On May 15 2019, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced Igor Stimac as the new Indian national football team head coach. Taking over the reins from Stephen Constantine, Igor Stimac’s main objective was to change the ‘run and chase’ mentality of the players to a more possession-based football, something he was renowned for during his coaching days with the Croatian national team.
In his very first match in-charge in the 2019 King’s Cup against Curacao, he handed six players their international debuts. The first match didn’t go according to plan but subsequently, India went on to beat hosts Thailand and ended up finishing third in the tournament. That was a solid start to what was always expected to be a long-term project. India failed to make it to final of the Intercontinental Cup soon after, but the Croatian defended the results saying that his main focus was the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Igor Stimac went on to hand debuts to several youngsters and made a total of 35 changes to his squad before the qualifiers began.
Changing the playing style of a whole nation isn’t a one day’s job. There are some processes to be followed and results can only be achieved if all the players in the squad believe in the philosophy of the coaching team. Igor Stimac’s focus on fitness and a build-from-the-back strategy is something that doesn’t come naturally to the Indian footballers, but it has started to pay dividends for him recently. So after twelve months where does Indian football stand under Igor Stimac? Has the playing style of the national team improved for good under him? Let’s take a look.
Playing Style under the Croatian
It’s very clear what Igor Stimac’s vision is for his team. He wants a young and a fit team capable of playing in different tactical setups. He wants his defenders to play from the back and not just lob high balls to the forwards hoping that the strikers will chase the ball and get it in the back of the net. In possession, he normally deploys a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 with the main focus on being compact as a defensive unit, which allows the midfield players to have the freedom to play defence-breaking passes. He wants his forwards to press high up the pitch and try to intercept the ball in the opponent’s half in order to put together a counter-attack from that position. He is trying to develop the next generation of Indian football and that seems to be his main vision.
Notable results of his tenure
QATAR 0-0 INDIA
With the odds totally against the Blue Tigers, they went to the ‘Asian Champions’ Qatar’s den and managed to hold onto a much-appreciated draw. The Indian players were over the moon and their post-match celebrations spoke volumes. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who was the star of the game, having kept the Qataris at bay with his superb glove work broke down on the ground. The usual Viking Clap took place with the away supporters and this time even the head coach joined in for the celebrations. Remember, India were without their regular captain Sunil Chettri for this match who missed out because he had a fever and the odds were ridiculously against them. They expected to get a masterclass from the reigning Asian Cup Champions but on the contrary, themselves displayed a solid defensive show to earn a solitary but crucial point.
INDIA 1-2 OMAN
Even though India lost this one in the final minutes of the match due to some defensive lapses, the Blue Tigers almost managed to pull off Igor Stimac’s plans to perfection in this particular encounter. It’s ironic that this was probably India’s best performance under the Croatian and it ended up in a loss. We witnessed some sublime one-touch football between Brandon Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa and Ashique Kuruniyan, with Sandesh Jhingan also trying to start some attacks from the heart of the defence. The lack of match fitness and some tired legs in the team caused India to give away two late goals and the match ended as an eventual heartbreak.
Where are the goals going to come from?
After going winless in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers and almost losing to teams like Bangladesh and Afghanistan, there are some serious questions which Igor Stimac needs to answer. India are playing good football and aren’t losing the easy games but lack of goals is hurting the team. Igor feels that scoring goals is a big problem for this team and he will have to fix it quickly to start winning some matches. He is a big fan of Manvir Singh and is hoping that the FC Goa player delivers for him. He still hasn’t got the best out of Sunil Chhetri and is still to figure out the best role for him in his system. India are not blessed with young strikers coming through the ranks of league football as well, so this problem seems to be a pressing issue for the Croatian.
There’s no doubt that the team’s mentality has definitely changed for the better but this remains a long term project and it’ll be interesting to watch how the team shapes up in the next Asian Cup and in the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
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