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West Ham United, Derby County, Hajduk Split. Fifty-three caps for Croatia, including third place at World Cup 1998. As a player, India’s new head coach Igor Štimac boasts of a fine CV. As a coach, the 51-year-old’s greatest achievements include taking Croatia to the fourth spot in the Fifa world rankings in 2013, and coaching most of the team that reached the 2018 World Cup finals.

Štimac, who has a reputation for giving opportunities to new players, has a two-year contract, succeeding Englishman Stephen Constantine.

Constantine had two stints as the national team head coach: 2002-05 and 2015-19. When he returned for the second time, it was a mild surprise at best—the All India Football Federation (Aiff) has turned to former coaches multiple times, but found it hard to replace Bob Houghton’s (coach from 2005-11) charisma.

And after rather unsuccessfully dabbling in two Goans (Armando Colaco and Savio Madeira) and a Dutchman (Wim Koevermans), they turned to the tried and tested once again.

But around a decade had passed between Constantine’s last game as India’s coach and his second appointment. Football had evolved, tactics revolutionized, and having been exposed to world-class leagues on television, the Indian football fan had become more educated and impatient. The demands that Constantine part I had met were very different from those that Constantine part II faced.

Most of these challenges will also be on the mind of Štimac, whose extensive research and willingness to adapt were the primary reasons he got the job. He has quickly followed his appointment with a 37-man probables list for the King’s Cup in Thailand in June, which features right-back Rahul Bheke and striker Jobby Justin among names that were glaringly missing from Constantine’s teams.

The Englishman had started his second tenure with two objectives—qualify for the 2019 AFC Asia Cup, and improve India’s Fifa ranking from an embarrassing 173 to a more respectable position. He achieved both, with ups and downs. India produced a mixed bag of results. Some meek losses, like the one away to Guam in June 2015, were ridiculed, but some, like the recent Asia Cup win over Thailand, were lauded. The consensus was that one couldn’t really predict which India would turn up. There was a 13-match unbeaten run between mid-2016 and late 2017.

Pritam Kotal of India blocking Theerathon Bunmathan of Thailand during the AFC Asian Cup in January. Getty Images
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Pritam Kotal of India blocking Theerathon Bunmathan of Thailand during the AFC Asian Cup in January. Getty Images

Subjectively, Constantine part II continues to divide opinion. Objectively, one must look beyond results to analyse the team’s performances. As India enter a new era, appointing probably their most high-profile coach till date, it is worth looking back at what was, and what must change. Detailed numbers from analytics company InStat of India’s last 27 competitive matches—from the World Cup qualifier loss to Oman on 11 June 2015, to the heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Bahrain in the Asia Cup in January—make for some compelling reading on where we stand.

Passing and crossing

Just as in everything else, football’s beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. If hoofing the ball up the field does it for a team, so be it. But fans have grown tired of the side limiting itself with this habit. One of the biggest issues modern Indian football teams have faced is the lack of composure and guile in passing the ball—but there are some promising play-makers Štimac can inspire. And passing has only recently become so important in our footballing ways.

In their last 27 competitive fixtures, India attempted an average of 367 passes per 90 minutes. Out of these, they got an average of 277 passes on target. That’s an accuracy rate of 75%. All four semi-finalists at the Asia Cup (Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Japan and Iran) attempted an average of at least 443 passes per game in the same number of matches.

But just passes don’t win games. Good passes probably do. Out of their 370-odd passes per 90 minutes, India attempted nine key passes. On an average, five of these were accurate. In comparison, in the same time period, Asian champions Qatar have attempted 19 key passes per 90 minutes, which is more than double of India’s.

Over the last 27 matches, India attempted 11.07 crosses per 90 minutes, with 2.85 finding their target. That’s a 25.75% success rate.

Possession

Possession has nothing to do with winning. The onus under Constantine was to soak up the pressure and make the most of the little time you get on the ball. The biggest change in this tactic came during the Asia Cup, when the team pressed from the front and reaped rewards. Štimac will have seen the potential to play that way—and must be smart but adventurous in his methods.

Over the course of the last 27 competitive fixtures, India have kept the ball for an average of 21.44 minutes out of 90. Apart from just two occasions (both 1-2 losses against Turkmenistan), India have won every match in which they have kept the ball for more minutes than this average. Iran have an average possession time of 25.46 minutes, and reached the Asia Cup semis—probably a marker for India to aim for. As for percentage, India’s average possession under Constantine was 44%. All four semi-finalists enjoyed at least 53% average ball possession in their last 27 competitive fixtures.

Attacking and counter-attacking

The sequence of crossing, passing, and possession should all lead to attacks. In their last 27 competitive fixtures, India launched a remarkable 499 counter-attacks, and 53 of them ended with shots. In comparison, Asia Cup semi-finalists UAE (467), Qatar (459), Japan (367) and Iran (420) all attempted fewer counters. India can surely play on the break, but need to be more lethal in Štimac’s reign—easing the weight of scoring on Sunil Chhetri.

Against Bahrain in the last group game of the Asia Cup, India attempted 14 counter-attacks and none of them ended with a shot. India were thrice as successful with their set-piece attacks than their counters. From a total of 294 set-piece attacks, India converted 30.27% into shooting chances—an excellent return which should reap more dividends.

Shooting

All the passing, counter-attacking, dribbling and crossing has to eventually lead to pressure on the opposition in the form of shots. In their last 27 competitive fixtures, India took an average of 10.56 shots per match. Out of these, 3.93 were on target.

In his last 20 matches, striker Chhetri attempted 73 shots and 31 of these hit the target. From these, 16 hit the back of the net. No other Indian player comes close to this sort of accuracy.

At the Asia Cup, India attempted nine shots per game, with three on target. Younger players like Anirudh Thapa, Michael Soosairaj and Brandon Fernandes are good from distance and must be encouraged to shoot if they start under Štimac.

Challenging for the ball

India made an average of 162.15 challenges per 90 minutes over the course of these 27 matches under the scanner. They won 50.09% of these. The 162 challenges can be broken down into defensive and offensive ones. Most of India’s challenges came in defence, where they made an average of 83.56 challenges per match. In the offensive half, India have made 78.59 challenges per 90 minutes. As a unit, India win the ball back more successfully in defence (55.63%) than in attack (34.74%). Štimac surely knows that the pulse of modern-day football is winning the ball high rather than sitting deep, which India tend to do more often than not.

In terms of headers, India won 49.49% of their aerial challenges. Centre-back Sandesh Jhingan is the most successful in this—winning an incredible 74% of his aerial duels.

Defending

India are pretty decent in tackling for the ball. Over the last 27 games, they have won nearly 56% of their tackles. However, this average dropped to 47% at the Asia Cup, even though the number of tackles went up. Coming to purely eagle’s-eye numbers, India attempted 31.44 tackles per match on an average, winning 17.52 of these.

India have done better in terms of interceptions (per 90 minutes) at the Asia Cup than all the semi-finalists: Iran (35), UAE (49), Japan (51) and Qatar (56). Against Bahrain, India made an incredible 87 interceptions in what was at times a scrappy affair.

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