The first time is always the best time, isn't it? First love is a memory for a lifetime and so was the case for ATK with Spanish coach Antonio Habas who led the Kolkata side to their maiden title in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014. But Habas has successfully managed to top the first season memories with an even more satisfying result in the 2019-20 season with another title win. If the first title win under the Spaniard was fantastic, the second has been even more significant. Yes, it's another title win but this one has come in a league far more superior and competitive to the 2014 season.
More teams, more matches, and more quality is what makes ISL 2019-20 not only tougher than the inaugural season but it's probably the best we've had in the young history of the competition. Marquee players headlined the first few seasons of the league but teams have now moved on to better quality athletes, who are in their prime as compared to big names who were nothing but spent force. Roy Krishna, Hugo Boumous, Nerijus Valskis are few stars that dazzled at the stage with their supreme quality.
The standard of Indian players has also gone up with time, they have become better technically, a result of which could be seen in the progress the Indian international side has been making. Teams like FC Goa, Bengaluru FC have a philosophy in place for a few years now. The 2019-20 title fight was going to be the toughest. ATK, who won two titles in the first three seasons, knew the challenge ahead and after two dismal seasons from 2017 to 2019, it was time ring in the changes.
Habas' return and crucial transfers
Jose Molina proved to be Habas' perfect successor as ATK captured the ISL trophy in 2016 but his departure left big shoes to fill in. Ashley Westwood, Teddy Sheringham and Steve Coppell all tried their best but it seemed like Kolkata have a special affection for the Spanish flavour. After two subdued seasons, ATK turned back toward their favourite — Habas. A popular figure among the fans, the 62-year-old coach's return galvanised the club towards preparing for the historic third title.
"The magic word in football is (to achieve) balance. The idea is to score goals and not concede any — this is balance. My principal goal is to build a competitive team, both in the attack and defence," Habas had said at the start of the season. And his recruitment showed the search for balance.
The coach was quick to make the decisions in the transfer market backed by the wealth of RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group. Wellington Phoenix striker Roy Krishna who won the golden boot award in Australia's A-League for 2018-19 season was the biggest addition to the squad. Yes, goals win you matches but football is a team sport and important additions were also made in other departments.
— Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) March 14, 2020
Defender Agus Garcia was rock solid till he got injured earlier this year, midfielder Javi Hernandez would go on to become the fulcrum of the midfield and score two goals in the final against Chennaiyin FC. Indian additions like Michael Soosairaj and brother Regin have also been a major influence on ATK's title march. Other important acquisitions included David Williams, Salam Ranjan, Sehnaj Singh, Anas Edathodika, Dheeraj Moirangthem. A lot of these newcomers became regular starters and a major force behind ATK's title win. In fact, five out of 11 players who started in the final were all new additions to the side.
Rarely do we see players adapting quickly in their first season but it wasn't the case with ATK players as they struck the chord immediately. So crucially the time gap between the player joining and delivering was drastically reduced. The success was achieved via a brand of football that had 'balance' in the truest sense. ATK may not have been the highest-scoring side of the season and didn't boast the meanest defence in the league, but they were second on both those metrics.
It was 'total football' in Habas' style. ATK were not about Individual spark and brilliance, but about a cohesive unit that helped out each other on the pitch. Habas' 2014 title win was built on counter-attacking football with the team relying on single-goal margins and a spate of draws to reach the final. The trophy was also clinched with a 1-0 win over Kerala Blasters in the final. But the 2019-20 season saw ATK implementing a more fluid system with a touch of pragmatism. They constantly switched between 3-5-2, 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 formations depending upon the requirement. Prabir Das and converted fullback Soosairaj wreaked havoc on the flanks as they kept switching between defender and midfielder roles. Regin and Jayesh Rane provided solidity in the midfield while Agus, John Johnson, Sumit Rathi and Pritam Kotal were rock solid as defenders, making it almost impossible for the opposition strikers to score.
.@RoyKrishna21 reveals how the entire @ATKFC squad put in the efforts from day 1 and also pays tribute to @agus_g_85 and @anasedathodika.#HeroISLFinal #HeroISL #LetsFootball pic.twitter.com/Ju21jcyAGS — Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) March 14, 2020
"Their defence was very well organised. They never allowed the opposition players to get inside and even if they did cut in inside they were stopped from getting in front of the face of the goal. The crowding of the defence, man marking was absolutely perfect. And once they got the ball, Krishna made a big difference. He just slipped past defenders from under their nose. They constantly kept changing the system from 3-5-2, 5-3-2 or 5-4-1," former India international Henry Menezes told Firstpost.
When they had the ball, skipper Krishna proved to be the biggest threat as he finished the season with 15 goals (joint-highest in the league) and six assists. But the Fijian striker was well assisted by players like Williams and Edu Garcia. Williams showed his versatility in the second leg of the semi-final against Bengaluru when he constantly dropped deep to help his players make moves and finished the match with two goals as ATK made a comeback to reach the final.
"ATK had a fantastic striker — Roy Krishna. That was a big advantage because he's a proper poacher. While it's was predictable for opponents that Krishna was the main focal point in attack, they played intelligent football as well and had other goal scorers in their ranks. It's the setup that served the team well with fullbacks, midfielders taking responsibility while attacking and defending," added Menezes.
The hand of Habas
Making the best players and plans work is one thing but to beat the might of Goa or Bengaluru immediately after making a return with a host of new players is a challenge insurmountable for many. But credit must go to Habas for installing the belief among his players, for inculcating the winning mentality. The man who took Bolivia to the final of Copa America in 1997 knows a thing or two about bringing the best out of his players and he looked in his prime in 2019-20 season. One of his biggest strengths this season was developing multiple match-winners instead of relying on individuals.
"We were thinking Goa will probably win the title but flair is one thing and peaking at an important time is another and Kolkata did that. They somehow always found the way to win," said Menezes.
Habas has been guilty of being volatile on the touchline on numerous occasions which later translates into it impacting his team as well. However, what we saw in this edition was a more matured version. The passion was the same but it was blended with positive energy.
"Habas is a good leader. We know about his passion, we have seen that on the touchline. He's not your typical goody-goody coach. And he knew everything about the system, league. So that definitely had an impact on his players," Menezes pointed out.
With the win over Chennaiyin in the final, ATK became the first ISL side to win the title thrice. Habas proved that second could be better than first and the charismatic leader achieved it with his meticulous planning and perfect execution as his love affair with ATK continues.
Updated Date: Mar 16, 2020 12:51:47 IST