FIFA WC Qualifiers: India's shock loss is on coach Stimac, but he can still turn things around

Manvir Singh in action against Afghanistan. AIFF Media

India were stunned by Afghanistan on Tuesday, losing 2-1 at home in their crunch FIFA World Cup Qualifier. The immediate reaction was of shock, anger, disappointment, even calls for the coach Igor Stimac to be sacked.

Twenty-four hours later, with the dust having settled, has the mood changed? Are things as bad as they seemed, or can India head for their crucial games in June with the form and confidence they displayed last summer? ESPN's Sunaadh Sagar and Anirudh Menon discuss the key questions for both sides of the story.

What's wrong now?

AM: Well, even if we keep the eye test aside (considering how sore said eyes would be after 180 minutes of Afghanistan vs India), the numbers make for grim reading. After the heady success of a now forgotten summer, India have won once in 13 matches. They've not scored an open play goal for 631 minutes, Sunil Chhetri's penalty last Tuesday the only goal in that timeframe.

Before the Asian Cup started, Stimac had said the continental showpiece would be treated as a stepping stone to prepare for the remaining World Cup qualifiers. Coming out with one point out of a possible six against the supposed minnows of the group, Afghanistan, after that isn't a good look.

But is it that bad?

SS: No. The numbers are damning, sure. But in games in the lower rung of Asian football, the margins are minimal - the FIFA ranking is a misnomer. Afghanistan might be ranked 158 in the world and much has been made of them not having their first-choice starters, but the drop-off to the starting XI that featured against India wasn't too high. Only four players (goalkeeper and three defenders) were common in the lineups that defeated India 2-1 and lost 0-4 to Kuwait. To say nothing of Ashley Westwood's ability to pull off a result as an underdog. India's loss is a bad result, sure, but it's not the outright disaster it appears. This Afghanistan team can pull off a result against Kuwait in June.

As for India, much of the reaction to the performance has been result based. Over two legs, India created gilt-edged chances to score and win both games. In another universe, Manvir Singh is being hailed as a hero for winning three games for India, as opposed to one.

AM: Yes. For me, calling them 'gilt-edged'' chances is pushing it. There may have been one or two good ones, but the majority were half-chances. And it's instructive to see how the better of those chances were created: when India kept the passing short in the final third and played it on the ground. These are the tactics that won Stimac and his team many plaudits last year, and they've been bafflingly abandoned in favour of the good ol' send-it-out-to-the-wings-and-whip-it-in. As good as Sunil Chhetri is in the air, there's only so much he can do when he has to compete aerially against much bigger centre-backs. Stimac had the formula to succeed with the players at his disposal, why was it changed?

Also, you could have said this criticism has been levelled after two odd results, but the goal drought behind it speaks to a larger issue.

SS: Bafflingly abandoned seems inaccurate, especially since Stimac himself wasn't too happy with what his players were doing. The regression to good ol' wingplay arises because of players choosing the safe option. Playing through the middle - the style that took India to three trophies last year came from a scenario where the stars aligned for India. Stimac's chosen squad was in form, the level of competition wasn't high and the settled squad were in sync with each other. It was clearly obvious that the combinations on the pitch against Afghanistan weren't as fluent - so opting for a high-risk central style of play would have let Afghanistan's floating midfielders (with European and Asian pedigree, I might add) run riot.

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

AM: On the point of players choosing the safe option, if you put players in positions they're not the best at - say a Zuala Chhangte on the left wing - that is obviously what they will do. But the larger point is hidden with a phrase in that response: "chosen squad."

Where is the flexibility?

AM: While it's understandable that a manager picks a team based on the players he's already worked with, and is comfortable with, it works against the interests of the team at times. I believe this is one of those times: Jeakson Singh doesn't start for his club yet, as he slowly returns from injury, but he can start for country? Chhangte has always done his best work on the right, but the team's complexion is changed to accommodate an out-of-form Manvir Singh there?

To say Indian football lacks depth in these times is inaccurate (especially for wide forwards and central midfielders) and surely the team could have benefited from someone like a Parthib Gogoi, an in-form player who brings much-needed confidence into the team setup. That's the kind of intangible that automatically transmits onto the pitch and reflects as tangibles, like we saw last summer.

An example of how it affected the team is the Anirudh Thapa substitution: normally, this would have been a good move, but what Stimac did not seem to take into consideration was that Thapa has had his absolutely worst domestic season so far, and has been benched by his club. Would it not have been better if Stimac had an in-form midfielder to call on off the bench?

SS: Let's say Stimac had picked Parthib and started him in a crucial FIFA WCQ - would we not consider this scenario of him throwing an inexperienced youngster to the wolves? The ideal time to blood new youngsters are in friendlies, which due to the international calendar and the AIFF's ineptitude, Stimac had no opportunity to do so. There's also the complication of the actual practicalities when inculcating new players into the squad - camaraderie issues, them not knowing training routines, any relationships on the pitch being non-existent etc. Chhetri made a similar argument ahead of the Asian Games - Narender Gahlot not knowing the runs he makes.

The Thapa substitution is somewhere where Stimac did err - but I also think he was caught off-guard at the lack of impact from his substitutes. For all his faults, he seems perhaps too loyal to his charges, and this could be a place he could improve.

AM: That's exactly what he tried with Vikram Pratap Singh and no one's criticising him for that call. If anything, they want to see more of it. What we've seen is the same selection of players appearing year-in, year-out regardless of how they perform. Sure, reward the consistent ones, but if players get a feeling that errors of theirs won't be penalised would that not foster a bit of complacency? Incentivising players to not make the kind of silly mistakes that lead to goal concessions is just as important as showing players that you are loyal to them. And this comes when every player has to fight every minute not just for a place in the XI, but in the squad itself.

International football is a tough gig, but none of this is something that Stimac doesn't know or has not experienced before. It makes his job tougher to induct new players to the squad, but that shouldn't mean he doesn't do it.

What's done is done, though. What does Stimac do now?

AM: Especially considering how important that June qualifier against Kuwait will be...

SS: For starters, he could do with fewer eye-catching headlines ahead of the game. His bravado prior to the Afghanistan games placed pressure on his players, and made Westwood's pre-match talk easy. Perhaps it's too late for Stimac to change his outspoken ways, but maybe this time he'd be better off doing his talking after having defeated Kuwait.

As for on-pitch matters, Stimac will get his much-wanted longer camp by all accounts, and he simply has to revert to what worked in 2023. He's beaten Kuwait, he's overseen winning, intricate football before - it's not beyond him. Yet, this will be a high-pressure environment with the knives out for him - if he keeps things simple and does not over complicate matters in the pursuit of making a point - India will be going to the third round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

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