the 27th minute. The home side could have scored two or three goals in the first half, but would go on to rue their poor finishing eventually.
Guimaraes' side adopted a fine balance between the traditional form of pressing and the infamous gegenpressing in the first quarter of the match – Halder, Vadocz and Sehnaj Singh compressed space in Atletico's half of the pitch while the Mumbai City fullbacks took the physically imposing route to force Iain Hume and Sameehg Doutie off the ball.
Mumbai City's strategy not only stifled space for Borja Fernandez to operate in, it also ensured Javi Lara did not get into threatening positions. As Lara and Hume continuously dropped deep to help out the Atletico pivot, Sena Ralte frustrated Doutie on the right flank by marking him out of the match - essentially isolating Juan Belencoso upfront.
Atletico's offensive abilities have often been criticised for its one-dimensional aspect and their showing in the first half did nothing to falsify that notion – for all of Hume's tenacity, Atletico lack creativity every time the Canadian striker starts in the number ten position. As was the case against Kerala Blasters in their last match, Atletico started dominating only after Molina moved Lara to a central position in the second half.
"It was a tactical switch. The first 45 minutes were not good. I was not happy with our performance. So we tried to change some things. We tried to play a different formation. I think we deserved the point," Molina told reporters after the match.
As the Mumbai City players got tired, the substitutions of Abinash Ruidas and Stephen Pearson at half-time buoyed Atletico de Kolkata – Pearson's physical presence in the centre of the park and Ruidas' pace on the left wing proving to be a game-changer. It was, however, a baffling decision on Molina's part to take off Hume and leaving Belencoso on the pitch, considering the Canadian's penchant for finding space in the opposition penalty area.
Pronay Halder's rash challenge on Borja, which led to his sending off, played into Atletico's hands as they probed for an equaliser. It came through Lara's stunning strike ten minutes after Halder's dismissal. He is arguably the only genuine playmaker in the Atletico squad and Molina must find a way to ensure the Spaniard influences matches right from the go.
Although Atletico came close to a late winner on a few occasions, with Doutie missing a sitter and Belencoso heading a couple of chances wide, both teams had to settle for a deserving draw. The 1-1 stalemate at the Mumbai Football Arena might not have affected the league standings, but it did throw up a number of tactical questions for all the Indian Super League sides to ponder upon and reaffirmed the fact that Mumbai City FC have at their disposal a squad which could very well win the competition.