India vs New Zealand in the Hero Intercontinental Cup was an absolute cracker of a game that the All Whites won 2-1. India made 7 changes to the side that beat Kenya but the skipper, top goalscorer, most experienced player and all-in-all star man, Sunil Chhetri still started up front. New Zealand created 16 chances in the game, compared to India's 6 and the All Whites had 2.51 Expected Goals to India's 0.51.
Going into the game, the Blue Tigers were well aware that New Zealand possessed an aerial threat and some tricky customers in midfield. 44% of New Zealand's chances had come from crosses and the two goals that they did score came from the brilliance of Sarpreet Singh. Therefore, Stephen Constantine took a gamble by playing Md. Rafique on the right side of a midfield 4. I cannot speak for the national team coach, but it seems like Rafique was in the line-up to try and shackle Sarpreet. This obviously didn't work, New Zealand created 43% of their chances in the game from crosses (all but one in the first half) and Sarpreet notched 2 assists. *Facepalm*
The first chance of the game was a sign of things to come,
As seen in the image, the 4 defenders were asked not to stretch themselves beyond the width of the box and were crowding the middle with numbers to try and attack any crosses that do come in. As a result, the two wide men played more like wing-backs. Ashique and Rafique were both hooked by half-time after dismal performances, as they were pre-occupied with chasing shadows in defence and therefore were not able to get close to the forwards to try and win second balls when India launched high direct passes and were also ineffective in the counter attack.
This ensured that all Sarpreet and Jai Ingham had to do was pull out towards the wings and they would get all the time in the world to pick a cross. The All Whites are tactically astute too. When the game settled down and this space was no longer available, the wide players changed their tactics and exposed a familiar weakness in the Indian system, allowing space between the lines, i.e., vertical compactness.
Playing 4-4-2 and not a 4-2-3-1 with this line-up meant that once again India were caught playing in a flat formation with acres of spaces in between the defence and midfield - a recurring trend that I have written about before. While New Zealand's press is nowhere near as intense as the Kyrgyz Republic, the two sides are similar in the sense that they use the wide men to come in-field into a #10 position and create chaos. All 4 of their their goals in the tournament have come from Sarpeet drifting infield and running at defenders.
Good passing teams create goals by using the extra man advantage. Lots of professional teams practice the "Rondo" and in this phase of the game, New Zealand created a Rondo on the pitch. Tim Payne (on the ball) has options in every angle and choosing any of the passes will force Indian defenders to break formation, he eventually picks the vertical ball into Andre de Jong. This turns the game into a 5v4 Rondo with the spare man in the middle. Subhashish gives away a foul - Jai Ingham would have been in behind the defence - but, in vain, as Sarpreet Singh created a great chance from the resulting free-kick anyway.
[ Toni Kroos is the world's best at the Rondo and here's a video of him playing in a 3v4 Rondo. He doesn't even need a touch sometimes! Unreal. ]
New Zealand exploited this gap, over and over again, particularly in the first half with Jai Ingham, Andre De Jong and Sarpreet Singh running rampant. 10/16 chances created by New Zealand were in the first half. Sarpreet moving into "the hole" also created space for runners by attracting Indian defenders towards him and both New Zealand goals came from this movement.
It was too easy for New Zealand to bypass the Indian midfield and the obvious solution to this was to pack the midfield with Rafique, Thapa and Borges with Balwant tracking back from the right and Chhetri alone up front. Balwant isn't the ideal candidate for that role either, but this just goes to show that Stephen Constantine got his team completely wrong. This also points to a systemic failure in the way India are set up and any team with even an ounce of technique will be able to exploit this weakness. In the manager's defence and as he himself pointed out, the hard work was already done and this was a good chance to try out the rest of the squad.
On that front, only Subhashish, Amrinder and Thapa can hold their heads up and say that they delivered a decent performance. Subhashish's accuracy with long balls is unparalleled in the squad and the fact that he's a left footer opens up new angles to hit these passes - something we lack with Anas in the team. Nobody else, skipper included, were effective on the night.
Story of the game
New Zealand thoroughly dominated possession and restricted India to just a handful of forays into their half which were promptly snuffed out. India couldn't or wouldn't commit men to attack and this combined with structural defects in the Blue Tigers' system, meant that New Zealand should have won by a larger margin. The All Whites are a young team and they will learn from this game and only get better.
In case you're interested, we've got a lot of similar content coming up for the World Cup and the next Indian football season. Follow @sgtsaltnpeppa on Twitter to stay up to date.