4-3-3 : Mourinho’s solution to his Manchester blues?

Like most things in life, football formations have a history of going in cycles. And if yesterday’s match against Arsenal is anything to go by, Jose Mourinho has found his answer to Manchester United’s recent troubles, in two teams that dominated the last two decades of English football — his own Chelsea squad that won consecutive Premier League titles in 2004-06 and Sir Alex Fergusson’s Manchester United of 2006-09.

The Portguese manager started the match with a 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3) formation, opting to not go with his much-preferred 4-2-3-1. The formation had a fluid front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial (later Wayne Rooney) and Juan Mata, constantly interchanging their positions, very similar to Sir Alex’s front-three of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez (sometimes Park Ji-sung). In the midfield, he had Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba occupying a more advanced role while Michael Carrick sat back protecting the defence, reminiscent to Mourinho’s Chelsea team with Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele.

The dynamic front three

Sir Alex perhaps used the front three to best utilise the forwards in his team. Neither Rooney nor Tevez were the traditional ‘big’ strikers and were instead forwards who relied on quick-feet and pace to score their goals. Ronaldo, who started as a winger in a 4-4-2 system, was also showing tendencies to cut inside from the flanks and score goals. All three forwards were highly versatile, with the ability to play in the flanks and most importantly, happy to track back, allowing Ferguson to play a very dynamic front-three, constantly drawing the defenders out of their positions.

Mourinho’s decision, though, could have been borne out of circumstances. Even though he has a big forward in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the striker’s ability has considerably waned since their one season together at Inter Milan (where Mourinho played the 4-3-3 and Ibrahimovic scored 25 goals). The team also lacks quality wingers who can feed the strikers. Mourinho has already tried Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the wide positions but all have shown a tendency to cut inside and move towards the centre. In his Inter Milan team, Mourinho had the luxury of having full-backs Maxwell and Maicon aiding the attacks, but barring occasional performances from Antonio Valencia, none of Manchester United’s full-backs have lived upto Mourinho’s expectation.

At Chelsea, he did not have the same quality in full-backs (William Gallas/ Wayne Bridge/ Paulo Ferreira) but had natural wingers in Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Damien Duff.  That meant his full-backs could sit back and concentrate more on the defence.

Addressing Pogba concerns

The pressure on the wingers had also been compounded by Mourinho’s insistence on playing a 4-2-3-1 formation until now. The tactics require the wingers to be disciplined, helping out in defence, while also being a major force in attack – something the likes of Eden Hazard and Cristiano Ronaldo found hard. By playing a 4-3-3, Mourinho has eased the pressure on his attackers, the extra central midfielder tracking back to support the defence.

Mourinho’s shift to 4-3-3 or a 4-1-2-3, similar to what he used during his first stint at Chelsea, is also a bid to get the best out the World’s most expensive player. Pogba has failed in his roles as number 10 or as a part of the two-man midfield pivot in the 4-2-3-1 formation. Though Pogba has the vision and the athleticism to thrive in the role, he has often struggled with the extra defensive responsibilities put on him.

This was highlighted at the EURO 2016 when Pogba failed to partner N’Golo Kante to good effect. Didier Deschamps had to then bring in Moussa Sissoko to add balance in the midfield. This could also be down to Pogba’s years in Juventus where he developed into a world-class footballer. The team used to play a midfield duo of Aturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio (who replaced Andrea Pirlo in the role) alongside Pogba, both defensively sound technically-gifted players, which gave him the license to roam box-to-box.

The new formation also allows Manchester United’s best outfield player of this season — Ander Herrera — to have a greater impact. The Spaniard has shone brightly whenever he has been given the role of the more attacking-minded midfielder in the double-pivot of a 4-2-3-1. But he has to do the bulk of the defensive duties when he partners Pogba in the role, which stifles his attacking-side.

Mourinho, has therefore inverted the midfield pyramid in the last few matches to bring some much-wanted stability (the late goal conceded against Arsenal certainly a blot in an otherwise dominant performance).

To be fair, Mourinho did try playing the formation after his team’s derby loss against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. But against Watford, he had the wrong players required to execute the 4-3-3 to perfection. He had Rooney team-up with Pogba, while Fellaini guarded the defence. The Belgian, though physically strong and great in the air, isn’t a natural defensive midfielder and was found wanting in so many instances. By replacing Fellaini and Rooney with Herrera and Carrick, Mourinho has decoded a formation that best suits his current line-up of players.

A draw against Arsenal isn’t something that would please Mourinho, but his team dominated the Gunners yesterday, and was perhaps a tad unlucky to not to have earned all three points.

Mourinho is a manager who gets things done his way, so it remains to be seen whether he will persist with the 4-3-3 formation in the long-run. But for now, he seems to have found a solution to United’s early season problems.

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Sandesh Jhingan: ‘I am who I was three years ago’

The referee had blown the final whistle, but the drama had not ended at the Marina Arena. An altercation between Kervens Belfort of Kerala Blasters and a few Chennaiyin FC defenders had begun. Both teams converged on one side of the ground, with Chennaiyin FC manager Marco Materazzi leading the confrontation. Yet, on the other side a defender was seen thanking the Gods for yet another clean sheet — it was no easy task keeping a star-studded Chennai team at bay — while maintaining a safe distance from the trouble brewing at the other end that saw even the Chennaiyin FC team owner, Abhishek Bachchan, joining in.

THIS INTERVIEW FIRST CAME ON SPORTSTAR

It is perhaps this ability — to keep a calm head in difficult circumstances — that has made Sandesh Jhingan the mainstay of the Indian national team and the Kerala Blasters defence. They say passion, panache and perseverance are the characteristics that define a good footballer, and the 23-year-old defender has all that and more.

Sandesh Jhingan of Kerala Blasters always has a calm head on his shoulders.   –M. VEDHAN

“I am who I was three years ago,” Jhingan said when asked about his celebrity status after playing in the Indian Super League. This best defines the player who takes his National coach Stephen Constantine’s directives on maintaining discipline on and off the field as his life’s mantra.

The versatile defender, who can play in any position in the back-line, has been one of the rising stars of Indian football ever since the advent of the ISL in 2014. Sportstar recently caught up with India’s next generation star.

Question: After a shaky start to its 2016 League campaign, Kerala Blasters has managed a string of good results…

Answer: I don’t think we had a shaky start to the season. Yes, we did not get the results we wanted, but we were gaining momentum and playing a good brand of football. We will take it one game at a time and are confident of going ahead.

How has it been playing with Aaron Hughes under the guidance of Steve Coppell? How has it improved your game?

I’ve been very lucky since I turned pro. I have worked under many good coaches and played along with good players. Aaron Hughes is a top player. He had just played in the EURO and it’s great for me to learn from him and Steve (Coppell). I hope to be a better player for Blasters and the national side.

You have played as a right-back before. Are you okay with occupying that position to accommodate Aaron Hughes and Cedric Hengbart in the team?

I just want to help the team. I am comfortable playing as a full-back. I have played as a left-back in the I-League for Sporting (Goa) and my aim is to help the team in whatever way possible. I have tremendous support from the coaching staff as well. They have constantly been helping me improve.

Chandigarh is not a football hub like Goa or Kolkata, yet Punjab has a history of producing good footballers. Tell us how you started playing football. Was it always your choice of sport?

It was my elder brother Saurabh who introduced me to football. One day he brought a tennis ball home and we started kicking it around in the veranda of our house. It was nothing serious. We then played in the streets and I enjoyed it a lot. I played for the school — to miss my classes mostly — and then the St. Stephen’s Football Academy came along. They wanted me to play for them. I played with them in the Manchester (United Premier) Cup and we reached the South East Asian finals.

That was the time I got serious about football. I got to know about the junior national team and wanted to make it to the squad. I played for the India Under-16 team and then was fast-tracked into the Under-19 team. But then, I suffered a very serious knee injury. I recovered from it, trained for two weeks and then broke my ankle. I was out for one year, and that was when I almost quit football. I was just 17 and these two injuries shook me. But my brothers and parents helped me in my recovery, and I continued playing. Thereafter, I never looked back. I am glad that I suffered those injuries because they made me who I am today.

Tell us about your early exposure to football. Did local clubs such as JCT play any role?

Initially, like most others, I started watching football on TV. It was my brother who took interest and showed me the Premier League. Even today, we talk a lot on football. I started enjoying the games but once I started playing for the junior teams, I started following our national team under coach Bob Houghton. The national team’s victories in events such as the Nehru Cup really inspired me and I wanted to be in the squad some day.

Were you interested in any other sport?

I have played different games. I was good in hockey and athletics, but once I got into football, I concentrated more on it.

You are now part of a new Indian team that is looking to make it big at the international level. Tell us what it means to be part of this team and what coach Stephen Constantine has brought to Indian football?

I’m honoured to be told that I’m part of the future of Indian football. I am excited to be part of this project. Stephen (Constantine) is a great motivator. His speeches prior the games give you goosebumps and they certainly help bring out the best in you. He has brought in discipline — on and off the field. It’s been a great experience playing for him so far. We did have some bad results early on, especially the game against Guam. But that is part of football, and we have come back strongly. You can see that we have improved a lot and now we are winning by big margins. I think we are in the right path but it is important to sustain the momentum and keep believing in ourselves.

What does the team need to do to improve its ranking? Do you think we should play more friendly matches with higher-ranked teams because we play mostly against South Asian opposition, who are ranked lower than we are?

Firstly, I’m not a big fan of rankings. I’m always looking to play in big tournaments. Of course, playing friendlies is a part of the process, especially against tough opponents. A lot of things have been said about the Indian football calendar, and how it hinders the team’s progress. So, we should look at how we can improve the scheduling of the national football games. We need to play tough opponents and learn from them. Our goal should be to feature more in the Asian tournaments. The World Cup is the dream destination, but we need to be realistic with our goals as well. We need to first show our dominance in Asia and then use that momentum to achieve greater things.

Kerala Blasters’ coach Steve Coppell. Sandesh Jhingan has tremendous respect for Steve.   –ISL/SPORTZPICS

One of the biggest criticisms of ISL has been its inability to unearth talent. You are clearly a product of the ISL, earning a place in the Indian team following your performance for Kerala Blasters in Season One. Do you think the criticism is unfair?

All the leagues are here essentially to improve the football in the country. We can’t say if it was the ISL or the I-League that spotted a talent, considering most of us play in both leagues. If we go by numbers, India was ranked 170 when the ISL started and now it is 131. So, we have improved. If you look at the back-line there is me, Pritam (Kotal) and Narayan (Das) who are all 23-24 (years old). We were 20 when the ISL started, so it was a good platform for us to shine. Even though Eugeneson (Lyngdoh) was in the limelight playing for Bengaluru FC, you can’t say his stint with FC Pune City hasn’t helped him improve. Look at Jeje, he had a slump prior to the ISL, and then Chennaiyin helped him improve. Mandar (Rao Desai) is another example.

There is a lot of hype around AIFF’s proposed 3-tier league. What do you make of it and what will it do to a professional football player in India?

I will not comment much on this because I haven’t really read much. I’m sure there are people who are wiser than me who will take the decision. Ultimately, it should benefit Indian football and footballers.

But will a longer league help?

Of course, yes! It definitely will help the players. The ISL is good but it is physically demanding. I played the ISL, national team matches and the I-League last year and finally had to miss the SAFF Cup because I picked up an ankle injury. The season is really hard on us players, so having a longer league will give us more time to recover and play better.

What about employment? Isn’t it better to stay at one club through the year than searching for clubs midway through the season?

I’ve been lucky that way and I have not had a lot of difficulty finding clubs. But yes, finding a club can be an issue for footballers, there is no denying that. It is a dicey issue because you have two clubs talking over a player, but that is football.

How does it feel to be recognised as a star? How has the ISL changed Sandesh Jhingan?

I am who I was three years ago (before the ISL started). I have not let the popularity affect me and I’m a firm believer that nothing should change who you are. So, I don’t let these things affect me.

What about commercial deals? Have you signed any?

I have an ongoing deal with Puma. That’s it. There is nothing else.

Are you happy with the exposure you are getting here in India? Will you be open to moving abroad like Gurpreet Singh Sandhu?

Let’s not forget Aditi Chauhan as well, who had exceptional success in England. And yes, why not? Most of us Indian footballers harbour this hope of one day playing in a big league in Europe. I know it isn’t easy, but it isn’t entirely unachievable either. I am working towards it.

Have clubs approached you?

After the first ISL, we had a couple of interesting offers for trials. But it didn’t work out mostly due to their transfer window shutting and not really coinciding with ours. Last year, there was nothing concrete, so this year I don’t know. I will wait for the ISL to get over and then discuss my future with the agent.

India is hosting the Under-17 World Cup in October 2017. How do you think it will impact Indian football?

I wish I were under-17 (laughs). It is a massive opportunity for the lads and they have a very good coach in Nicolai (Adam). They will get to play against really good teams in such a big tournament. The way forward for Indian football, or for any other country, is to have a strong base of young talent and the World Cup is an ideal platform to develop a pool of players. We have done a remarkable job of shaping these guys, getting them to play a lot of tournaments and developing them. But we have to ensure they remain at the same level even after the World Cup. The tournament should be a catalyst for developing more footballers.

With the event scheduled for the month of October, what do you think will happen to the ISL?

(Laughs) That you will have to ask Ms. Ambani and Mr. Praful Patel.

ISL: Clinical Chennaiyin FC outwits FC Pune City

Goals from strikers Jeje Lalpekhlua and Davide Succi either side of the half-time helped Chennai beat Antonio Habas’s FC Pune City and halt its five-game winless run in the Indian Super League.

Chennaiyin FC had struggled to finish off matches after dominating games recently, much to the unhappiness of manager Marco Materazzi, but there were no hiccups today, as the home side produced a clinical performance to slingshot itself back into the race for a play-off berth.

READ: Chennaiyin ‘excited’ to break winless streak

Concerned with his team’s leaking defence (Chennai had conceded 7 goals in its previous two outings), coach Materazzi started with a 4-4- 2 formation; Kerala-born Zakeer Mundampara finding a place in the side at the expense of Siam Hanghal. Captain Bernard Mendy went back to the defence after his stint in the midfield against Kerala with marquee signing John Arne Riise once again failing to earn a starting place.

Antonio Habas stuck to his favoured formation of 3-5-2 formation. Bengaluru FC star Eugeneson Lyngdoh once again started on the bench with coach opting to play Dramane Traore and Anibal Rodriguez as the strikers.

Pune started the game brightly with a second minute free-kick by Jonatan Lucca causing confusion in the Chennaiyin defence. In the eighth minute, striker Jeje combined well with Augusto with some neat interchange of passes but the final ball to Succi was miss-timed and caught the striker in an off-side position.

Chennai was playing a 4-2-2-2 while in possession – Zakeer and Blasi sitting back protecting the defence while Mulder and Augusto aided the attack. The formation, although quite narrow, helped Chennai out-man Pune in the central midfield. Augusto won the possession of the ball in the 21st minute but his run to the edge of the box ended in an anti-climax with the midfielder scuffing the finish.

The problem with playing two strikers up-front is that eventually it becomes a game of long-balls. The game saw 34 crosses being played by both the sides. While Pune opted to put these in from the flanks, Chennai had a more direct approach with all its midfielders and defenders trying to set Succi and Jeje free whenever they got possession. At times, the match looked like the ongoing World Chess Championship, with two strategists trying to outsmart the other.

Zakeer played two dangerous crosses near the 40 th minute but Pune defenders somehow averted the danger. AIFF academy graduate Jerry then found Jeje with a pin-point cross from the left in the 43rd minute which the Indian striker knocked down for Succi. But the Italian striker couldn’t get enough power on his shot.

The trio combined again in the 44th minute to open the scoring for Chennai. Augusto played a pass to Mulder, who found Jerry free on the left wing. The left-back then sent in a dangerous cross which was knocked into the path of Jeje by Succi. The Mizoram-born striker showed great composure to head the ball into the corner to give the home side the lead at half-time.

Manager Materazzi had expressed his dissatisfaction in his side’s inability to kill the games in the pre-match press conference, best example being the reverse fixture which ended 1-1, but the side didn’t waste any time in building its lead this time around.

After surviving some early pressure from Pune – ‘keeper Karanjit Singh pulling off a stunning to save to stop Jonatan Lucca’s deflected effort from outside the box – Chennai turned the attack on its opposition. Augusto found Succi with an accurate cross from the right wing and the Italian striker used his tall frame to climb on the pass and head it into the top corner to give Chennai a two goal lead in the 52nd minute.

Habas brought in Lyngdoh and La Masia product Jesus Tato in a bid to make a come-back but the forwards had little effect on the game with the former struggling in his role as a slightly withdrawn midfielder on the right-wing – his tendencies to venture into the centre (where he plays for Bengaluru FC) causing some confusion for his Pune teammates.

Chennai players controlled the match, playing the game to a tempo that suited them. Such was their dominance that coach Materazzi could afford to give Augusto a breather by substituting him for Riise in the 83rd minute.

The win puts Chennaiyin firmly back in the race for a top-four finish (fifth in the table, tied on points with fourth placed Atletico de Kolkata) while FC Pune City will have to start fresh again after its two-match winning run came to a halt.

ISL number-crunching: Four talking points

With the Indian Super League (ISL) entering the second half of its three-month-long season, we look at four major talking points and the statistics behind them.

WHERE ARE THE GOALS?

One of the founding ideas behind ISL, apart from providing a platform for Indian footballers to shine at the highest level, was to also make the game more attractive for the audience. Matches are hence played at 7 p.m. every night, unlike the I-League where a lot of games are still played in daylight, enabling even the office-goers to watch the matches on TV or at the ground.

But the football has been anything but attractive this season. Only 59 goals have been scored in the 32 matches that have been played so far. At the exact same stage last year, 81 goals had been scored and one can’t help but wonder why the goals have dried up.

While the players and managers think it is due to the quality on the ISL going up, there is no denying that the league is suffering from a dearth of quality strikers such as Stiven Mendoza. His replacement, Italian striker David Succi (one goal), has found life difficult in the ISL.

The other teams have found it tough as well. Apart from Delhi Dynamos’ Marcelinho (five goals, four assists) and NorthEast United’s Emiliano Alfaro (five goals), none of the top strikers have lived up to their expectations. Mumbai City FC’s Diego Forlan (two goals, one assist) has shown glimpses of his best but is yet to deliver big time.

ATK’s Iain Hume (three goals) has scored all from penalty kicks while Helder Postiga (one goal, one assist) is having yet another injury-marred season.

Returning international strikers — FC Goa’s Reinaldo (zero goals), Kerala Blasters’ Michael Chopra (one goal) and NorthEast United’s Nicolas Velez (zero goals, one assist) — have failed to hit the ground running as well.

STRUGGLING MARQUEES

READ: Marquee player ratings

Kerala Blasters coach Steve Coppell had an explanation for signing Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes as his team’s marquee signing — he wanted a marquee player who can contribute and be a part of the playing XI and not just another fading star. His words have been prophetic.

Hughes has played a major role in Blasters having the best defensive record (conceded just six in eight matches), while other marquee signings have failed to live up to their billing.

Chennaiyin FC’s John Arne Riise and ATK’s Helder Postiga have both been injured for most part of the season. FC Goa’s Lucio has been woeful in defence (11 goals have been conceded by Goa so far) while Mumbai’s Diego Forlan has struggled to keep pace and has been outshone by fellow-South American Matias Defederico. Delhi Dynamos’ Florent Malouda (one assist) is beginning to find the rhythm while FC Pune City’s Mohamed Sissoko (one goal) and NorthEast United’s Didier Zokora have been reliable as defensive midfielders.

IS HOME AN ADVANTAGE?

They say fans are like the 12th man on the field. The advantage hasn’t certainly been a factor in this season for most teams in ISL, though. Only FC Pune City and NorthEast United have got more points at home than playing away. Pune has five points from six matches at home while the side got four points from the two matches it played at an away stadium.

TEAM

Home Points

Away Points

Mumbai City FC

4

11

Kerala Blasters

4

5

FC Goa

0

7

Delhi Dynamos

6

7

FC Pune City

5

4

Chennaiyin FC

5

5

NorthEast United

6

4

Atletico Kolkata

5

7

A week ago Hume said he was disappointed with the fan turn-out for ATK’s home matches. But similar excuses cannot be given by teams such as Kerala Blasters and FC Goa, who continue to get tremendous support at their stadiums.

KERALA AND GOA AT THE BOTTOM FOR A REASON

Goals win you matches. Clean-sheets ensure you don’t lose matches. But it’s a combination of both that is essential in winning a league, something bottom-dwellers FC Goa and Kerala Blasters (both former finalists) are struggling to adopt.

FC Goa has conceded 11 goals so far while Kerala has scored only four in its eight matches. Lucio has looked out of pace while Gregory Arnolin has also struggled to replicate last season’s stunning form.

While Kerala boasts of the best defensive record, it has certainly struggled up front with Michael Chopra and Mohammaed Rafi unable to find the net. The team has had only 19 shots on target (second lowest is Chennai with 27). Returning Bengaluru FC midfielder C. K. Vineeth will bring some dynamism up front but is tough to see how Kerala can turn things around in the second half of the season.

Josue: ‘I-league clubs have shown interest in me’

Kerala Blasters’ Josue Currais defies everything you imagine about a foreign player plying his trade in the Indian football leagues. At 23, the Spanish midfielder is only entering the best stages of his playing career and, unlike the veterans who come to the country for one final bout before hanging up their boots, ‘Josu’ hopes to make a career here in the country. “I love it here in India,” he says, with an infectious smile that has made him an instant hit amongst Blasters’ fans.

Sportstar caught up with Josue for a quick chat on why he chose to come back to India and his future plans in the country.

Excerpts:

Question: This is your second season with Kerala Blasters and Indian Super League. What was so attractive about Indian football that you decided to come back?

Joshua: The football here; the way we play here in the Indian Super League (ISL). The fans played a big part too in me wanting to come back. Everybody made me feel like it’s my second home. The club also was very clear that they wanted me back.

Kerala Blasters’ fans have adopted you as one of their own and have started calling you ‘Josuttan’. Were you surprised by number of people in the stadium? Was this the impression you had of Indian football?

I was really surprised because I didn’t know anything about India before coming here. I am really grateful for the support I have received from the fans.

Josue Currais Prieto flaunts a tattoo of Lord Ganesha.

Earlier, you had expressed an interest in playing for a long term here in India and possibly play in the I-League. At 23, you still have a lot of playing years left. Why are you keen on a early-career stint in India?

Some I-League clubs have shown interest in me. But nothing is serious yet. It’s too early to say anything. I feel very comfortable, and people love me, here. So why not? Why not make my career here in India? In Spain things are very difficult for players. In Spain, if you are not playing in the top division you have no money for a living and you do not get a lot of chances to shine.

Tell us more about your time in Barcelona. How much of a role did La Masia play in your footballing education?

To play for Barcelona and La Masia was not just my dream, but my family’s as well. I was 15-16 that time and I’m really happy I did that. It opened the doors for my career. Wherever I went, I was getting referred to as the guy who played for Barcelona. It was the best time of my life.

In the first season we saw you play in the midfield yet this season you have started as a left-back? What is your favoured position and are you finding it difficult to be part of the defence?

For me, the principle will always be to play. It doesn’t matter what position I’m playing as long as I’m in the squad. I feel comfortable as a left-back and as a midfielder. I am willing to do whatever the coach asks me to do. At Barcelona and Espanyol I played as a left-back and only when I moved to Finland did I change my position.

Kerala has been struggling for goals this season. What do you think is the major reason?

First game was difficult for us to score. But after that we have started scoring. I think we are getting better and I’m sure more will come.

Your tattoo of ‘Lord Ganesha’ on your right-arm has grabbed a lot attention. What’s the story behind it?

When I went home after last season, I was initially unsure whether I’ll come back here. So, I wanted to do something special to show my love for India, and our fans who treated me well here. That’s how I got this.

Aaron Hughes: ‘Indian football needs foreign guidance’

A lot of eyebrows were raised when Kerala Blasters announced former Northern Ireland captain Aaron Hughes as its marquee singing for the 2016 Indian Super League season. The no-nonsense defender, who had played a vital role for his nation at the EURO 2016, wasn’t exactly a flashy signing like Mumbai City’s Diego Forlan or Altetico’s Helder Postiga.

aaron

Manager Steve Coppell had an explanation though — he wanted a marquee player who can contribute and be a part of the playing XI and not just another fading star.

Hughes and his team-mates have certainly justified their manager’s belief and are slowly turning Blasters into a defensively sound unit. The team has conceded just four goals in its six matches so far.

Sportstar caught up with ex-Newcastle United and Fulham player for a quick chat ahead of his team’s match against Chennaiyin FC.

Excerpts:

Question: Though, defensively solid, Kerala has found it difficult to score goals. What do you think is the major problem?

Answer: I think, we can say that a lot of teams have struggled to score goals. Most of the games so far have been low scoring affairs. We need to keep creating chances and the goals will come.

Recently there has been a lot of debate on the number of foreign players in the playing XI, with some experts insisting it is too many while some like Gianluca Zambrotta and Theiry Henry saying it is the right balance. What is your opinion?

Football in India is growing and that’s exactly what you want to happen. The ISL is bringing in players with great experience. I think it’s a good thing to bring this experience to a league that already has a certain standard and wants to improve. That’s how you learn. When I was a kid, I was always looking up to these older pros, seeing how they trained and learning from them. So I think having foreign players can only help ISL.

Tell us more about EURO 2016… The imapct of coach Michael O’Neill’s and what it meant for Northern Ireland football.

His (O’Neill) impact was massive from the beginning, even if the results didn’t come straight away. Within the squad there was a massive difference; we knew what to do and we were sure that if we kept working and believing we would get our chances in the future. And that’s exactly what happened. His had a huge impact.

EURO 2016 was the first major championship we quailified for since 1986 and it was great for the country and the future generation to see the team competing against the very best.

What do you make of FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s plan of making it a 48-team World Cup? A lot of people have cricticised the idea, saying it will dilute the nature of the competition.

There was a similar argument about EURO 2016. I think when you look at it, the so-called smaller teams were the ones topping their groups and securing automatic qualification. And some of the big teams were struggling. This had nothing to do with the extra numbers. The teams were there because they had earned the right to be there. At the end of the day, no matter how many teams you’ve got there (in the tournament), they are there due to the quality and the tournament will not suffer.

Do you fancy a longer stay in Indian football, maybe a shot at I-league? Or are you eyeing a return to UK or Australia?

Once the ISL finishes, I plan to go back to UK. I’ll see what options I have there. I hope to be involved with the national team in our World Cup qualifying campaign which will go on till next November. I will see what options are there and I will try to carry on playing as long as I can.

What do you think Indian football needs now? You have played in multiple grounds and trained at different places, do you think India has everything in place as fas as infrastructure is concerned?

Football is still growing here and that is to be expected. Hence, it is important to keep bringing manager and players from other countries; people who have been at the very top. They see how things should be done and they see those little details that other people will miss. And sometimes these little details can make a huge difference. At the moment Indian football is good. But it can get better and I’m sure it will.

The pitches that I have played in so far have all been good. But there are a lot of things that makes a league successful, such as training facilities and the ease of the transport to the ground. Not just for the players but for also the fans. Once these little things are polished the league will get even better.

Palpreet Singh: ‘US training helped secure NBA deal’

Palpreet Singh Brar, India’s latest entrant into the NBA D-League, has defended his decision to train at the New York Athletic Club with coach Ross Burn in Manhattan, while the Indian basketball team was competing in the FIBA Asia Challenge 2016.

The 6ft 9in hoopster, a product of the Ludhiana Basketball Academy, was picked up by Long Island Nets — affliated to Brooklyn Nets— in the D-League draft on Sunday. But his compatriots Amritpal Singh and Amyjot Singh, who performed admirably in FIBA Asia Challenge (Amritpal was featured in the tournament’s best team), missed out on the drafts.

“It was the right decision to go and train in USA. It helped me improve my physical condition. Now I will play in the league and improve myself. I will then be able to contribute more for the country,” said Palpreet to Sportstar when asked if training in USA helped him make the cut while the other Indians missed.

While Satnam Singh — first Indian to make it to the NBA D-League — does not play for India, Palpreet promised that he would never dump his national team.

“I would like to improve as a player but I would always love to represent my country in international competitions whenever I get a chance,” affirmed Palpreet.

The 21-year-old was very frank in his assesment of the coaching standards in India and stressed on the importance of having a professional league in the country.

“There is a lot of difference in standard of coaching in India and the Development League. Whether it’s defence or offence, how to tactically deal with pressure situations, and the fitness training is of different level.

“It is important to have a league in India. I have heard if it is not started soon, FIBA might cancel our recognition. A league will certainly help the country’s players,” stressed Palpreet.

While Palpreet harbours the hope of making it to the major league one day, he intends to take things one step at a time.

“For the next one and half years, I would like to train well and do well in the D-League. I have not set myself any specific targets as to when I would like to see myself in the main league. That will depend on my performance. I have had sessions with Long Island Nets coaches. They have told me to play my natural game and not take any excess pressure,” said Palpreet.

Palpreet also paid tribute to his late coach Dr. S. Subramanian who played a major role in promoting basketball and unearthing talents such as Amyjot and Amritpal.

“We are all his students. The best players from India have been coached by him. It’s his bad luck that he did not get recognition. He was a cut above the rest, very different in his style of coaching,” concluded Palpreet.