Floyd Pinto's Indian Arrows are a very, very, very under-rated side. The common consensus is that they're a walkover (they finished bottom of the table last season), but, this Arrows side have changes the narrative. They are currently in 8th place, tied on points with defending champions, Minerva Punjab, and 3 ahead of Gokulam Kerala, a better financed side.
On a few occasions this season, this side has played with a maturity that belies their age, such as in the 3-0 dismantling of Shillong Lajong.
They didn't always look good, though. At the start of the season, they were playing a traditional 4-4-2, with direct passes into the channels and, predictably, their form suffered. (If you want to know why I hate the 4-4-2, read literally any other piece in the tactical profiles page on this website).
In their first 6 games, they scored 2 goals, conceded 12 and only managed to beat Shillong, another team of young players. Their goal creation and chance concession metrics have still not recovered since then and they are still bottom of the table on almost every metric.
In the 6 games after their 3-0 loss to NEROCA, their form has turned around with 10 points in the last 6 games. It's not necessarily title winning form, but given the context, it is still really good. They only won 4 games in the entirety of last season and they've already matched that number a little over halfway into this season. Despite the numbers being on the lower end, there are plenty of positive signs indicating that there is a definite improvement in this squad.
They're currently performing at 6.1 points over expected, which is significant as only one other team - NEROCA - is exceeding expectations by a similar total (5.9). This indicates that the Arrows are doing much better than they should be doing and we need to investigate if they've been lucky or are doing something special.
The Numbers Tell a Tale
When we dig into the Arrows' underlying numbers, one thing becomes very clear - The Indian Arrows have been getting better at both defending and attacking.
The narrative of them starting the season badly and then improving is clear to see by the dashed lines. The blue line indicating the quality of chances conceded has been steadily decreasing after a terrible opening day.
The orange line indicate the quality of chances created is chugging along on a upward trajectory. Also, note that there's a notable spike in the numbers starting from the 6th game.
They're still conceding more than they create but that is expected for a developmental side. The xG conceded is higher than xG created by a very fine margin. It looks like the next game or the one after that will be the one to take the Arrows xG Created above the xG Conceded, which would be a big achievement for everybody involved with the project.
Now that we know what the results are like, it's time to look into how the Arrows are achieving these results.
Formations are nothing more than a way to distribute players but some formations have certain benefits over others. In the I-league, 9/11 teams play in a 4-4-2 or some variation of it, therefore, the easiest way to gain an advantage is to organise your team in a formation that naturally does well against it, like a 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3, 4-3-3 etc. This is the principle upon which the Arrows revival kicked off.
The Spare Man
After the disastrous start, Floyd Pinto decided to bulk up the defence by moving to a 4-1-4-1/5-4-1 "Spare Man System".
Deepak Tangri was introduced into the team as the deepest midfielder/extra centre half depending on the phase of play. This single change has had a transformative impact on the Arrows. Since then, the coach has been slowly liberating the rest of the team and trying to get them to go out and score more goals.
Most opponents look to play the ball to the wide players, take it out and cross for the forwards or look to launch it long and win the second ball.
As I've described using the triangles in the above image, Pinto's team is set up well with the 4 key attacking zones for a 4-4-2 marked by at least 3 men. The key to this system is the space covered by Deepak Tangri.
As the "Water-Carrier" for this team, Deepak holds his positions in between the CBs and behind the midfield. Under no circumstances is he allowed to vacate this zone as he is the spare man for almost every defensive move. It is his responsibility to step in and fill the gap if one of the ends of the triangles (in the above image) is empty.
Deepak's introduction to the squad has added clarity to the defence but it has also enabled the 4 remaining midfield players to push up and attempt a mid-to-high level press.
The two triggers for the midfield are when the opponents cross half line or when the opponents pass out to the fullback. To press a fullback high, you need to commit a central midfield player. In a 4-4-2, that could be suicide, but the future Chennaiyin youngster's inclusion means that the Arrows can afford to do this and press higher up the pitch.
Deepak Tangri in that role also facilitates some build up play, even though he's not the most technically gifted players in the side.
The two CBs, Anwar Ali and Jitendra Singh are both better passers of the ball and Deepak dropping in gives them the security to move forward and be brave with their short passing when playing out the back.
This movement also allows the wing backs to push high up the field and create a wide passing option.
Ashish Rai has been an ever-present but him and whoever plays on the other side has been outstanding both defensively and offensively. (I've been watching them mainly over the TV so it's hard to say what the wide players and forwards are doing during build-up but I think they generally just stay high and central respectively).
The latest fashion among football teams that try to play out the back is to put the defensive mid between the stoppers and Arrows are no different.
The fullbacks and the deepest midfield player allow this side to shift across multiple different formations & systems within a single game. Ashish Rai, Boris and Stalin can all fill in as a full-back, wing-back or as a wide midfield player, underscoring the adaptability of this side.
For example, in the home game against East Bengal, the manager set his side out in a 3-4-3/4-3-3 when they had the ball but when they lost the ball, it would turn into a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 with Amarjit pushing up a little and Deepak moving into midfield. When Chullova was sent off and East Bengal were a man down, Pinto brought on Rohit Dhanu for Anwar Ali and went to a 4-3-3 with Sanjeev Stalin occupying a midfield slot alongside Suresh Singh and Amarjit, and Deepak dropping into the defence.
While bringing Deepak into the squad has improved the Arrows' results, they’ve left him out in their last two games against Shillong and East Bengal in favour of an extra attacker in Rohit Dhanu, with Lalengmawia and Amarjit taking their places in a double pivot.
In these games, Arrows played a 4-2-4/4-4-2 formation based on the pace and verve of winger, Ninthoiganba Meetei, and forward, Rohit Dhanu. This move sacrificed the defensive stability that Tangri provides and allowed Arrows to adopt a more direct/aggressive approach and they duly went out and scored 3 goals - the only time this season that they've scored more than 1 goal in a game.
They also did well away from home against an East Bengal side that is challenging for the title before succumbing to a 1-0 loss.
In terms of weaknesses, the most obvious is the lack of a focal point in attack. Rahul KP has been the first choice centre forward but his form has been downright poor. The Kerala born youngster is outrageously talented but has struggled to lead the Arrows line this season. He is yet to score but has been on the end of chances worth 2.5 goals.
In fact, nobody in the entire squad has scored more than 1 non-penalty goal, which is obviously a huge concern. Rahim Ali has been the alternative striker and has looked decent when given the chance, but he's not scored either from about 0.56 xG (that number is so poor you'd question if he actually likes to shoot).
The second weakness is the focus on wide attacks. Ninthoi is the only "winger" in this squad and even he doesn't get to the byline often.
With everybody that usually occupies a wide slot preferring to come inside and play combined with the fact that the central attacking players aren't a threat in the air, the question arises - Why play with traditional wide midfielders?
As mentioned above, whoever plays at fullback is blessed with technical ability, pace and a desire to get forwards. so, when there is a wide midfielder in front of them, it reduces the space in which they can overlap and the Arrows end up having all their wide players clustered together in pockets of space on the wing.
This leads to an imbalance in attack, making it more difficult for the player on the ball and easier for the opposition defence.
A great aspect of the current Indian Arrows squad is that it has quite a few players who can play in at least two positions which gives the coach more tactical options to choose from. Rather than focusing on any single style, it looks like the Arrows project is focusing on creating rounded, well developed and adaptable footballers.
And what's even more interesting is their ability to adapt to tactical tweaks seamlessly - the coach Floyd Pinto is disproving all those that say that you can't play good football and win with Indian players.
The work he's doing this season is setting the blueprint for how future national teams should play. Tactically astute, defensively sound and hopefully, with a splash of attacking flair.
I'm still waiting for your feedback. Find me on Twitter, @SgtSaltnPeppa