Indian Media’s Love For Sensationalism Is Being Unfair To The Country’s Football Revolution

sunilchhetri 2

Exactly a year ago, Indian media houses were greeted with a positive press release from the country’s football federation. The mail conveyed that the Indian Under-17 team had beaten its Italian counterpart during the team’s exposure trip in Europe and scripted a “new chapter in Indian football”. The news, which was published by all major organisations and accentuated by celebrity ‘influencers’, sent the world of the internet into a frenzy.

 

With the Under-17 World Cup, India’s first FIFA tournament, only a few months away, this was the perfect news for the multitude of fans across the country. Suddenly the country started believing its team could compete with the very best in the world. Chest-thumping and mindless debates devoured the internet as the optimism levels hit the stratosphere.

Strangely though, as some nosy journalists later found out, the Italian football team website had no information about the match. A quick search confirmed that Italian starting line-up didn’t feature any known U-17 player from their past matches either. So who did the Indian football team defeat? The Indian Football Federation said they “didn’t know about it” and had assumed it was the national side because they wore the Italian jerseys. A Public Relations nightmare, as an AIFF staff would later admit (anonymously), putting unwanted pressure on a young Indian side while also giving a false sense of optimism to the fans.

For the Intercontinental Cup, that concluded on June 10th, the journalists were better equipped. They pointed out that the teams visiting India, including the lower ranked Chinese Taipei, were far from their strongest eleven. Yet, as is the strange pattern with news these days, these conversations got submerged in a wave of positive news about the Indian team. It started with Captain Sunil Chhetri’s plea — a video in which he calls for more support at the stadium after being disappointed with the audience turn-out in India’s match against Chinese Taipei. The video went viral with the likes of cricket captain Virat Kohli requesting fans to cloud the stadium in support of the Blue Tigers. The fans did arrive in hoards and India did win the tournament beating Kenya in the finals but Chhetri’s video had a far wider, and more importantly different, impact than he would have hoped for.

There was a shift in the narrative as media organisations felt the need to portray the Indian football team greater than what it actually is. Media outlets, responsible for sending out unbiased news, became fanboys of the Indian football movement. Suddenly there were statistics equating Chhetri to Lionel Messi, and the Indian team’s win record being compared to that of Germany’s.

To be fair Chhetri, who has been a fantastic servant for the Indian football team, tried to quell most of these praises by pointing out there is still a lot of work to be done for India and the need to play top Asian sides more often, but that never made it to the headlines.

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So what is the harm if sensationalism prevailed over sense in our coverage of the event? Especially when it was for a good cause – in this case garnering support for the Indian football team.

By portraying we are a better side than what the rank 97 would signify we risk a massive fallout when the going gets tough for the side. Instilling a false sense of hope does not do justice to a sport that is still in its nascent stages in the country. It happened with the Under-17 team – the interest in the team disappeared soon after the team failed to impress in the group stages of the World Cup. And it could well happen at the AFC Asian Cup where India will face strong opposition. It is imperative that the right details of our team is highlighted so that the ever-growing Indian football fans won’t be disappointed if the team struggles.

This is not to say we should be pessimistic. The Intercontinental Cup had its positives – the team showed great cohesion, dominated in the central midfield (an area of weakness), and was miserly defence. The success also put pressure on the authorities to send the U-23 team to the Asian Games, where the side will get to play against top sides. Not to forget AIFF’s strategy to improve India’s ranking by inviting Kenya and New Zealand, who were unlikely to send their main eleven.

It is unfair to criticise the team as well. They played their socks off and we have to acknowledge they are a developing side. It will take years of effort to have a system in place and this is exactly what the media should be focusing on. There is no quick fix to quality football. It took a decade of effort for Germany to rebuild a team to win the world cup. The current golden generation of Belgium football is also the fruit of a long-term plan. And these are nations who already had a footballing culture. In India, the effort would be larger and these international matches are small steps in the right directions. Indian Super League is slowly starting to find its identity, with teams starting to prefer clever homegrown signings over international marquee targets.

In an era where loud, brazen news is in demand, it is important that the reports and opinions on Indian football stick to a narrative that is honest to what is happening to the sport.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Sluggish Germany Needs to Prioritize Form Over Pedigree

Much of the commentary surrounding Germany, the defending champion, ahead of the World Cup was whether this team in transition, devoid of pillars such as ex-captains Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, could carry the mantle forward. Parallels had already been drawn before the team arrived in Russia. In Joshua Kimmich, the Die Mannschaft was sure it had found the next Lahm. Timo Werner’s Confederations Cup heroics in 2017 meant he was deemed the ideal successor to Miroslav Klose. But after the team’s first game, where it was comprehensively beaten by Mexico, the comparisons have taken a back seat as the central question became, “Is this German side good enough?”

To put things into perspective, the last time a German side lost its first match in a World Cup, the Berlin wall was still a daunting structure while other World Cup competitors Serbia and Croatia weren’t even formed. Germany in the past 30-odd years has established itself as a powerhouse, the team to beat, in international football.

“Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” – Gary Lineker ( Former England striker)

The most surprising part of the earthquake-causing victory was how Mexico beat Germany to its own game. Counter-attacking, gegen-pressing and direct football, all trademarks of the multiple Joachim Low sides, were used by the Mexicans, as the Germans stood still and allowed the men-in-green to dictate play.

Redundant formation and tactical naivety

Low opted to start the German team with a 4-2-3-1 formation, a system the Germans have been using since the 2010 World Cup, with Julian Draxler, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller forming the trio behind Werner in an attack-minded set-up. The problem with this double-pivot formation, anchored by Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira, is the space it leaves in the midfield. The 4-2-3-1 requires two players capable of handling the defensive responsibilities while also having the vision to distribute the ball across the field. The formation, which was prominent till around four years back, is no longer used by big clubs because they have struggled to find the perfect two for the job, especially when opposition teams stack up the midfield. The Kroos-Khedira (Schweinsteiger) combination was perfect till 2014, when opposition teams were also playing the same formation, but against Mexico the midfield looked thin and it might get exposed against a stronger team.

Even when the game looked like it was slipping off its hands, Low failed to make substitutions that the situation demanded, instead opting for stars. Hirving Lozano was a constant threat in the left-wing for Mexico, and Kimmich had to shoulder a mammoth amount of work with Mueller taking up a very central attacking role. Bringing young Julian Brandt or Marco Reus, both natural wide players, for Muller would have brought stability to the formation, but Low used up all his substitutions on attackers by sacrificing his midfield and defence. The formation left gaping holes in the midfield and a more clinical team would have been able to score more than the solitary goal Mexico managed.

Time for a fresh approach

While the result was catastrophic, Germany is still a favourite to progress from the group. But coach Low will have tough decisions to make for the desired result. The centre-back pairing of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng looked solid but the central midfield will need tweaking. Ilkay Gundogan offers creativity, Niklas Sule has raw strength, and Sebastian Rudy has experience as a box-to-box player. Adding any of the three into the midfield will add steel to the midfield and free Khedira of his running duties.

Similarly, with Timo Werner in form, Low might have to sacrifice the experienced Mueller for a player who can play in the flanks and offer width to the German side. Leroy Sane was surprisingly omitted from the squad because Low believed he had enough players for the position. One among Reus, Draxler and Brandt should feature in the playing XI, especially if Germany fails to break down the opposition in the first half against Sweden.

The team against Mexico also lacked the desire you often associate with a German team in an international tournament. It was Dutch legend Johan Cryuff who said you aren’t 100% once you’ve won something — like a “bottle of carbonated water where the cap is removed for a short while.” Germany lacked that fizz on the pitch and the only way it can prevent the ‘curse of defending champion getting knocked out in the first round’ (both Italy and Spain were knocked out in tournaments that followed their World Cup victories) is to up the tempo and deploy players in form.

The young German team that won the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia had that desire in them and Low will be required to use some of these players to reinvent a squad that does not look motivated for the task. The tournament is a make-or-break event for many in the German squad including Low. If the squad fails, expect a complete overhaul and another rebuilding campaign, similar to what followed the Euro 2000 campaign. That said, the task is too hard for Low who has a side filled with world-class stars, provided he is willing to take a gamble or two. Even the odds aren’t against the Germans — the last time they lost an opening match in the World Cup, they went on to reach the finals.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Time ripe for Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ to make history in Russia

“The time isn’t in one, two or four years. I think now is the moment to be together and do something great,” stressed Eden Hazard, Belgium football team captain, to the press who had gathered, ahead of his team’s friendly against Costa Rica. The purpose was clear – a rallying call for his troops to embrace themselves for what is undoubtedly a make-or-break tournament for the much-hyped ‘golden generation’ of Belgium footballers.

This article first appeared on Firstpost

Hazard, a symbol part of this ball-playing, intelligent football generation, probably understands the importance of the event as much as anyone else. A team, however good it might be, will only be remembered for the trophies it wins. History is full of examples. Johan Cruyff-led Netherlands 1974 World Cup team or Roberto Baggio’s 1994 Italian team were arguably better than the Dutch or the Italian team that tasted international success. Yet it is the latter people remember.

The ‘this is Belgium’s tournament’ rhetoric has been floating around for over four years now. The Belgium Red Devils was an outside favourite to win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They were knocked out in the quarters by a Messi-inspired Argentina. At the 2016 Euro, a more experienced side, was expected to do better. But things didn’t improve, as a directionless Belgium were knocked out by a far inferior, yet highly motivated Wales.

So the time is clearly now for the Red Devils. The core of the team have already played in two major international tournaments are arguably in the peak of their career. According to research, the best age to play in a World Cup is 27.5; the average age of the Belgium team for the World Cup is 27.6, and is one of the most experienced side at the World Cup.

 

Belgium had a flawless qualification campaign in UEFA’s qualifying Group H with the likes of Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar offering very little threat. The team scored 43 goals in the campaign with Lukaku leading the way with 11.

The relative easiness of the campaign meant coach Roberto Martinez, who replaced Marc Wilmots, and his coaching staff had ample time to test out a three-man defence formation. The Red Devils have stuck with the formation till date but questions still persist on its effectiveness against a strong side.

The rationale behind the switch from a four-man defence would be Belgium’s lack of a genuine left-back – Jordan Lukaku is still developing and not seen as an option by the manager. The formation allows Martinez to field the trio of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany, along with wing-backs, thereby ensuring defensive stability.

The formation unfortunately puts a lot of pressure on the central midfielders, especially in terms of helping out in defence, so whoever might partner de Bruyne in the centre will have a large role to play.

Part of Wilmots’ fault was his inability to out-think his opposition managers even with a better set of players in his ranks. Martinez’s Belgium have not been tested against major opponents yet and his decision to stick to a three-man defence might come into question if they struggle.

With Kompany still nursing an injury it won’t be a surprise if Belgium switches to a 4-3-3 for the World Cup though. While the team might not have played it under Martinez, it is a system that is widely popular amongst youth teams in Belgium. Academies and junior teams were asked to adopt the system as a part of a football revolution under Michel Sablon which is often credited as the reason behind Belgium’s phenomenal growth as a footballing powerhouse.

Cohesion the key

Having a set of good quality players is one thing, winning a title is a totally another. Ask England side who had like the likes David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen playing for it. Team unity and cohesion will be the key for Belgium if they are to challenge for a title come mid-July. If the superstars in the team can click, then Belgium would be a force to reckon with.

But in a squad with so many big names and egos, finding the right balance is hard task. Martinez claimed the ommission of Radja Nainggolan from the World Cup squad was purely tactical but it is widely accepted that decision was taken with team unity in mind. The Roma midfielder is a great asset for any team but Martinez believed keeping him in the substitute bench could back fire.

Premier League stars v England football team

Belgium are a part of Group G which also features England, Tunisia and Panama. England are likely to be Red Devils’ major challengers but working to Belgium’s advantage will be their players’ familiarity playing with/against the English opposition.

11 players of the 23-man Belgium squad ply their trade in the English Premier League which would make the match against England interesting in multiple levels. England have a very young, attacking side, spearheaded by Harry Kane, and will pose a threat to the ageing Red Devil backline. But Belgium have enough star power to top their group and proceed to the knockout stages.

But a mere entry to the knockout phases will not quench the thirst of the multitudes of fans waiting for the Red Devils’ entrance into the history books. Nothing short of silverware will suffice for Belgium’s golden generation.

Squad

Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Koen Casteels (VfL Wolfsburg).

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City).

Midfielders: Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Youri Tielemans (Monaco), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur).

Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea/Dortmund), Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli).

Why Belgium will miss Radja Nainggolan’s versatility in Russia

Radja Nainggolan is the stereotypical modern-day football player. He speaks his mind, is covered in tattoos, flaunts a ‘mohawk’, and has been involved in a controversy or two. A player who isn’t afraid to stand up for what he believes in, be it regarding his position in the Belgium national team or turning down lucrative offers from the English Premier League for the lovely ‘sunny weather in Rome.’

This piece was first published in Firstpost

On the pitch he is equally animated; a beast who roams from box to box waiting to pounce on any opportunity the opposition team offers him – a quality that has seen him become a indispensable member of a Roma squad that reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League this year. Yet, of all the above mentioned details, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez chose to see one – his affinity for controversies – when he omitted the midfielder from the Belgium squad for Russia 2018.

“I don’t think Radja is a player to be used in a small role in any group,” said Martinez. “We all know he has a very important role at club level and I don’t feel that we can give him that.” A clear indication that Martinez didn’t see Nainggolan starting for the Red Devils in the World Cup.

File image of Radja Nainggolan. Reuters

The World Cup Qualifications had seen Nainggolan’s role in the team diminishing. He made just two appearances in qualifying and has never been truly accepted in the international fold since Martinez’s appointment as manager in 2016. The final nail in the coffin came when the Roma midfielder posted a video of him drinking and smoking during a New Year’s party, which caused a public outrage.

The manager is right to omit a player who could disrupt the team spirit as it comes with a risk of losing squad depth in what is arguably the most important tournament for Belgium’s ‘golden generation’.

In the provisional 28-member squad selected, Martinez has named five central midfielders: Manchester City star Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester United’s Maroune Fellaini, Monaco’s Youri Tielemans, former Zenit Petersburg star Alex Witsel and Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele.

While all are capable midfield marshalls, capable of thwarting attacks that come their way, it is clear that the creative duties will largely be headed by De Bruyne, who has had a stellar league campaign. But the City midfielder has already made 54 appearances for his club and country this season, making him prone to injuries.

Young Tielemans, who struggled to establish himself in his first season at Monaco, is the only player who can deputise for De Bruyne in the team. Which is where the decision to leave out Nainggolan becomes a little difficult to comprehend because, unlike a France team that can cope with with absence of Karim Benzema due to the abundance of quality striking options available, Belgium is short of quality central midfielders in the mould of the Roma midfielder.

Nainggolan was a star for Roma this season. He played a more advanced role for the Italian club, taking up the role of a No 10. While he might not have impressed as much as De Bruyne did as central midfield playmaker, he offered a different set of skills, cutting out the influence of deep-lying midfielders by pressing them incessantly. Not to forget his ability to strike goals from distance.

A midfielder for all formations

Belgium are likely to play either the 3-4-3 formation, which they relied on during the qualification stages, or a more defensively resolute 3-5-2. Both rely heavily on de Bruyne pulling the strings from the midfield and therefore raises questions on the lack of a proper deputy.

The 3-4-3 is Martinez’s favoured structure with two among Yannick Carrasco, Thomas Meunier and Nicer Chadli donning the roles of wing-backs. KDB takes up one of the central midfield roles while the other vacant spot in the midfield is usually assigned to one among Witsel, Fellaini and Dembele.

Barring de Bruyne, there is a shortage of creativity in the midfield options available for Martinez, especially considering the below-average season Tielemans has had. Nainggolan offers a balance which no other midfielder in the squad offers.

The 3-4-3 worked to great effect in the record-setting qualification campaign but Belgium hardly had quality opposition in the group, with the likes of Greece, Gibraltar, Estonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina offering very little in attack. The formation though can be exploited by top sides, especially if one of the central midfielder is an advanced playmaker. Chelsea, who play 3-4-3 in the Premier League, struggled this season against high-pressing teams with the central-midfield pairing of Cesc Fabregas and N’Golo Kante for this very reason, and Belgium will be vary of exposing their central midfielders to direct pressure.

They played a 3-5-2 against Mexico in a recent friendly, perhaps a sign of things to come in the World Cup. In both formations, a more defensively sound Nainggolan offers a good alternative to de Bruyne in central midfield, especially if the latter is having a bad day or being used in a more advanced role. In a 3-5-2, both the players could have started behind an attacking pair of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. That would have provided plenty of balance to the Red Devils’ midfield.

Antonio Conte, who brought back the three-man defence back in fashion with his success at Chelsea, pursued Nainggolan’s signature in both his seasons at Chelsea – a testimony to the Belgian’s suitability to the role.

But say what we may, Nainggolan will not be travelling with the Red Devils to Russia, and announced his retirement from the national team through an emotional post on Instagram. For a 30-year-old footballer who wears his heart on his sleeves, a rejection from football’s grandest stage was just too hard to deal with.

As for Martinez, the test begins now, having made a call that could come back to haunt him if the Belgium team fails to deliver in the World Cup.

Unwind: FC Pune City’s Baljit Sahni on conquering fear and being a versatile player on the pitch

“The Punjabi players are not to be seen anywhere. The young players, who play for colleges and universities, have nothing lined up for the future. It’s all down to the players to go to clubs and give trials on their own,” quips FC Pune forward Baljit Sahni in his strong Punjabi slang, which has earned him the nickname Paaji among his teammates.

He is lamenting the lack of football clubs from Punjab. In the past few years, the number of football clubs from the state has reduced. Minerva Punjab FC, operating from Ludhiana, is the only football club from Punjab in India’s top two football divisions today.

Sahni himself was a product of JCT, which during its 16-year-long existence in India’s top division football, provided a platform for young players from the state to rise.

“After JCT got relegated from the I-League, no one has put the required effort to bring up another team (from Punjab). Even when they tried, financial problems prevented them from achieving success,” he says.

Sahni is a fighter. On the pitch he is a tiger, constantly pressing the opposition defenders, sometimes a tad too much – his habit of getting sent off is a testimony to his eagerness. Off the pitch too, the man from Mahilpur (Hoshiarpur) is never ready to give up.

In 2009, Sahni and his JCT teammate Sunil Kumar were seriously injured in a bike accident in Goa. Sahni fractured his wrist, and also injured his shin, and required 25 stitches during treatment.

“When the accident happened there was a match the next day, and I had also earned a call-up for the national side,” remembers Sahni. “I was affected by the fact that I missed the one-month-long national football team camp due to my injury. But I recovered quite fast. I left the hospital in a week and I played a match in a month’s time,” he adds.

“When the ball was coming in the air, I was a little anxious to head the ball. There were stitches in my head and I was worried how I will able to head the ball. But slowly, through practice, I overcame that fear,” says Sahni. He scored for his team in the comeback match.

After starting his professional career in JCT, Sahni went on to represent East Bengal for five years, after which he made a switch to Indian Super League (ISL) side Atletico de Kolkata. He went out on loan to DSK Shivajians during the I-League season and was later picked up by Chennaiyin FC. The forward last played for Mumbai FC before making the short relocation to FC Pune City. While Sahni has always preferred to play the role of an attacking winger, he has had to don the role of a centre-forward on multiple occasions. But the man has no complaints.

“It is all up to the coach. He has to make the team and he has to see who all he has available and what positions they can play (in). I believe I can play in two-three positions,” admits Sahni.

The man just wants to play football.

Watch the video interview by clicking here

Watch: Former Manchester United star Denis Irwin on winning the ‘treble’, Sir Alex’s ‘Hairdryer’ treatment and Jose Mourinho

Mumbai: The first thing I notice as I walk up to Denis Irwin is his size. He is smaller than what I had imagined him to be while watching him double up with Ryan Giggs in Manchester United’s left wing to annihilate their opposition.

denis

I look at him again. His head belied the body beneath. It was relatively large, with trimly cut grey hair, and a clean-shaven face.

While the Sherlock Holmes-instilled idea – larger the head, larger the brain and hence larger the intelligence – has long been debunked, Irwin is a testimony to why the myth existed in the first place.

In his prime, the Irishman was exactly that – a thinking footballer, who valued his manager’s words and stuck to doing what he was told to. He might not have lit up the football field like his compatriots Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes, but his ability to play in both the full-back positions, coupled with his defense-first approach, made him an integral member of the Manchester United squads who went on to conquer Europe in the 90s.

In his autobiography, Sir Alex Ferguson, the club’s most decorated coach, called Irwin one of his greatest signings and said the fullback was perhaps the first to make into his team sheet.

“Basically all he wanted was the players to get their heads down and work as hard as possible and give their very best. And I think that’s what I did. So we never had any trouble. One or two arguments as you would expect in 12 years and I thoroughly enjoyed working under him,” explains Irwin.

Sir Alex was known to dish out scathing criticism if his players didn’t perform to their potential. Even Irwin, his hardworking faithful, wasn’t spared the infamous ‘hairdryer’ treatment.

“Everybody thinks it (hairdryer treatment) happened every week and all that. It didn’t happen that often but when it happened it was just because you fell below your standards. To what I can remember, I’d say everyone got it except Eric Cantona,” he says.

One of Irwin’s unheralded traits was his versatility. He joined the club as a Right-Back but had to shift to the left position due to the rise of Gary Neville from the class of 92’. Irwin took it as a challenge and went on to become one of the greatest left-backs in Premier League.

The full-back (wing-back) position has come into prominence once again with the likes of Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola utilising the defenders to initiate attacks of their teams.

“They (full-backs) are more attacking now than even in my day,” says Irwin. He is talking about the staggering money being spent to sign full-backs, particularly Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker.

“I mean when you played at Manchester United in my day you had to be very confident on the ball, you had to be defensively very strong and you also had to be capable of going forward. Now it has a changed a little bit where defensively you might be able to get away being a little bit. With the holding midfielders covering up, fullbacks are encouraged to go forward. They have almost become very important and hence, Mendy and Walker going over 50 million,” he adds.

As legends go, in November 1992, Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards received a call from Leeds’ Bill Fotherby. Leeds wanted Irwin back at Elland Road. The Manchester club immediately dismissed the interest, but manager Ferguson, known for his ability to spot the potential for a good deal, prompted Edwards to casually enquire if Cantona was up for sale. The rest, they say, was history, as the iconic French forward joined the Red Devils and helped them win multiple trophies.

Much like his unheralded career, the decision to keep Irwin often goes untold when the United faithful talk about ‘that’ winter of 1992. Considering how much Irwin went on to achieve in his time with United, the winter of 92′ had already become special the moment Edwards and Ferguson turned down the offer from Leeds.

Irwin was in India to promote ‘Gulf Fan Academy’ – a joint venture between Manchester United and Gulf Oil to promote football in Asia. ​

Watch the video by clicking here

Unwind: Vishal Kaith’s journey from the hills of Himachal Pradesh to Indian national team

Pune: One of the pillars behind FC Pune City’s good Indian Super League 2017-18 campaign (9W, 3D, 6L in the league) was their goalkeeper Vishal Kaith. The 21-year-old keeper, who has represented the Indian national team in various age groups, peaked in form as the season progressed and produced some crucial saves to keep the team from Pune in the battle for a play-off spot. The shot-stopper secured seven clean-sheets and made 45 saves in his 17 appearances for FC Pune City this season.

vishalkaith

But the story of Vishal Kaith would have been drastically different had it not been for a few individuals in his life. “I didn’t know a lot about goalkeeping when I went to the Sports Hostel,” says Kaith, who was more fond of playing cricket and boxing in his younger days in Himachal Pradesh. “I didn’t even know I will be a goalkeeper when I went there. It was the last year for the Hostel’s goalkeeper because he was about to graduate. There was no keeper, so the coach there, Vikram Panda, he saw my height and asked me to keep for a few days. So I started keeping and I think he saw something in me and made me a goalkeeper,” he adds.

At 21, Kaith has progressed remarkably from the ‘tall boy who could keep’ to becoming the first choice goalkeeper for an ISL side, and is slowly becoming a stable member of coach Stephen Constantine’s Indian football team. Though he might still be far away from replacing Gurpreet Singh as the last man of defence, the future is bright for the lanky footballer from the hills.

Watch the video here

What is a ‘tactical masterclass’?

I recently asked on Facebook how people like to define ‘trolls’ and ‘trolling’. I was surprised that everyone had different interpretations of the word, ranging from anyone who disagrees with you online to fake profiles that resort to online abuse. My reaction to the Sunday night’s social media reaction to Jose Mourinho’s ‘tactical masterclass’ against Chelsea bears distinct similarity with my doubts on trolling – how do you define a ‘tactical masterclass’?

I had discussed about this in Jorge Sampaoli’s masterclass vitory for his Sevilla side against Real Madrid and I’m forced to come back to the question again after United’s victory and the subsequent social media tirade.

But first, let’s talk about what Mourinho got right yesterday. And as much as I wouldn’t like to admit it, he did get a lot of things right. Benching top-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a brave move (blah I said he should do this some 5 months back) and utilising Marcus Rashford’s pace to play behind the relatively-slow Chelsea back-line was a smart move. Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard made a quick dynamic front-three which the make-shift Chelsea defence struggled to cope with (again I said it). Ander Herrera produced a typical dogged display to keep the ‘Hazard’ (see what I did there?) in his pockets but it beats me why Eden was not advised to take up a wider role and draw the Spaniard away from central midfield.

Maybe Antonio Conte hasn’t still realized a player needs to make around 5-6 fouls to earn his first yellow card in the match. Very few leagues in the world would have allowed Herrera to keep kicking at people’s heels throughout the match.

But apart from these strong individual displays, United and Jose Mourinho did not do anything that suggested any tactical brilliance. That Chelsea defence is susceptible to high-intensity pressing was shown to us by Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham way back in November when Chelsea was playing its best football under Conte. Then, and against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Chelsea was bailed out by some individual brilliance. Not to forget that Conte was playing with his favoured XI.

While Thibaut Courtois’s freakish ankle injury during a commercial commitment must have pissed off Conte, it was Marcos Alonso’s absence that hurt him the most on Sunday. The Italian had two ready-made replacements in Nathan Ake and Kenedy but opted to start Kurt Zouma, who has played very little time in a back-three, and push Cesar Azpi to the left wing-back position. The move back-fired the Spaniard offering very little in attack and the lack of symmetry in the shape meant Victor Mosses’ attack was stifled as well. Zouma looked clue-less in the defence and struggled as a RightBack when Chelsea switched to 4 in the back to accommodate Cesc Fabregas in the second half.

On a day of poor performances from the entire Chelsea squad, Diego Costa’s and Nemanja Matic’s incompetency stood-out the most. The Chelsea striker missed opportunities to hold up the ball, was terrible with his passes (Chelsea didn’t complete a single pass in United’s penalty box) and looked like he was just interested in a brawl with Rojo and Bailly. The Serbian midfielder meanwhile played a match that made Paul Pogba’s 100 million tag justifiable (almost).

 

This was more of Chelsea’s undoing itself than a Manchester United tactical masterclass, much like Sevilla’s victory over Real Madrid.  Chelsea had a very poor game and once again showed it has its rivals to thank for the relatively trouble-free stay at the helm of the Premier League so far. The opposition teams haven’t really put up a string of good performances and the Blues have somehow managed to survive at the top with its super-thin squad. Conte’s 3-4-3 will not work without proper wing-backs (like on Monday) and this team has forgotten how to play a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 because of its unparalled success with the current system.

Where Mourinho was perhaps different from Klopp or Pochettino is that he convinced his team to forget their natural abilities and flair to win the match. Even though Liverpool and Spurs pressed Chelsea with great intent, they could not sustain that throughout the match, because it was trying to attack Chelsea at every given opportunity, which finally played into the hands of the Blues. Mourinho meanwhile, didn’t press with his entire team. He wanted to win the midfield, not go all-out and attack when in possession like Spurs. And in classic Mourinho style, he hand-picked the players to execute his plan – Herrera to take out Hazard, a dynamic front-three to run past the slow Chelsea defence and Rojo/Bailly to irritate Costa. The rest of the team were just happy to just sit back and ensure Chelsea never got into the match.

This is the very ‘anti football’ that made Mourinho what he is – a winner. A team like Manchester United is bound have some of the best athletes in the world and Mou has the ability in him to convince talented players to give up what they love doing to execute his plan.  This is where a Stoke City or West Brom struggles – the quality of the players doing the dirty jobs for United (or Chelsea, Real, Inter before this) are different. He is all-about man management and getting what he wants out of the players. Not a Carlo Ancelotti who takes pride in forging a team that best utilizes the talent of all its players. While this wins you matches, curbing the natural abilities of these super human footballers to do one particular thing in the football field does not deserve to be called a tactical masterclass. And it is something that is bound to backfire in the long run (ever wondered why footballers start revolting in his third year at every club?).

If football is a way expression, Mourinho is its antithesis. I agree there is something romantic about a Barcelona-schooled manager coming up with anecdote to the ‘pure football’ the Catalans proudly preach. You need a Heath Ledger Joker to make the story of Gotham city and batman great.

Don’t get me wrong. Manchester United was the better side and deserved to win the match. But does it deserve to be called a ‘tactical masterclass’ in the mould of Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola or even the forgotten Brendan Rodgers? Let me not answer that. I’ll instead put a different question forward – do we ever call a Sam Allardyce or a Tony Pulis victory over the big teams a tactical masterclass? Or was the United victory called a tactical masterclass simply because it was Mourinho?

A Real Head-Ache – Time for Madrid to dismantle the BBC?

Three points clear from Barcelona at the helm of the La Liga and well positioned for a semi-final slot in the Champions League after an impressive away-performance at Bayern Munich. You would be forgiven for thinking all is well at Real Madrid.

Yet with summer inching closer, a squad overhaul is the most talked about subject in the stands of Santiago Bernabeu, especially with fans expressing their discontent with the expensively forged front-trio of three-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, once-upon-a-time highest transfer fee holder Gareth Bale and French forward Karim Benzema. The BBC, as they are popularly called, has frequently been blamed by the Spanish media for Real’s unconvincing attacking displays this season and Madrid might look to shake-up the attack torejuvenate the squad.

Bale, albeit while missed three months of action through injury, has endured his worst season since joining Real with nine goals in all competitions, while Ronaldo, with 19 in the league, is on course for his worst domestic tally since 2010.

Benzema, meanwhile, has also been far less prolific in domestic matches this year but is the team’s top scorer in the Champions League with five goals to four from Ronaldo and two from Bale.

With the likes of Spanish youngsters Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio warming the bench in hope of a more regular role, we asses what Real’s board should do to the fluttering BBC this summer.

Karim Benzema

There are few natural centre-forwards in the same league as Karim Benzema. While the French striker has struggled this season with injuries, he still remains a vital cog in the attack with his ability to link-up well with Ronaldo in the left side. While Benzema is definitely on the decline he has a lot to offer and Madrid will be vary of selling its striker, especially considering what Gonzalo Higuain has gone on to achieve after being shipped off.

The problem with Madrid is the presence of Spanish striker Morata in the bench. Alvaro, a Madrid academy product, was bought back from Juventus last summer after his stellar performances for the Old Lady of Turin. But his comeback hasn’t exactly been rosy, with the Spanish first-choice striker playing second fiddle to Benzema at the club. The media has been ruthless with its crucification of Benzema, often accusing coach Zinedine Zidane of showing French bias, and the Real board will be under pressure to come to resolution of this problem. But the problem could be solved if Antonio Conte and Chelsea come in for the Spanish striker. Conte was the manager who signed Morata for Juve and the striker recently expressed his desire to team up with the Italian coach again. While the move would not be popular in Spain, Zidane might be able to use the money and the free slot to lure teenage striking sensation Kylian Mbappe from AS Monaco FC.

Verdict: Keep. At least for a year to smoothen the transition for Mbappe. There are few strikers with the same quality as Benzema in the market and it will also be difficult for Real to fetch a decent transfer fee for the axed Frenchman.

Gareth Bale

When on form, there are very few players who can match the panache Bale brings to the football field. The problem, though, is that the Welsh forward has had an injury-marred career at Madrid so far. Bale has struggled to hit the purple patch and the fans are growing more frustrated with his contribution in the attacking.

In Isco and Asensio, Madrid already has potential replacements if Bale is shipped off, and the time might be right for Madrid to let go of Bale. Though interest from Premier League sides such as Manchester United and Chelsea have faded since last summer, Bale will still be a welcome figure in England if he decides to make the move.

Real Madrid could also use the Morata deal as bait for Chelsea to let go of its talisman forward Eden Hazard, who is apparently the prime target for Zidane this summer. The Belgian forward has expressed his admiration for Zidane and might fancy a Los Blancos shirt though he has publicly denied any such interests. Hazard, far less injury prone than Bale, will bring consistency to the Madrid side and has also the potential to be the marquee signing the fans want to see.

Verdict: Sell. Premier League experience means Bale will fetch decent money, if not the full 77 million pounds Madrid paid to Tottenham in 2013. Asensio already looks world class and Madrid has Isco to fill the void if need be. Add Hazard to the line-up and it would a major enhancement to the 2016-17 squad.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo is 32 but why would you still want to sell a forward who has scored 100 European goals? The Portuguese was Madrid’s most decisive player against Bayern and proved his doubters wrong once again when he scored his 99th and 100th goals in European competition on Wednesday night in Real’s 2-1 win against Bayern.

There is no doubt Ronaldo is declining. His physical gifts, such as tremendous acceleration and powerful standing long jump, are not as they once were. He has scored, by his extra-ordinary standards, just 19 league goals this season.  Also not to forget, these were Ronaldo’s first goals in the Champions League in 197 days, the first time he found the net in Europe since scoring against Borussia Dortmund in the group stages back in September.

But a diminished Ronaldo is still better than almost everyone else and there are very few footballers in the world who can potentially replace him. Unfortunately for Real, three such candidates play for its fiercest rivals Atletico Madrid (Antoine Griezmann) and Barcelona (Neymar, Lionel Messi).

Not to forget his off the field impact. He is according, to Forbes, the footballer with the biggest brand value and Real Madrid merchandise sales will take a big blow if he leaves the team.

Verdict: Keep. Hazard brings guile and industry to a side but he isn’t anywhere as ruthless as Ronaldo in front of the goal. With no potential replacements available, Real would be unwise to let go of its Portuguese forward, even for a record-defying transfer amount.

FIFA U-17 World Cup: Minerva boys earn national team call-up

Norton

An impressive outing against the India Under-17 team has earned six Minerva Punjab FC academy players a call-up for the U-17 national side and a chance to impress newly-appointed coach Luis Norton de Martos ahead of the much awaited FIFA U-17 World Cup, which will be held in India between October 6-28.

Minerva, the AIFF U-16 Youth League champion, had played two matches against the national U-17 and U-15 sides in Goa, which the team won 1-0 and 2-0 respectively.

The performances by the Minerva team had impressed coach Norton, who took over the coaching duties from Nicolai Adam, and the management has now brought in Anwar Ali (defender), Amarjit Mishra (winger), Mohammed Shahjahan (midfielder), Ashem Henba (midfielder), Nongdamba Naorem (winger) and Jackson Singh (midfielder) to train with the U-17 team.

“Four of our players were selected from Minerva after we won the U-15 League. We are proud to be contributing 10 players to the U-17 team apart from the six who play for the U-15 team. A football club’s legacy isn’t about how many titles it has won. I’ve always maintained that the national team should be the ultimate aim. I want to proudly say one day that 10 players in the Indian side which qualified for the World Cup are from my team,” said an elated Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Minerva Punjab FC.

While the decision is bound to have pleased the Minerva management, it casts further doubts on how prepared the Indian team is ahead of the FIFA U-17 World Cup. After a decent showing in the 2016 AFC U-16 Championship, the Indian colts lost its momentum, and performed poorly in the 2016 U-17 BRICS Football Cup and the Granatkin Cup.

The success of the nation-wide scouting program, which was conducted to identify the U-17 players, is also being questioned after the Indian team’s loss against Minerva.

Former Indian captain Bhaichung Bhutia, one of the chief scouts along with Abhishek Yadav (former player) and sacked coach Nicolai Adam, was recently removed from the AIFF technical committee, adding fuel to rumours that he had shown favouritism while picking the players.

Interestingly, both Bhutia and Yadav have their own football academies but the ‘conflict of interests’ was not seen as a hindrance to the project by the AIFF management.