Intercontinental Cup 2019: Igor Stimac's experiment with tactics left India badly exposed against Tajikistan

Second minute of the match. India win the ball in the midfield.

A quick feint, shuffle and a release by Sahal Abdul Samad finds Mandar Rao Desai free in the left-wing. The left-back plays a first-time pass to Lallianzuala Chhangte who’s pace forces the Tajikistan defender into a careless lunge.

Penalty!

Sunil Chhetri steps up. Everyone watching collectively hold their breath. Three steps and an audacious dink over the keeper. The country’s all-time highest goalscorer adds to his tally.

India 1, Tajikistan 0. A Panenka to get the tournament started!

And somewhere in those moments, in a city not known in the football map, at a suave stadium that looked best suited in London, a new ideology had bloomed.

But, as the Indian team found out in the first Intercontinental Cup match against Tajikistan on Sunday, ideologies don’t win matches. Execution of it does. And while the Indian team huffed and puffed for most of the match after securing a two-goal lead, the Tajikistan players executed a game plan to precision to beat the Blue Tigers 4-2 and throw the tournament wide open.

Weak Possession

The first half was an exhibition of what Igor Stimac wanted to execute with his young Indian team. The passing was crisp, keeping hold of the ball possession was important, while ensuring the defensive shape was maintained. A young core of Indians, with former U-17 captain Amarjit Singh, Chennaiyin playmaker Anirudh Thapa and Kerala Blasters’ Sahal manning the midfield (average age of 20.33), India looked like a side in the advanced stages of a progression. There were certainly some flaws, especially in the defence where Narender Gahlot looked overwhelmed by his sudden progression into the national team at the expense of the re-called Anas Edathodika, who missed the match due to an injury.

 Intercontinental Cup 2019: Igor Stimacs experiment with tactics left India badly exposed against Tajikistan

Tajikistan players executed a game plan to precision to beat the Blue Tigers 4-2 and throw the tournament wide open. AIFF

But India’s opponents showed they had the ability to break open the hosts’ fragile defence, and did exactly that in the second half. While Tajikistan were superior physically, looking stronger and faster than their Indian counterparts, it will be the severe dip in India’s performance that will worry Stimac and his coaching staff. The Blue Tigers’ defence was in shambles with both full-backs being constantly drawn out of their positions and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu also having an off-colour day.

The Indians were weak, struggled to keep the possession of the ball, and when they did, found themselves passing sideways, struggling the get a breakthrough. Despite being similar attacking midfielders in nature, Sahal and Thapa were both fit into the team by Stimac to give the side an attacking edge but both midfielders struggled to get a stranglehold of the match, further highlighting the need for the Indian team to have the likes of Rowllin Borges (who was a late second half substitution) and Pronay Halder (injured) in the team.

Curious case of injuries

The result was just a part of the day’s surprises that started when the team sheets revealed the absence of Pronay Halder and Anas Edathodika from the squad, and Sandesh Jhingan’s name in the substitutes list. The word was that both the experienced players had picked up serious enough injuries to not even feature in the bench. They join a long list of absentees which includes Michael Soosairaj, and Jeje Lalpekhlua, while Ashique Kuruniyan and Anwar Ali haven’t still gained match fitness after recovering from their injuries.

So what is causing the players these injuries? It wouldn’t be entirely unwise to look at the league structure in India to identify the crisis. A 6-month long season for these few matches is hampering the physical development of India’s footballers who clearly struggled with a lower-ranked Tajikistan on Sunday. They were faster, stronger and more decisive than the Indians who looked weary and out of breath – an indication that all is not well when it comes to their health.

The injuries and the lack of depth in the centre-back position meant young Narender, who made 11 appearances for the Indian Arrows this season, was pushed into the starting XI where he clearly struggled to meet the demands.

An unusual bias?

How Narender Gahlot made to the starting XI despite there being better performing central defenders in both the leagues will be the question a lot of Indian football fans will be asking. Gaurav Bora, for example, played a huge role in the heart of the defence for his team Chennai City in the I-League this season while the likes of Rana Gharami, Sarthak Golui and Sahil Panwar will be feeling a little let down the coach’s selection of players.

Young Narender will have his glory days in the future but one needs to wonder if playing less than 900 minutes for an Arrows side that didn’t care if they won or lose is enough for a place in the national team. The same can be said about his club teammate Amarjit who looked a notch below his opponents in the midfield. The young Manipuri player could hardly shield his defence and will require further fine-tuning before being national team ready. Their selections will certainly raise eyebrows to the bias by AIFF for their own team despite Stimac publicly praising Amarjit’s worth ethic. Barring Jobby Justin and Indian Arrows players, there are no players in this Indian squad that are I-League, despite a good showing by clubs such as Chennai City FC, East Bengal, Churchill Brothers, and Real Kashmir.

India now have an uphill task in their hands with matches against better ranked Syria and North Korea coming their way. It looks like Stimac chose the wrong match to experiment his tactics while he will be hoping his first choice central defenders regain match fitness by 13th July.

Updated Date: Jul 08, 2019 09:07:48 IST