For once, the Indian National Football Team, truly achieved something *historic*. To win a game in a big tournament, and to do it impressively, is a fantastic result for the team. The 4-1 victory on Sunday night underscores how far this team has come under Stephen Constantine but also highlighted some key aspects/weaknesses in the way the Indians are being asked to play.
I've been pretty vocal with my criticism of India's style of play, but, this game was proof of what could happen if everything always went right. Credit to the coach for getting his line-up and tactical tweaks spot on and the players for executing on the plan.
Indian Defence vs Thai Attack
The Thai front line does not possess a lot of pace, so, India started with a higher back line than usual. This allowed them to constrict the space in which the game was being played. The midfield players also did a good job in maintaining shape and ensuring that no large gaps were opened up between the lines.
As can be seen in the above image, India are occupying more of "mid-block" rather than a deep block on the edge of their own box. The gaps between the lines are also more consistent and, in this situation, Anirudh Thapa is marking Thai danger man Chanathip Songkrasin. Just modifying the defensive line and man-marking the danger man provided a significant boost to the Indian defensive performance.
As a result, Thailand found it really hard to progress the ball into dangerous areas and create chances. Despite dominating the ball in the first half, Thailand only created chances worth a little over half a goal (0.54 xG). Out of this, only 0.12 were from open play. In fact more than 3/4 of Thailand's xG created came from two set-piece chances in the first half.
Both the best Thai chances of the game came from wide free kicks whipped into a central area. The runs from the Thai players were also the same, bent from out to in around the Indian defensive line. India lined up with a zonal marking scheme from set plays in the first half and as usual, the concept of blocking was completely forgotten. Both Jhingan and Halder, the two best defensive players on the team, were guilty for ignoring their marking duties. The goal was directly caused by their marking errors.
The negative in the Indian performance is in the defensive positioning by de-facto captain, Sunil Chhetri & surprise Centre-Forward, Ashique Kuruniyan. If you scroll back to the previous picture, Chhetri and Ashique would initially occupy strong positions on either side of the Thai DM. In the photo, Ashique has held his position, but Chhetri loses his patience and leaves his position to go and press the opponent CBs. This opens up the pass to the fullback and then the DM and allows Thailand to play around the Indian front line and into midfield. Luckily, after that they struggled to find Chanathip in dangerous positions in "the hole".
In the second half, the Thai confidence was shot and they struggled to create concrete chances. Credit must be given to the Blue Tigers' defensive unit for a solid performance.
Indian Attack vs Thai Defence
Just as I had predicted in the buildup, the Thai fullbacks pushing on played into India's hands. The Blue Tigers' preferred ball to release pressure is down the wing for one of the wide players or, in this game, Ashique to run onto. The first two goals came from similar plays, both involving long balls towards Ashique. India's ability to win almost every second ball was definitely the most crucial feature of their attacking play.
The first came from a penalty won from a quick throw in to Ashique, after the initial long ball was cleared. And the second came from a hopeful Chhetri lob that Udanta managed to latch onto before his disappointing cross was miraculously deflected by Ashique onto the top goalscorer's path. In the period following the second goal, India did a great job of winning the second balls and then hitting the Thai wings at pace. Pritam Kotal, in particular, was heavily involved indicating India's supremacy.
The difference in attacking play was clearest in the final third. India hit only 2 crosses in the entire game. Instead of putting high balls into the box, the players chose to hit sharp passes into the central area just off the top of the box.
"I think the problem we had was that we were giving the ball away too much. We tried to look after the ball in the second half" - Stephen Constantine
The word from the bench seems to have been to keep it on the ground and try to control the ball a little more. Unlike previous games, we saw a lot of angled passes into players making runs, rather than aimless, high and looping balls. Psychologically, the presence of Ashique must have also made a difference. An inspired decision by the coach to play him as a centre-forward (I have been asking for this for a months now though).
India showed some signs of sophistication and patience in their forward play but it was still dominated by long balls. The coach's comments from the post match press conference indicate that he is aware that it's not a high percentage strategy. Against UAE, in the next game, the Blue Tigers will have to show a little more quality and creativity as they do not push their defence as high up. They have plenty of pace on the wings and have 2 excellent poachers waiting in the box, should they decide to cross. The hope is that the team can replicate this defensive performance and that Constantine brings out his set piece playbook for this one as our attacking play still has many problems.
All in all though, solid start to the tournament. Minimum expectation must now to be to get to the next round.
Expected Goals & Match Report
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