The Indian Women's National Team has played a string of games in the last few months, including peaks such as the retention of the SAFF Championship for the 5th successive time, and deep troughs like falling short on GD in the AFC Olympic Qualifiers - Round 2. The performances were promising but, some questionable results and team selections means that there's a lot more to this team than what meets the eye.
The Elephant in the Room
Before I start, I'd like to address the elephant in the room by drawing some attention to this piece by Arka Bhattacharya.
There has been a concerted effort by the Administrators of Women's Football in India to "diversify" the team by selecting players from States that are not known for their football heritage. While this is a noble gesture, it's having an adverse effect on the field of play. 7 senior players are currently boycotting the team because they feel under-valued, and amongst them is the all-time National Top Scorer Bala Devi, and ace attacker, Kamala Devi.
Further, certain coaches have been accused of favouritism, being abusive and trying to manipulate the players by "playing divide and conquer". Arka's article contains the following quote from an unnamed player.
“The problems between us and Chaoba Devi started long ago. Some of us do not play for her team Kryphsa and play for other teams in Manipur. That in turn, led to her singling some players out.”
Most of the players who boycotted the camp played for Eastern Sporting Union in the IWL.
These issues happen all over the world, but as Desmond Mathias put it, we do not have an adequate grievance redressal mechanism in place to handle them. Is there a way that these footballers who have done so much for the country can get their voices heard without having to sacrifice their position in the squad? Is there anybody that's willing to talk to them and try to resolve this situation?
As a football analyst, all I can ask is for the Federation to put on-field performance above everything else. Pick players that deserve to be there and do not pick players just because they help grow your social media following. Pick players for footballing reasons and once you've picked them, ensure that you back them.
Anyway, onto happier topics....
The good news is that the results have almost been as good as the performances. Since the start of 2019, the team has played 18 games, won 12, lost 5, drawn 1, scoring 48 goals and conceding just 12 for an average of 2.6 goals scored per game and 0.66 goals conceded per game. The opponents weren't exactly top quality, but the girls beat most of what was put in front of them.
The team started the year playing a set of friendlies against Hong Kong and Indonesia before heading to Bhubaneshwar to host the Gold Cup against Nepal, Myanmar and Iran. India beat Iran 1-0 before a Sabitra Bhandari double sent India crashing to 2-1 loss against Nepal. This loss was followed by another 2-0 reversal against South Asian powerhouses, Myanmar and, as a result, the Blue Tigresses finished a disappointing 3rd in the tournament.
Next up was the Turkish Women's Cup, featuring some top quality sides such as Romania, Northern Ireland and the French 'B' Team. This tournament mainly functioned as an exposure and learning tool for the girls as they only won 1 game before finishing 6th out of 8 teams after losing to Kazakhstan on penalties in the "Fifth Place Playoff". The only victory was a 10-0 win over Turkmenistan. We also lost narrowly to the Uzbeks and were blanked 3-0 by Romania.
A week after the Kazakhstan game, the SAFF Championship kicked off. India were expected to win the tournament and did not disappoint. The Blue Tigresses dominated every game, won all 4 and only conceded 1 goal in the whole tournament. Indumathi Kathiresan finished as the top scorer of the tournament with 4 goals, Grace Dangmei managed to get 3.
After the highs of lifting a trophy, the team were back in action in the AFC Olympic Qualifiers, where they faced off against familiar foes, Indonesia, Nepal and Myanmar. The team started the group well with a 3-1 win over Indonesia and a straightforward 2-0 win over Nepal. Myanmar blanking Indonesia 6-0 meant that the Indians would have to beat them in the final game of the group to progress to the next round. Unfortunately, the match ended as a 3-3 draw with the Indian team crashing out despite putting up a spirited performance.
India Women's NT resemble Pep Guardiola's brilliant Man City team, in the sense that they play a nominal 4-3-3 with penetration on the wings, 2 "Free 8s" in midfield and an unorthodox centre-forward, but that's where the similarities end.
Dalima Chhibber starts at RB, and along with Sangita Basfore (DM), provides the artillery behind the front 5.
Sandhiya Ranganathan is the lone striker and is usually flanked by the tireless, Sanju Yadav and Grace. The most talented players in the team are the 2 attacking midfielders, Indumathi and Ratanbala Devi.
There isn't really a co-ordinated plan to create space and bring the ball into midfield.
Most teams that we play against do not press high, so it's easy for the girls to roll the ball out and get the game going. The CBs bring the ball out before trying to find Dalima or Sangita with the first pass.
Unfortunately, Maymol Rocky's side do not have much cohesion on the ball, and it is pretty common for the Indian players to misplace 3-5 yard side passes if put under a little bit of pressure. Dalima and Sangita are very good at hitting the ball into space 40 yards away, but even they don't complete every short pass they attempt, and frankly, it's highly frustrating to watch sometimes.
Retaining possession is critical to this side, especially given how exposed we leave the defence. But, due to the girls' technical deficiencies, the coaching team chose a more primitive approach to reach the final third. Essentially, India play hit and rush football in midfield.
Once we get it to the half line, we try to spread the ball to the wings or play an early ball in behind the defence. Sandhiya and Sanju are willing runners and have the pace and dribbling ability to give any defence nightmares and Maymol Rocky's team is set up to exploit this ability.
If the pass is not completed, the front 5 have to try and press, but the press is not co-ordinated and ends up as individual players running after the ball. This allows good opponents, like Myanmar, an easy run at the Indian defence. Sangita is usually left isolated in midfield, but unlike Fernandinho for City, she doesn't have the ability to be a nuisance and foul anything that moves near her.
Even against Indonesia, where the team tried to hold the ball a little more, there was a complete lack of penetration in central areas. When we lost the ball (like in above image), it becomes easy for teams to counter as Ratan and/or Indu do not track back immediately. This means that if the opponents can get runners going or bypass Sangita with a line-breaking pass, their chances of getting a goal is significantly boosted.
In short, we're neither tactically nor technically sound in the middle of the park. Composure and ability to take care of the ball are the two most obvious technical deficiencies, while tactically, I'd move from a 4-3-3 to more of an inverted "WM" (MW?) formation by moving Dalima into CM (no real use for FBs at this level).
Ironically, Pep's Man City ditched the WM for a 4-3-3 with free 8s when they won the league last season.
In the Final 1/3
In the final third, the plan is to attack the space behind the opposition defence as often as possible. Sandhiya does not provide a focal point and Grace isn't as quick as her attacking partners, which means that most of the good play is through the Indian left side and the electric, Sanju Yadav.
While the team does well enough in this area of the field, it's striking to see how much better we could be with a traditional striker. The front 3 are incredibly talented footballers, but for their own sake, the team needs a senior player in attack that can provide goals, guidance, and a calm head on the field.
Obviously, it's really frustrating to see that we leave Bala Devi (national top scorer) and Kamala Devi at home, when they have a combined 65 goals in 78 games.
There are plenty of problems but nothing that is un-fixable. The Women's Team are actually better positioned than the Senior Men's team, in terms of how close they are to qualifying for a World Cup on merit. But, the question is, will they be given the resources they need to achieve such a massive task?
P.S. You can find xG and Match Reports for the 3 AFC Olympic Qualifiers here.
P.P.S. I've just found out that Sasmita Malik has (at least) 40 goals in 35 games for India at a rate of 1.14 goals per game. Even Leo Messi doesn't have numbers that good for Argentina. Heck, even Marta doesn't have a ratio that good. But, for some reason, a generational talent was allowed to retire from the game "due to issues cropping out of marriage". Dear Men, this sexist shit has GOT TO STOP.
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