I-League: Roca's tactical shift brings stability to Bengaluru FC but goals continue to elude Blues
It took six games for Albert Roca to claim his first away win in the I-League as Bengaluru FC beat Minerva Punjab 1-0 in Ludhiana but his joy would be short-lived as two consecutive draws saw the Blues effectively ruled out of the title race for good. Catching up with the league leaders seemed a realistic shot a few weeks ago but expecting three teams to capitulate this late in the season seems out of the question.
Curiously, the absence of a serious title challenge in recent weeks cannot be attributed to a lack of effort. The Blues have had a string of poor results due to various factors in the attack, some rotten luck at the back and abysmal refereeing (more on that later).
Following their 0-0 draw to Mohun Bagan at home, the Blues lie in fifth place. They have had more draws than wins and have scored fewer goals than the four teams above them. But a keen observer who has watched them since the start of the season will have seen some changes that have brought a semblance of stability back to the side.
Eliminating wing-backs has improved Blues’ midfield
Roca was a victim of his own success when he saw that the 3-4-3 formation had made Bengaluru a dominant force in their first three games. A kind schedule had handed the defending champions three home games against relatively poorer opponents – two of whom are now battling at the bottom of the table.
In the seven games following their three wins, Bengaluru picked up only four points – losing twice to East Bengal and suffering a shock loss to Churchill Brothers. It was one body blow after another which culminated in the club’s worst run ever since they were formed in 2013.
Roca then decided to abandon the 3-4-3 after Sena Ralte struggled to make any sort of impact on the left while Harmanjot Singh Khabra has shuttled between the roles of a wing-back and a midfielder as the situation demanded it.
Moving to a back four has not only improved the defence but also the midfield. Opting for a back-four has seen Cameron Watson relieved of his duties of stepping in as an auxiliary centre-back and he is now free to roam the width of the field to make himself available for a pass and make forays forward.
As a result, Lenny Rodrigues has also found more time on the ball to pick out a pass and has managed to create a few chances, especially with his link-up play with Udanta Singh on the right side of midfield.
Meanwhile, Eugeneson Lyngdoh is still not back to his very best but the signs are encouraging. He is more involved in the buildup but is yet to find his shooting boots this season – a quality that made him a feared midfielder last season not only in the league but in the AFC Cup as well.
Blues’ defence looks strong but attack continues to struggle
The return of John Johnson to partner Juan Antonio in central defence has also been instrumental in denying opponents a sniff on goal. Barring the unlucky own goal against Chennai City, the Blues have not conceded and Arindam Bhattacharya has done well in goal in the absence of the injured Amrinder Singh.
Nishu Kumar at left-back has been an excellent addition to the lineup. Where Ralte was guilty of making too many attacking runs, young Nishu has been cautious and picked the right opportunities to carry the ball forward on the left flank and stretch defences. His control on the ball and body feints have also made him a valuable asset in attack.
Sandesh Jhingan’s time as a right-back for Kerala Blasters has helped him at Bengaluru this season and the 6’2” defender is not averse to making runs forward and swinging in a cross when he has the chance.
A no-nonsense player who sticks to his strengths is just what Roca and Bengaluru needed to fortify the back and the lad from Punjab has done that. Rino Anto has not been used yet after his comeback from injury and it will be interesting to see how Roca uses a specialist instead of a makeshift right-back.
However, in spite of everything Roca’s side has thrown at sides in the I-League, the ball simply refuses to find the back of the net. They lead the league in possession and have created more chances than anyone this season. Every game sees Roca and the players sink to their knees and almost tear their hair out when a promising attack leads to an almost certain goal before they are cruelly denied.
“We need to be more aggressive, especially in the box. Our strikers need to score more goals. We are generating a lot of chances. Unfortunately, the final touch is missing.” – Roca
Bengaluru’s set-piece routines have changed drastically this season. While former coach Ashley Westwood relied on simply delivering the ball into the melee inside the box, Roca’s side has been inventive in their approach to corners and free-kicks.
Time and again, they almost pull it off but fate ensures the shot goes inches wide or takes a deflection. In one case, an unsuspecting referee in the game against Minerva was the cause as he stood in the way of a pass that was clearly set up for an unmarked Chhetri to take a last-minute shot on goal.
Referees have cost Bengaluru points this season
Which brings us to the final reason why Bengaluru are adrift in the title race. An analysis of three refereeing decisions show that had Bengaluru benefited from the right calls, they could have been third in the table and only five points behind the leaders (if they win their game in hand).
Jhingan’s goal against Aizawl FC was disallowed in a 1-1 draw, a claim for a clear handball was rejected in the 1-1 draw against Chennai City while a clear foul on Chhetri near the edge of the box by Anas Edathodika in the 0-0 draw with Mohun Bagan was also denied – a foul Roca believed should have been a sending off, as he was the last defender. A frustrated Chhetri was absolutely livid, as were the home fans.
Assistant coach Carles Cuadrat has also taken to Twitter to point out these three major incidents, pleading with Indian football officials to improve the standard of refereeing. The Blues are not the only side to suffer, though. Even the likes of Mohun Bagan and Minerva Punjab have had a couple of horrendous decisions going the other way.
AFC Cup solace for Bengaluru?
If there is one thing the Blues will not have to worry about in the AFC Cup, it is the standard of refereeing. Top referees from Asia have come down to India in recent seasons and contentious decisions are few and far between.
At this stage of the season, the AFC Cup is all Bengaluru can realistically aspire to. It is a competition they have always taken seriously and have qualified for the knockout stages in the last two years – even going all the way to the final last season under Roca. And this season they have Mohun Bagan for company in the group stage to make it all the more spicier.
Roca has laid the groundwork and it seems like he has done all he can for the side. It is now up to the players to bring his plans to fruition.