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In new role as Indian football team coach, Igor Stimac faces challenge of resetting methods from square one

The 1987 Yugoslav team that won the Under-20 World Cup in Chile is considered to be the finest team to have done so. Robert Prosinecki provided the dead-eye through balls while Davor Suker and Predrag Mijatovic slotted them in for fun.

In defence, the team had players capable of playing the ball out from the back. The likes of Robert Jarni, Branko Brnovic and Igor Stimac made themselves indispensable.

After the break-up of the country into smaller constituents, many of the team would feature for Croatia in their third-place finish at France 1998, including Stimac, who formed a formidable partnership with Slaven Bilic at the heart of defence.

Stimac, who played in Spain and England during a 17-year-long top flight career, looks set to become the next coach of the Indian football team, following the recommendations of the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) Technical Committee.

 In new role as Indian football team coach, Igor Stimac faces challenge of resetting methods from square one

Igor Stimac will take charge of the Blue Tigers just as another World Cup cycle starts. AFP

The 51-year-old Croat looks to have secured the post ahead of the likes of other competitors such as Hakan Ericson, Lee Min-Sung and former Bengaluru FC head coach Albert Roca.

Stephen Constantine, who resigned after India’s 1-0 loss to Bahrain at the Asian Cup, had an ageing squad to phase out and a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign ensured that new faces would be inducted.

Former Derby County defender Stimac will also take charge just as another World Cup cycle starts and will not have as significant a re-building job as his predecessor but will have to deal with the burden of heightened expectations after India’s first victory at the Asian Cup in 55 years.

Dressing room disharmony became a constant feature of Constantine’s final days in charge and Stimac will have it easier if rumoured dissatisfactions were only limited to the coach and not factions within the team.

Roca’s success at Bengaluru FC meant that many of the players and federation officials viewed him as the number one choice to take over and while rarely has an Indian coach had unanimous backing, dealing with those that wanted the Spaniard in charge may prove to be trickier than expected for Stimac.

Neither Stimac nor Roca had unqualified success at the international level. While the former lost three of his last four World Cup qualifiers with the Croatian national team after taking over from Slaven Bilic, Roca’s El Salvador were defeated in 11 of their 20 matches.

A criticism of Stimac’s was a tendency to use a skewed formation whilst in charge of his home country, leading to an unbalanced midfield. Ivan Rakitic, a natural fit in the centre of midfield, was pushed out wide while Luka Modric was left with much of the heavy lifting to do in the centre of the park.

It took current Bayern coach Niko Kovac to recognise the team’s biggest strength and instill the two-playmaker midfield, which culminated in a run to the World Cup final in Russia and a Ballon D’Or win for Modric.

Stimac’s record at other clubs hardly screams inspiration but a tactical study of his time at Croatia distinguishes him as a gambler, a coach not afraid to take big calls but failing to identify the weaknesses within his own team. Fans of Derby County, where he is a legend, seemed less than enthused with reports of Stimac taking over the club.

While Constantine was lampooned for his conservativeness and his safety-first tactics, it was only natural that the Englishman play that way with the talent at his disposal. Constantine’s predecessor, Wim Koevermans, had tried to adopt an expansive philosophy, one that fell flat on its feet at the first sign of a challenge as the Dutchman’s tenure ended in ignominy with India at its lowest in the Fifa rankings — 173.

Croatia, under Stimac, were still able to finish in a play-off spot from their World Cup qualifying group but the former Hajduk Split man’s bullish tactical roulette, if implemented here, could spell trouble for both him and the team.

Reports indicated that Stimac had a list of 36 players in mind and displayed in-depth knowledge of the team and the local leagues, the Indian Super League and the I-League. The Croat, nevertheless, will have several problem areas to address before India face Curacao in their Kings Cup opener on 5 June.

Anas Edathodika’s retirement means that Sandesh Jhingan will partner Subhasish Bose at the heart of defence. With more Indian clubs preferring two foreign centre-backs, the lack of depth in that position remains a glaring one.

The problem for Stimac and India is that Bose is also the best candidate for the left-back slot, one that will have to filled up by Jerry Lalrinzuala, Narayan Das or a third contender.

Lalrinzuala is young, pacy and attacking-minded but is prone to the occasional error in defence while Das is more solid, unspectacular and prefers to sit deep.

Constantine also publicly spoke about the lack of quality forwards and the team’s over-reliance on Sunil Chhetri. With the Bengaluru skipper turning 35 in August, there seem to be few indicators that finishers better than him will crop up anytime soon.

Jobby Justin’s move to ATK and a new head coach could put him in the spotlight but both him and other pretenders to Chhetri’s throne have had just that — one good season — and nothing more. Jeje Lalpekhlua’s legs seem to have deserted him and the likes of Manvir Singh, Sumeet Passi and Farukh Chowdhary are irregular at club level.

Team set-up aside, it remains to be seen if Stimac is handed a loftier target than his predecessor. Those — keeping the team in the top 16 in Asia and qualifying for the next Asian Cup — will be justified given the team’s quality and standard currently. Anything more and those expectations may be perceived as unrealistic.

With Shanmugham Venkatesh set to continue as assistant coach, Stimac’s understanding of Indian culture and the team may be made easier but the task that he will have and one that other foreign coaches have failed at — to adopt a philosophy and make sure the team sticks with it — will be the biggest one.

Lazy tropes of Balkan doggedness aside, the constant shifting of systems and styles of play has impeded the progress of the national team and one that even the great Milovan Ciric, considered to be India’s shrewdest tactician in the last 50 years, also failed to implement and cement beyond his reign.

It is not just Stimac, but any incoming coach who will be faced with this challenge. Resetting methods from square one, in the absence of a defined set-up, will be Stimac’s first task.

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Updated Date: May 15, 2019 13:29:27 IST