FIFA World Cup Qualifiers: India’s surprise defeat lies on coach Stimac, but he can still turn things around

India were stunned by Afghanistan on Tuesday, losing 2-1 at home in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. The immediate reaction was shock, anger, disappointment, even going so far as to call for the dismissal of coach Igor Stimac.

Twenty-four hours later, the dust has settled, has the atmosphere changed? Are things as bad as they seem, or can India head into their crucial matches in June with the form and confidence they showed last summer? ESPN’s Sunaadh Sagar and Anirudh Menon discuss key issues from both sides of the story.

What’s the problem now?

AM: Well, even if we keep the eye test aside (considering how sore those eyes would be after 180 minutes of Afghanistan vs India), the numbers are grim. After the heady success of a now-forgotten summer, India won once in 13 matches. They have not scored a goal from open play for 631 minutes, with Sunil Chhetri’s penalty last Tuesday being the only goal in that span.

Before the start of the Asian Cup, Stimac had said that the continental competition would be seen as a springboard to prepare for the remaining World Cup qualifiers. Coming out with one point out of a possible six against the supposed minnows of the group, Afghanistan, is not a good idea.

But is it so serious?

SS: No. The numbers are overwhelming, of course. But in low-level matches in Asian football, the margins are minimal – the FIFA rankings are a misnomer. Afghanistan may be ranked 158th in the world and there has been a lot of talk about not having any first-choice starters, but the drop in starting XI against India wasn’t too high. Only four players (goalkeeper and three defenders) were present in the squads that beat India 2-1 and lost 0-4 to Kuwait. Not to mention Ashley Westwood’s ability to get a result as an underdog. India’s defeat is certainly a bad result, but it is not the real disaster it appears to be. This Afghan team can get a result against Kuwait in June.

As for India, most reactions to performance have been results-based. Over two matches, India created great chances to score and win both matches. In another universe, Manvir Singh is hailed as a hero for winning three matches for India, instead of one.

AM: Yes. To me, calling them “golden” chances is pushing things. There may have been one or two good ones, but the majority were half chances. And it is instructive to see how the best of these chances was created: when India kept the pass short in the final third and played it down the ground. These are the tactics that won Stimac and his team many plaudits last year, and they’ve been bafflingly abandoned in favor of good old send-him-into-the-wings-and-do-it enter”. As good as Sunil Chhetri is in the air, there’s only so much he can do when he has to compete in the air against much bigger center backs. Stimac had the formula for success with the players at his disposal, why was it changed?

Besides, you could have said this criticism was made after two strange results, but the goal drought behind that speaks to a larger problem.

SS: Disconcerting abandon seems inaccurate, especially since Stimac himself wasn’t very happy with what his players were doing. The regression to the good old wing game is happening because players are choosing the safe option. Playing in the middle – the style that helped India win three trophies last year was born from a scenario where the stars aligned for India. The team chosen by Stimac was in good form, the level of competition was not high and the established teams were in sync with each other. It was clearly evident that the on-field combinations against Afghanistan were not as fluid – so opting for a high-risk central style of play would have left Afghanistan’s midfielders floating (with a European and Asian pedigree , might I add) going wild.

As for Chhetri, he took the two Afghan defenders with him (Westwood obviously aware of his heading abilities), and the spaces were there for Manvir and Vikram to attack. Stimac can hardly be blamed for the fact that professional strikers are unable to head the ball into the net from a few yards out.

AM: As for players choosing the safe option, if you put players in positions where they are not the best – say a Zuala Chhangte on the left wing – that is obviously what they will do. But the most important point is hidden by a phrase in this answer: “chosen team”.

Where is the flexibility?

AM: While it is understandable for a manager to choose a team based on the players they have previously worked with and are comfortable with, sometimes this goes against the best interests of the team. I believe this is one of those times: Jeakson Singh isn’t starting for his club yet as he slowly returns from injury, but can he start for the country? Chhangte has always done his best on the right, but has the complexion of the team changed to accommodate an out-of-form Manvir Singh?

To say that Indian football lacks depth in these times is inaccurate (especially for wide forwards and central midfielders) and the team could surely have benefited from someone like Parthib Gogoi, an in-form player who brings the confidence essential to the configuration of the team. It’s the kind of intangible that automatically transfers onto the field and is reflected in tangible form, as we saw last summer.

An example of how this affected the team is the replacement of Anirudh Thapa: normally this would have been a good decision, but what Stimac did not seem to take into consideration was that Thapa experienced his worst domestic season so far and was benched by his club. Wouldn’t it have been better if Stimac had a fit midfielder to call on off the bench?

SS: Let’s say Stimac had picked Parthib and started him in a crucial FIFA WCQ – wouldn’t we envision this scenario where he threw an inexperienced youngster to the wolves? The ideal time to recruit new youngsters is during friendlies, which due to the international calendar and the ineptitude of the AIFF, Stimac did not have the opportunity to do so. There’s also the complexity of the practicalities of integrating new players into the team – camaraderie issues, not knowing training routines, on-field relationships being non-existent, etc. Chhetri made a similar argument before the Asian Games – Narender Gahlot did not. knowing the races he does.

Substituting Thapa is somewhere where Stimac made a mistake – but I also think he was caught off guard by the lack of impact from his replacements. For all his faults, he seems perhaps too loyal to his charges, and that could be one place he could improve.

AM: That’s exactly what he tried with Vikram Pratap Singh and no one blames him for the call. On the contrary, they want to see more. What we saw was the same selection of players appearing year after year, regardless of their performance. Sure, reward the most consistent, but if players feel like their mistakes won’t be penalized, wouldn’t that encourage a bit of complacency? Incentivizing players not to make the kind of stupid mistakes that lead to goal concessions is just as important as showing players that you are loyal to them. And this comes as every player has to fight every minute, not only for a place in the XI, but also in the team itself.

International football is a tough job, but none of it is something Stimac doesn’t know or has ever experienced before. This makes his job harder to integrate new players into the team, but that shouldn’t mean he doesn’t do it.

But what is done is done. What is Stimac doing now?

AM: Especially considering the importance of June’s qualifier against Kuwait…

SS: For starters, he would need fewer catchy headlines before the match. His bravado before the matches in Afghanistan put pressure on his players and facilitated Westwood’s pre-match discussions. It may be too late for Stimac to change his tune, but maybe this time he would be better off speaking after defeating Kuwait.

As for on-field matters, Stimac will get his long-awaited longer camp, and he’ll just have to go back to what worked in 2023. He beat Kuwait, he’s already overseen winning, complex football — that doesn’t does not exceed it. Still, it will be a high-pressure environment and it will be at loggerheads – if he keeps things simple and doesn’t overcomplicate things in a bid to make his point – India will qualify for the third round FIFA World Cup qualifiers. .

And then he can absolutely leave with his head held high.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *