ISL 2017/18: How Albert Roca's philosophy of beautiful football is taking shape at Bengaluru FC
"It's not just a question of winning but how we win and we're on track to do that. Everybody likes to win. As coaches we are never happy, you know. We're trying to play like we trained and we want to see it on the pitch." - Albert Roca
That was what the Bengaluru FC manager said back in November when the Blues had beaten Mumbai City 2-0 at the Kanteerava. The three points to kickoff the ISL were celebrated by all except the Spanish boss. Although he was happy with the result, El Jefe was clearly not impressed.
It's not just about the three points at Bengaluru. Back in the day that may have been all that mattered. Not anymore.
Not since Ashley Westwood's first season in charge have Bengaluru been so good to watch with the ball. There was a shift in the philosophy in the way they played in the Englishman's second season where they lost the title on the final day and the return of a purposeful direct approach saw them regain their I-League crown in his third and final season.
We are now witnessing a similar paradigm shift under Roca.
It's not just about possession at Bengaluru FC
Why possession football, though? Simple. It's all in the genes. It is how Spain dominated football from 2008 to 2012 - keep the ball and don't let the superior physical specimens from, say, Germany, France or Netherlands use it to their advantage.
Can it work in India? The average Indian footballer has approximately the same build as his Spanish counterpart. So it made sense to employ such an approach and start by building a foundation.
Roca's first season at the club saw the squad struggle at first to acclimatise to his style of play. By the time they absorbed the wisdom he was trying to impart, the league was already lost - six draws and four losses in 18 games had seen to that.
However, the Federation Cup win ensured the Blues extended their run of never finishing a season trophyless and a historic AFC Cup run that took the Blues to the final underlined his credentials.
Of course, back then he could only have four foreigners in the squad. It's different now - at least in the ISL. New arrivals with the technical brilliance and know-how have now elevated his philosophy to another level.
The likes of Edu Garcia and Miku - both of whom have enjoyed stints in Spain - are now the torch-bearers of the purposeful first touch that allows them to create not only space for themselves but also time to make a decision. It is why they are regulars in the starting lineup.
Bengaluru now look to dominate possession with purpose. Every wasted pass sees Roca throw his hands up in the air, cursing under his breath as he briskly walks back to the dugout. It's not just plain old tiki-taka, mind you.
High-risk-high-reward passes to the forwards are encouraged when they are in good positions - and that is quite often (more on that later). Diagonal balls to wingers (and even wing-backs) are a trend in games where they look to stretch defences who are happy to sit back and absorb pressure.
It's why they have made the most passes in the ISL and had the most shots on goal so far. The only team that can compete with them on that front is FC Goa managed by Sergio Lobera. He is cut from the same Barcelona cloth after all.
And when they don't have the ball? Press high and win it back. The idea is to deny the opponents any breathing space whatsoever. And it is a testament to the squad's fitness that allows them to do it week in and week out.
Bengaluru's tactics combine felxibility and adaptability
In a short league like the ISL where one does not have many games to experiment with your squad, most teams take the safe option and use one standard formation. Not Roca, no. That is not his cup of tea.
Bengaluru have changed their formation a few times in this season - often during the course of the game. It is a tactic employed either when they can't find a goal or when they try to take advantage when the opposition makes a change.
So far Roca has employed either the 3-4-3 or the 4-2-3-1 as he rotates his squad. With one eye on the upcoming AFC Cup which will see fixtures pile up in January, Roca has no choice but to rotate to keep his squad fresh to fight on two fronts.
The 5-foreigners rule has also forced all coaches to adapt and Roca hasn't necessarily played his strongest XI in every game. Most managers would have stuck centre-backs John Johnson and Juan Antonio in defence in every game to get results but they rarely play together under the Spaniard.
This is where every Bengaluru player is stepping up for Roca. The odd mistake isn't criticised or punished by dropping the player. They study the problem, rectify it, and move on.
Where Bengaluru have outdone themselves this season is each player's ability to play in different roles; be it in defence or offense.
The attacking trio of Sunil Chhetri, Udanta Singh, and Miku have been very fluid in their transtitions and Miku has already developed a telepathic understanding with the two Indian forwards. The Venezuelan is the key to the Blues' attack and Chhetri is also keen on enforcing that point.
"With Miku in the side, Udanta, Edu, and I can shuffle our positions on the pitch. He's our target guy. He makes our work easier and all of us have no problems in playing in different positions." - Chhetri
Chhetri himself has now played all across the front three. On the wings, he works hard to track back when they lose the ball and he times his sprints well - be it on counter-attacks or latching on to Gurpreet Singh's long balls.
When he moves to the centre, he demands the ball and opponents automatically gravitate towards him, thereby leaving space in behind for teammates to exploit. His close quarter control is what is key in the final third and his eye for goal is unparalleled in the country.
Udanta and Chhetri don't just switch flanks either. Miku is also involved in this transition and it throws opposition defenders off when he moves to the wings. Their constant overloading confuses defenders and the interplay is what makes them one of the most lethal trios in the league.
"The fluidity in their game is a lot more advanced. They're going to be a very tough rival for the other teams this season." - Mumbai City coach Alexandre Guimaraes
Edu Garcia's ability to play either as a wing-back or a central midfielder is what helps Bengaluru in their transitions. Roca saw that he was capable of playing in the middle and has since moved him around to make the Blues a lot more potent.
Although he doesn't have the pace to beat full-backs, he can still carry the ball forward until help arrives. Not to mention, he is also their main set-piece taker.
In defence, Harmanjot Khabra's versatility allows Roca to play him either as a wing-back or a right-back. Rahul Bheke is a centre-back by trade but he too has played across the back-line - either in a back-three or a back-four (he once played three different roles in 90 minutes).
At the halfway stage of the season, Bengaluru are well-placed to reach the semi-finals. It has been Roca's aim since Day 1. Despite the hiccups after a perfect start, the Blues have steadily marched on.
The only question now is whether Roca can improve this squad further. Knowing him, he has probably drawn up new plans for every team now that he has played them all at least once.
Roca is a man who will not change his philosophy. Given ample time, the club will only improve its performances - not only in India but Asia as well.