ISL 2017: How Bengaluru FC's tactical changes saw the Blues thrash Delhi Dynamos 4-1
Albert Roca made a number of changes during the game to flummox Delhi
Prior to Bengaluru FC's second ISL fixture against Delhi Dynamos, the Blues went through a different kind of warm-up session than what is the norm. Yes, there were the usual pre-match routines but one particular drill saw assistant manager Carles Cuadrat overseeing shooting drills for midfielders Erik Paartalu and Lenny Rodrigues which involved some intricate passing.
By the full-time whistle, the two midfielders had scored the first three goals in the 4-1 win over Delhi with Paartalu grabbing a brace. It was a result that saw them leapfrog Chennaiyin FC to grab top spot in the Indian Super League table and the midfield pair had been instrumental over the 90 minutes - not only in the centre of the park but also in the final third.
"Set-pieces are our weapon," Blues coach Albert Roca said after the game. "Carles Cuadrat is doing a very good job there."
Indeed he is. As soon as the first goal went in, Harmanjot Singh Khabra did not run to celebrate with his teammates. His headed assist for Erik Paartalu to score with a header of his own had opened the scoring but the full-back ran towards the bench to hug Cuadrat.
At the stroke of half-time, Paartalu had doubled the advantage with a glancing header from a corner-kick. Both goals had been orchestrated by Edu Garcia.
It had all gone according to plan.
Roca changes formation and switches Garcia's position
In the first game, Roca had deployed Garcia as a left wing-back. The Spaniard made history when he became the first player to score for the club in the ISL; a moment that gave him "piel de gallina" - the skin of a chicken (aka goosebumps).
The game against Delhi also saw him start out on the left, where he made a couple of good runs into open space created by Miku and Sunil Chhetri who had been tasked with overloading the right flank. Delhi's left-back Sena Ralte had clearly been identified as the weak link with Pritam Kotal standing strong at right-back for the capital club.
However, as the game wore on, Roca changed the formation and Garcia was suddenly in the middle of the park - as a playmaker behind Miku and Chhetri. As soon as he made the switch, he made two nearly decisive runs into the box through the centre while the centre-backs were busy covering the forwards, almost scoring in the process if not for Delhi goalkeeper Albino Gomes.
"After winning 2-0 [in the first game] we thought it was better to have him on the inside. We have changed a little bit tactically. With him playing little more on the inside, he did a very good job." - Roca
The switch from 3-4-3 to 4-3-3 was smooth and almost imperceptible at first as Khabra stepped back from a wing-back role into a right-back role while Rahul Bheke moved to left-back.
Delhi lacked a goal threat from midfield
Last season saw Delhi Dynamos score the most number of goals in the league stage - 27 from 14 games (the only team to score more than 20 goals). But without last year's goalscorers in Marcelinho (who had scored 10), Richard Gadze (5 goals), and Kean Lewis (4 goals), they only had one plan - get the ball to striker Kalu Uche.
Playing in a traditional no.9 role, the Nigerian with La Liga experience was the target man. The battle between Uche and Bengaluru defender John Johnson was feisty, to say the least, with neither player backing down from going all-in on 50/50 aerial duels and the referee had to step in a couple of times to calm things down.
However, Uche failed to make a real nuisance of himself in the box - where it mattered. Although Delhi did manage to put in a couple of good crosses, they were comfortably dealt with by the Blues defence.
Delhi's biggest issue was the lack of a goal threat from elsewhere. While Bengaluru had midfielders scoring the bulk of the goals, Delhi's wide forwards and midfielders were ineffective in the final third.
Bengaluru's pressing the key difference between the two sides
Both Portugal and Roca like their teams to dominate possession - evident from the possession statistics from the first game where both sides won. However, this game was going to be not just about who could keep the ball but also who could win it back quickly.
"We certainly pushed on a little more today and that's the way we like to play; press on teams to try and win the ball back quickly so we can keep possession but Delhi are a good side and they keep the ball really well tonight as well. - Erik Paartalu
The Blues pressed in numbers to win the ball back and they pressed high up the pitch to starve Delhi of any space whatsoever. As a result, Delhi's midfield barely got going, leaving the forwards to drop deep and collect the ball.
This also backfired as it was what Bengaluru wanted. It allowed them to crowd the midfield when they lost the ball and win the ball back with Lenny or Paartalu making things difficult while Udanta Singh and Chhetri also dropped back to help with the press.
As soon as Bengaluru won the ball back, one key element of their game was getting the ball forward as quickly as possible. One-touch passing became the norm. Miku's unorthodox positioning (a striker who drops deep and drifts wide) and Udanta's runs were crucial to make use of the acres of space behind Delhi's defence.
Miku was the fulcrum in attack and it was one of the reasons why Chhetri and Udanta were so effective in creating chances. The Venezuelan draws defenders out of position, allowing Chhetri to make use of the space vacated.
Had he and Udanta been more clinical in the box, though, the scoreline may have been a lot worse for Delhi.
The only reason Delhi had some more time on the ball in the second half was because Bengaluru took their foot off the gas to conserve energy for the next game in four days' time.
Roca's substitutions allowed for smooth transitions
With an eye on the away fixture against FC Goa, Roca withdrew Garcia, Udanta, and Juan Antonio, bringing on Toni Dovale, Nishu Kumar, and Braulio Nobrega.
None of the substitutions were like-for-like per se but it allowed Roca to rotate players in the XI that was on the pitch to eventually arrive at the desired formation. Nishu Kumar initially played as a right winger before moving to left-back to make way for Nobrega while Rahul Bheke moved to his third position of the night - centre-back alongside Johnson in a back four.
The constant changing of the roles were also partly due to Delhi's own substitutions when Seityasen Singh and Eduardo Moya were brought on to effect the game but they, too, put in an insipid performance in the second half. Delhi's Dutch midfielder Jeroen Lumu was visibly frustrated by his teammates' lack of movement to create passing options.
With Chhetri also constantly dropping deep to draw the defence out, it allowed Bengaluru to counter-attack - which eventually resulted in the third goal (Lenny) and also the fourth (Miku).
The fact that Bengaluru are yet to hit their best - a sentiment shared by Roca and Paartalu after the game - suggests there is still more to come from the Blues as they look to improve game after game.
It remains to be seen whether this home form can be translated to away wins as well. The Blues' I-League campaign last season had seen a similar start before they fell away. But this time Roca seems prepared to make sure that history does not repeat itself.