India lost their first match under Igor Stimac 3-1 to Curacao in the King's Cup, a scoreline that accurately reflected the dominance the Caribbean side. They will now face Thailand in the third-place playoff, but ahead of that, we look at what we learnt from India's performance against a side ranked 20 places above them in the FIFA rankings.
Before we look at the key takeaways, a couple of disclaimers - Stimac is a man known for tinkering -- the Croatian national team was a painful testament to that during his reign there -- so do not expect this first match to be the example for how the remainder of his reign will look.
Even in his first game in charge, we saw glimpses of this approach. How India started the game -- a 4-2-3-1: Sandhu (GK); Kotal, Jhingan, Bheke, Bose; Halder, Brandon; Udanta, Sahal, Chhangte; Chhetri was different to how they finished -- a 4-2-1-3: Sandhu (GK); Kotal, Jhingan, Bheke, Bose; Amarjit, Raynier; Sahal; Udanta, Chhetri, Soosairaj
Playing Brandon deep messed up the system
Stimac wanted to make his intentions clear from the off - this is a clean cut from the previous regime; we will start play from the back, we will not pack midfield with enforcers, we will be different.
In theory, the starting XI was perfect for that -- Pranoy Halder mucking about in midfield doing the dirty work, Brandon Fernandes Pirlo-ing it next to him. Halder was also meant to drop in between Sandesh Jhingan and Rahul Bheke, to try and allow Pritam Kotal and Subhasish Bose to overlap from fullback.
In reality, with Halder dropping deep and Brandon unable to read the game well enough to do his bit defensively, Curacao walked all over the Indian midfield. The Goan showed glimpses of what he's capable of (a couple of sweet through balls to Sahal Abdul Samad and Sunil Chhetri stood out) but that was about it. His defensive frailty plus Halder's poor passing and obvious discomfort on the ball rendered plan A completely ineffective.
The first 45 minutes were too easy for Curacao.
Plan B looks likely to become plan A
Plan B entailed moving Brandon out to the wing, where he's so much more comfortable, and reinforcing midfield by introducing two natural central players, both of whom are decently comfortable on the ball -- Amarjit Singh and Raynier Fernandes. The two almost immediately shored up the holes Leandro Bacuna and co. had been exploiting and made sure Curacao finally had a battle on their hands in midfield.
But that wasn't what made the change so effective. It was in making Sahal the pivot through which all their football flowed.
The Malayalee debutant looked the most comfortable Indian on the ball, and was by far the most dangerous in a creative sense. With the security (and legs) of Amarjit and Reynier behind him, Sahal ran the show for India and created a couple of great chances. He's definitely India's biggest takeaway from this game.
This is where Stimac deserves some credit. While those changes at half time were made for him by how ineffective Halder and Brandon were, he was brave in throwing on an 18-year-old and a 23-year-old - both making international debuts -- in their stead. As he was in handing an unproven Samad the role of playmaker.
Giving Rahul Bheke a much deserved, and long-awaited, debut will also win the Croat credit amongst fans craving for change.
Sunil Chhetri is wasted as a traditional no. 9
Yes, he got his 68th international goal (three more than that little fellow from Argentina), but apart from that penalty and a few deft passes when he dropped deep, Sunil Chhetri was an ineffective presence in the XI.
It's been a while since he's led a line on his own and it showed - Chhetri has adapted his game for the supporting striker/winger role he's played for Bengaluru FC (and India) over most of the past decade and his best qualities are now wasted if he's asked to be a no. 9.
He remains India's best player (and now most capped - it was his 108th cap, moving him past Bhaichung Bhutia) and Stimac would be ill advised to have him play ninety minutes on the periphery of the game.