As was expected, the Asian Cup has turned out to be an eye-opener for India. But not in a way many had imagined. If one were to go by pre-tournament predictions, India should have gotten their calculators out by now to work out the math that would tell them what exactly they needed to do to survive the group stage, going into their last match against Bahrain on Monday.
The skepticism wasn’t without any reason. Indian football, after all, has been surviving on hope for quite some time. The defenders hoped the strikers would create something out of those dreary balls hoofed up the field. The forwards prayed that the back line wouldn’t hesitate in throwing their bodies between the goal, if it meant they could steal a point. The midfielders, always shy on the ball, simply hoped they weren’t called into action.
The fans, meanwhile, pinned their hopes on the opponents to play poorly for India to stand a chance. Like many did before the Asian Cup by coming up with several best-case scenarios for India to finish among the four best third-placed teams after the group stage, which would’ve allowed them to sneak through to the last 16. It was presumed the Asian Cup would be an extension of this minnow mindset - or inferiority complex, depending on how you look at it.
After all, India could qualify only because the number of teams were increased from 16 to 24. But after two matches, India has turned out to be a revelation of this 24-team tournament, surprising most by playing fast-paced attacking football, even if in patches, combined with stubborn defending, which allowed them to stand their ground against UAE and Thailand, teams far superior technically than them. With an average age of 25, India are the second youngest team at the Cup after Vietnam. It’s fitting that the three youngest players of the squad have been integral to India’s resurgence.
Udanta Singh’s explosive pace on the wings, Anirudh Thapa’s creativity in the centre and Ashique Kuruniyan’s work-rate have taken the focus off Sunil Chhetri, who continues to be the glue that holds them together. The quartet wrecked havoc in the second half against Thailand and first period versus UAE, backed ably by Pronay Halder and Halicharan Narzary, who do the non-glamorous stuff like retrieving the ball and spreading the play. "Each of these guys know clearly what to do off the ball and with it. The collective game idea in the last 180 minutes has been impressive… it’s been a good team to watch," says Richard Hood, the former player development head of the All India Football Federation.
What has changed about India
Over the last 18 months, India had clawed their way up the world rankings thanks largely to a strong, stable defence. It made the team, in coach Stephen Constantine's words, 'tough to beat', as they sat back and soaked up the pressure without showing much creativity going forward. But it seems to have dawned upon if they want to be taken seriously, merely playing to not lose won't suffice. The sudden change in mindset is refreshing. At the Asian Cup, India have pressed their opponents relentlessly and drawn errors, displayed the confidence to go one-on-one and, by and large, shown the willingness to play proper football, instead of merely thumping the ball forward without much of a plan, like they did earlier. That they could play this way against two very different opponents - Thailand are quick while UAE are more physical - shows the potential of this young side, which has an average of 25.
It’s a view shared by Tom Byer, one of Asia’s most respected youth development coaches, who recently called India the ‘most interesting’ team to follow at the Asian Cup. A lot of it is owing to the directness of India’s play. Alberto Zaccheroni, UAE’s Italian coach, too said that his side ‘struggled with the pace of the Indian team’.
That zip in the attack is provided by Udanta, 22, and Ashique, 21, the two quickest players in the team. Udanta is the Duracell bunny who can run up and down the flanks all night. But unlike before, the timing and accuracy of his crosses make him a bigger threat. In both matches, India have looked most dangerous when he has been in his zone. Ashique, who has played up front, has stretched the defence horizontally, dragging defenders with them and opening just enough space for his teammates to get into goal-scoring positions. Udanta and Ashique’s quick-footedness has been matched by Thapa’s quick thinking. At 20, he is the youngest member of the squad. But his decision making under pressure and the awareness of what’s happening around him belie his age. Thapa has made most key passes (passes that lead to assists for attempts on goal) - 5 - and has the highest passing rate among the midfielders. He has been able to spot the runs made by his teammates, and looked dangerous from set-pieces.
Hood, who has overseen the growth of several players in this team - including Udanta - through his time at the AIFF and as the coach of the Tata Football Academy, says this combination is in contrast to the conservative approach adopted earlier. "We have genuine pace going forward, with Udanta on the wing and Ashique up front. They aren’t adopting a cautionary approach, here you have these guys facing play and looking for the passes," he says.
The freedom with which Udanta and Ashique have ventured forward has given Chhetri the space to drop back when situation demands and conjure up moves-like the beautifully-weighted pass to Udanta, who played it back for Thapa to score India’s third goal against Thailand, or the through ball to Ashique against UAE, which was well saved by the goalkeeper.
The only time India have relied on the long ball for attacks is when Gurpreet Singh Sandhu takes his goal-kick. Sandhu has launched the ball forward like a missile and have almost always travelled the distance, finding the Indian forward in the rival box. One such goal-kick almost led to a goal against UAE, but Chhetri’s shot went centimeters wide of the upright.
Through his four years, Constantine has received a lot of flak for his team selection and style. But at the Asian Cup, he has got both spot on-the second place in Pool A is a testimony to that. There are some deficiencies, of course. But India go into their final group game against Bahrain with their fate in their own hands-a point should practically be enough for them to enter the round of 16. For a team that has often relied on their opponents-along with several other permutations and combinations-this is a new territory to be in.