Third. Second. Fourth. With a semifinal appearance in each and every Indian Super League season, Atletico de Kolkata is arguably the league’s most consistent club. Jose Molina inherited one of the strongest squads and while Atletico may not have been trailblazing in the ‘group stages’, the Sourav Ganguly-owned team has remained true to its identity over the course of the last fourteen matches.
Atletico began their campaign with a 2-2 draw against Chennaiyin FC at home, a match whose ethos has resonated through Atletico’s season time and again. Although Jose Molina’s men remained unbeaten for the longest time in the competition (five matches), only one win in the last seven matches is not an assuring statistic for the inaugural season’s champions.
This season, Atletico have drawn the most number of matches (eight) among all clubs – a record number in the brief history of the Indian Super League, breaking their own record of seven draws under Antonio Habas’ leadership in 2014.
Atletico suffered only two losses – an impressive return considering this season’s constant ups and downs when it comes to the points table. Jose Molina’s side came back from behind to draw or win a losing game on six different occasions and it is this tenacity which propelled them to the top four, in spite of a string of mediocre performances, especially at their home ground.
Atletico’s season started with an extremely direct approach on the offensive front – while Sameehg Doutie relied on his pace to find space behind the opponents’ defence, Javier Lara or Borja Fernandez used their extensive passing range to find Doutie with a long ball or diagonal pass across the field. Although effective, Atletico were soon worked out by opposition managers and goalscoring chances dried up.
That intermingled with a porous defence warranted a tactical switch from Jose Molina, with Sameehg Doutie’s injury proving to be a ‘blessing in disguise’. Atletico discovered a new sail in their winds as Helder Postiga returned from injury. A one-dimensional attack has given way for a more dynamic approach as the front quartet of Iain Hume, Abinash Ruidas, Helder Postiga and Javier Lara quickly settled into their new roles.
Ruidas’ pace and precision on the left flank is the perfect foil for Lara’s playmaking ability on the opposite wing. While the young Indian oscillates between taking on the opposition full-back and drawing him out, Lara’s natural tendency to drift into the inside channel allows Molina’s side to flummox the opposition by dismantling their defensive shape.
Postiga and Hume’s link-up play ensures Atletico can opt for a patient build-up as well as execute lightning-fast counter-attacking moves depending on their opponent. Hume and Postiga may have only seven goals and three assists between them, but it is their overall gameplay which helps orchestrate Atletico’s attacking manoeuvres. The strike duo’s movement off the shoulders of the opposition centre halves allows the likes of Stephen Pearson to make late runs into the 18-yard box, in turn providing Atletico with a multitude of goalscoring options.
Borja and Pearson’s central midfield partnership not only acts as an anchor for the Kolkata club, but their combined skillset guarantees Atletico are not only capable of soaking up pressure, but also astute in possession-based play. In Debjit Majumder, Atletico have a reliable custodian whose reflex saves have helped Atletico out of tricky situations. Although Majumder’s commanding of his box has come under fire in recent games, there is no denying the 28-year-old has been the best performer in Atletico’s defensive unit.
The fact that Jose Molina’s side are yet to peak this season hands them an advantage going into the knock-outs, for Atletico in full-throttle will be difficult to contain for even the in-form Mumbai City FC.
For a team filled with quality forwards, Atletico’s inability to find the back of the net has been astounding. Atletico are in the second position (behind Delhi Dynamos) when it comes to chances created (141 chances) and shots on target (68 shots), yet goals have eluded Jose Molina’s men at crucial junctures of play.
Atletico have whipped in 292 crosses into the box, 45 more than the next best FC Pune City – a testament to their modus operandi while going forward, yet the Kolkata-outfit’s struggles in the eighteen yard box has frustrated fans and pundits alike.
A lack of precision has been augmented by poor decision making on part of the forwards when it comes to finishing their chances. Jose Molina has remained adamant throughout the course of the group stage that Atletico’s performance should be adjudged on the basis of their creativity and not simply the result, but now that the competition has reached its business end, not converting their chances could create a problem as Atletico come up against a Mumbai City side which has kept the most clean sheets (eight) and conceded only eight goals in fourteen matches.
Defensive cohesion was a trademark of Atletico’s playing style under Antonio Habas, but individual errors due to lapses in concentration have led to Atletico conceding soft penalties and avoidable goals in the third edition of ISL. The gaffer has termed Atletico’s backline a “work in progress” but the Kolkata club has had to contend with constant chopping and changing of personnel for majority of the group stage – a competent back four of Pritam Kotal, Arnab Mondal, Tiri and Robert Lalthlamuana emerging only after eleven games had already been played.
Atletico have been relentless while chasing games, but their lack of ruthlessness in finishing off games has been exposed by almost every team this season – a trait which will worry Jose Molina ahead of a difficult knock-out tie.
Atletico de Kolkata will face a Mumbai City FC side brimming with confidence – a star-studded line-up which will be buoyed by the fact that they had outclassed Jose Molina’s men in both the matches this season.
As Massimo Lucchesi once said, the greatest displays of tactical systems by football clubs are those which are unpredictable, effective and adaptable. Atletico have all the ingredients to outplay any opposition on their day but it is the execution of their manager’s plans where they often come up short. Jose Molina’s men might have the quality, but it is their temperament which will be put to test in the semifinals.
Updated Date: Dec 10, 2016 10:30:58 IST