Intercontinental Cup: India disappoint against DPR Korea but best is yet to come for Igor Stimac

For managers with a definite football philosophy, ‘process’ is often a keyword. The way the word or the concept is received by fans, media and experts alike often depends on the results and performances of the team.

Pep Guardiola’s football process is considered the soul of his success at Manchester City in the last two years, but the same word ‘process’ often irritated Manchester United fans when then manager Louis van Gaal referred to it over and over again while explaining his philosophy to the media. The Red Devils were quite laborious under the Dutchman and enjoyed little success.

Process is a word that you’d find in several of Igor Stimac’s statements since becoming the head coach of the Indian football team. He, like many managers that stress on this term, is trying to instill a different football philosophy in his team.

The Croatians’ methods though came under criticism after India fell to a 2-5 defeat at against DPR Korea in the Intercontinental Cup, just days after losing their opening game 2-4 to Tajikistan.

India’s defence endured another evening to forget as the relentless North Korean forwards ran riot with their pace and movement. Their work rate in denying the Indian defence an outlet to pass the ball forward was also a fundamental element of their success.

Wholesome changes

Despite facing a must-win situation, Stimac made nine changes to the eleven, with only captain Sunil Chhetri and central midfielder Amarjit Singh retaining their places.

Pritam Kotal was restored in the right-back role, Sandesh Jhingan returned in the centre-back position after recovering from his injury with Subhasish Bose partnering him. Jerry Lalrinzuala slotted in at left-back.

In midfield, the Croatian went with a double pivot of Amarjit and Rowlin Borges behind a trio of Brandon Fernandes, Chhetri and Manvir Singh who’s primarily a striker.

Jobby Justin who made his first full start as a national team player led the attack.

The highly changed personnel meant there was little chemistry among the ranks and India chased shadows for most parts of the first half that ended with a 3-0 scoreline in the visitors’ favour.

Too many changes, too frequently? A section of Indian fans felt so. However, perspective must prevail. The Croatian was only in his fourth game in-charge as manager of the team and there are no big prizes to be won at the Intercontinental Cup.

Although hosted by India, it’s strictly a preparatory tournament as how pre-season is for the big football clubs in Europe. In those games, managers often change the entire team at half time as the primary focus is to give players the necessary minutes under their belts.

“We use these games as friendly games so we can find out everything about all candidates and choose the team for the (World Cup) qualifiers. I can’t look at the score now. I need to look at the score for India in the future and not now,” Stimac said after the game.

One would argue that the coach spends a lot of time looking at players on the training ground, but it’s the performances during a competitive match that tells him much more about the players at his disposal.

The game against DPR Korea would have gone a long way in helping Stimac identify the players he can trust, and thus the rotations were successful.

“I don’t want to name any players, it’s not my way of dealing with things. I will keep that in the dressing room but you can’t hide the truth. The evidence is there. When I added new players on the pitch, we started playing, started taking responsibility and started creating chances. We were dangerous in front of goal,” the 51-year-old stated.

Defensive structure not to the mark

India have conceded 11 goals in the four games under Stimac. A lack of defensive organisation which forms a very basis of any competitive team has been a recurring problem for the Croatian apart from the game against Thailand when India went a goal up early and the coach decided to sit back and protect it.

The solitary clean sheet under his regime was in that game against Thailand when India defended in their comfort zone: deep inside their own box.

However, in other games, Stimac has urged his team to play with a high back line and put the onus of building up the play on his defenders and goalkeeper. This is where Indian players struggle as most of the current generation of players weren’t trained to play that way from an early age.

That’s where Stimac’s preference for young footballers like Narender Gahlot stems from. The 18-year-old is more comfortable with the ball at his feet and can help the team beat the opponent team’s press.

A team like DPR Korea who is full of running is an even tougher opponent to execute Stimac’s style against. Their pressing is instant and relentless. A lot of big teams in modern-day football use their goalkeepers as a potent tool to beat the press. However, Amrinder Singh who’s not a first-choice goalkeeper, struggled with the ball at his feet and almost gave away a couple of goals while trying to clear it. So on Saturday, the Koreans were able to suffocate the Indians.

The problem of defensive dis-organisation is faced by many teams even at the highest level when they are trying to adopt a different playing philosophy. Maurizio Sarri, considered one of the greatest tacticians in modern-day football, had openly stated last year that his Chelsea side will struggle defensively for 2-3 months before getting used to his style of defending.

Even Guardiola needed a season to get his Manchester City players to defend as a unit and the same applied for Jurgen Klopp who needed to sign a certain Virgil van Dijk to shore up his defence after three years as manager of Liverpool.

Much closer in our own backyard, Sergio Lobera needed one and a half seasons to have the desired defensive stability at FC Goa who have been playing a unique brand of attacking football hitherto unseen on the Indian football stage.

Thus with Stimac, just four games into his tenure, expecting him to get India ready to defend in an organised manner in his system, is asking for a bit too much.

As stated by Stimac, he may tweak or alter his approach to suit his players when the results matter, but tournaments like the Intercontinental Cup are his playground and he’s right to deprioritise results and focus solely on preparation.

A manager often earns his bread by the substitutions he makes during matches, and the Croatian earned full marks on that front on Saturday. His side have shown great quality in patches in the four games of his reign and on Saturday they also gave a glimpse of their powers of recovery. So amidst this dark hour in terms of results, there’s evidence that the best is yet to come for Igor Stimac.

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