China 0-0 India: Tactical Analysis as Constantine's men scrape lucky draw
There is no sugarcoating that. India rode their luck in Souzhou, as a wasteful Chinese team and an inspired Gurpreet Singh Sandhu combined to give the Blue Tigers a creditable 0-0 draw against China in an international friendly.
India started in their typical 4-4-2 formation, which coach Stephen Constantine has somehow still stuck with. Pronay Halder and Anirudh Thapa started in central midfield, with regular centre-back Anas Edathodika making way for Subhasish Bose.
What followed was a prototypical example of the football that Stephen Constantine's India have played for a very long time now - intensely physical and combative, but barely any technical nous on display.
Can we stop using the 4-4-2 please?
The style is simple and uncomplicated, but it also doesn't suit a lot of the players that India have at their disposal. India's two strikers are both 5' 7" tall. India play long balls up from defense, looking to go route one all the time. How can anybody not see the fallacy there?
To Jeje Lalpekhlua and Sunil Chhetri's credit, both have shown only too often that their physical strength and aerial ability is top-notch for men that small. But, the simple truth remains that it does not suit the biggest strengths that they have.
In their respective clubs, Chhetri and Jeje have both had the most productive runs when playing alongside others that they can play intelligent one-twos with, relying more on quick movement and intelligent passing than just plain old physical hustle.
Now, India doesn't have a Miku or a Raphael Augusto in their ranks, but India has players blessed with more technical ability than Constantine's style gives them credit for.
In this game, it was clear that India was causing the Chinese defense some worry when the likes of Chhetri and Thapa had the ball at their feet. But India just did not hold on to possession for long enough, for it to be a sustained threat.
For a non-possession style of football to be a threat in an attacking sense, you need to be quick on transitions, quick to move the ball between the lines.
For that, your attacking players need to be on the same page. Udanta Singh and Holicharan Narzary both had off-days on the flanks, and so did Jeje.
But most importantly, Udanta and Narzary were basically playing as auxiliary full-backs themselves.
So when the opportunities did come for the transitions, they were too far away from the Chinese defense to pose a presentable threat to them.
Even if the long-ball style is accepted as what India are going to be doing at the Asian Cup, there were problems with how it was executed. If you are going route-one most of the time, you need to be hungry to win the second ball, have the desire to challenge the 50-50s.
Once again, the fact that India sat so deep, and had only Chhetri and Jeje anywhere near the Chinese half meant that there weren't enough bodies around to feed off them, even if they won they long balls.
The 4-4-2 also shackled India's best player on the night. Anirudh Thapa's strengths are moving forward from midfield. He showed that he's developed an understanding with Chhetri, and there was some neat interplay between the two at times.
But having only Halder alongside in the centre of the park meant that Thapa had to sit back more often to absorb the pressure the Chinese were putting on India.
India need a switch to a three-man midfield
Football games are, more often than not, won or lost in midfield. India constantly loses the midfield battle, sometimes even while playing inferior opposition.
In recent times, that hasn't cost Constantine dearly, as he has had a Chhetri or a Jeje to bail the side with a moment of individual quality.
The coach often repeats that India don't have the players to play a passing game or a three-man midfield. Do they really not, though?
India have got the players to play a three-man midfield that would enable them to have more control of matches from the centre of the park. Vinit Rai and Thapa are both adept with the ball at their feet and possess a very decent passing range as well.
Also, adding Vinit to play alongside the two already in midfield would mean that Thapa gets more license to roam in the space between the midfield and the defense.
Obviously, a three-man midfield would mean a switch to a single-striker system, meaning either Chhetri or Jeje cannot play there. That isn't a concern either, as Chhetri has sparkled on the left wing for Bengaluru FC, for a couple of years now.
China, in this game, outnumbered India in the middle of the park, and that enabled them to also get their full-backs higher up the pitch to cause the Indian defense plenty of problems.
Wang Tong and Li Xuepeng were able to maraud forward at will, in the knowledge that in case of a quick transition, their defensive midfielders would slot in to cover for them.
Of course, it was a completely different issue that there were barely any quick transitions.
Clean sheet secured, but underlying defensive issues remain
Yes, India will make their way back from Souzhou with a clean sheet, but India still have plenty of concerns at the back. The least of those will have to be Pritam Kotal. The long-standing first-choice right-back was once again fantastic, as he stood tall on his flank.
Sandesh Jhingan, though, is the big anomaly. Jhingan is a fabulous defender, he is most definitely India's best centre-back at this point as well. But is he a leader? Can he organise a defensive line?
Maybe he can, but he's shown plenty of times that he himself doesn't have the positional discipline you'd seek from your organiser at the back.
Jhingan is a fantastic one-on-one defender, both when the ball is on the floor and in the air. He won most of his aerial duels in this game as well. But it is his woeful positional ability that has the potential to cause concern.
There were multiple occasions in this game when the other three defenders were in the same line, and Jhingan was either a step behind or in front of them, rendering any potential offside trap futile.
That is frustrating because the skipper on the night has got all the capabilities to be a long-term contender for that armband once Chhetri has hung up his boots.
Narayan Das, too, started the game really well but was ripped to shreds in the second half. India also seemed to have more balance in their defense when Anas came on to replace Narayan, which meant a switch to left-back for Subhasish Bose.
Subhasish had an outstanding season for Bengaluru at left-back last year, and his ability is underused if he's playing as a centre-back.
All this said about the defense, and yet, in the second half, they barely won a single aerial ball which came into the box. India neither man-mark nor do they mark zonally.
Well, of course, they are told to do one or the other, but when a cross comes into the box, all the defenders do most times, is watch the beauty of its flight instead of taking responsibility and dealing with it.
China recognised that threat, and in the second half, all their set-pieces were floated to the back-post, where they had created an overload against the Indian defenders. It really was a little bit timid on the Indians' part to not recognise that for the duration of the half.
India were lucky in Souzhou that the Chinese were profligate. India are also incredibly blessed to have Gurpreet in goal, as his ability to deal with balls into the box, could be a cure for the defense ball-watching.
But, ultimately, the story from this friendly will have to be similar to the story from most India games under Constantine. When a 4-4-2 formation has two tiny men leading the line, it is most likely to fall flat on its face against quality opposition.