When Sergio Lobera speaks, the phrases 'our style of play', 'our philosophy', 'our idea of football' punctuate sentences with evangelical zeal. Over three years with FC Goa, Lobera built his brand in Indian football on the back of those phrases and their application on the field. By having his teams play.. Lobera-ball. Keep it, pass it, keep it some more. Move forward at every opportunity. Create, score as many as possible and don't be afraid to concede. At its best there's nothing in the country quite as entertaining as Lobera-ball.
At Mumbai City, it's not been all that different. In the first 19 league games, they enjoyed more possession than their opponents in all but one game (and that was when Bright Enobakhare decided to take the game to them for East Bengal; Mumbai still won 1-0). They have scored more goals than anyone. They have drawn the fewest games. It's all been very on brand.
Except for the three matches that have defined their season.
Against ATK Mohun Bagan in the final game of the season, a virtual final to decide the ISL League Shield (and the AFC Champions League spot that comes with it), Mumbai scored an early goal and ceded the ball. They would score one more a little later in the first half, but that was about it. Adam Le Fondre and Bartholomew Ogbeche spent most of that night chasing and harrying Bagan players. Lobera-ball might have gotten them to the cusp of victory, but what pushed them over was a sense of pragmatism that's not often associated with the Lobera brand.
In the two-legged semifinals, FC Goa did most of the passing and the running and the chance creating. Mumbai needed to dig deep to equalise twice in the first leg, and make sure they didn't concede more in the second. They posed little danger to the Goan goal. They won on penalties. Having drawn just three of their 20 league stage matches (Article 2.1 of the constitution of Lobera-ball states -- 'win or lose, but never settle for a draw'), they settled for two draws in the ISL semifinals.
In all three matches, they had less possession, created fewer chances, and took fewer shots than their opponents.
Has the pursuit of victory diluted the philosophy? Lobera disagrees. The way he sees it, this is just a slight adjustment, one that every successful football team needs to be able to make.
"It is not only about what you want, it's about what is possible," he says. "Playing against a team that has the same style, the same idea to try and win the possession of the ball [FC Goa, in this instance], sometimes it's not easy to be comfortable for 90 minutes.
"In the bad moments, we competed very well and this is the most important thing. Sometimes, it's not possible that during ninety minutes, everything goes well. You need to be ready, to be smart and manage the situation."
Bart Ogbeche believes that's exactly what they did so well over those three games -- manage the situation.
Speaking about the contrasting approaches against Bagan (68% possession in the first league game, 46% in the second), he says, "Those are two different games. [We always look] to take the game to the opponents, be it ATK Mohun Bagan, be it Odisha, be it East Bengal or any team we played against. That is always our intention. But we [musn't] forget that [Bagan are] a very, very difficult team, a team that are the champions of the ISL. If you look at their team [from last season], they've been able to improve by bringing in some really good players. I find them much better this season than last. So, it wasn't our intention in the second game, not to dominate the way we did in the first, but I think [circumstances dictated it]... Sometimes games don't go the way we want them to."
For him that is not a sign of weakness. It's the opposite.
"We proved we have a lot of tools in our repertoire," he says. "When we have to suffer - when difficult moments are thrown at us - we are able to absorb that and show character. We are an attacking team, we always want to dominate, start on the front foot. But in difficult moments, we've also proved that we are a team that can be scrappy, be solid, and that was a different face we showed."
Rowllin Borges, who sat out both league games against Saturday's opponents, echoes his striker and his coach. "The situation in the game demands this of us," he says. "In the first match, ATK were sitting very deep and that allowed us to keep the ball, especially in their own half. If you see the second game, it was like a final, and because we scored two [early] goals, they [had to] attack us."
In football, the word 'pragmatism' is often used to defend overly defensive managers, but while in these three matches Mumbai City were pragmatic, they weren't overly defensive. They didn't play kick and rush football, they didn't park themselves inside their own half in two rigid banks, and when they got the ball they still tried to pass their way out of trouble, to create an attack with the ball on the ground (in open play, at least).
It's just that at times, flexibility is called for. "When your team suffers bad moments, it is important to be compact, to be working as a team, and try to get back into the game with our style of play," says Lobera. "Sometimes it's not possible, we need to work collectively [with our philosophy] and compete well."
'Compete' is the key word here. "I think we were a competitive team in the last [three] games... and if you want to win trophies, you need to be competitive. It's not just about the times in the games when you are playing well, it is about managing the opponent team when they have good moments of their own."
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It's a departure from the rather quixotic Lobera, who had told ESPN a couple of years back that he was willing to risk everything for entertainment. "Let me give you an example," the then manager of FC Goa had said. "You are on a sofa, you are cold, but your blanket can cover either your upper body or your feet. If you cover one part, the other remains cold. That's football, for me. The most important thing, at the end, is the goal difference... you score more, you win."
Perhaps now, with a bigger blanket, he's figured out a way to cover both, with an eye on two shiny trophies.
Winning with a distinct style is good, but at times when you can't do that, just winning will do. At the business end of this season, that's what his Mumbai City have done so well, so far. For Lobera, that's not pragmatism, it's just plain ol' common sense.