What India need to do to become a footballing powerhouse
AIFF's (All India Football Federation) goal should not be to find the Indian Messi, Ronaldo or Neymar, it should be to focus on a particular style of play and to coach and implement it throughout the age groups.
I was lucky enough to witness the match between Germany and Iran in the group stage of the U-17 World Cup which was hosted by India. What immediately jumped out to me was the contrasting playing styles that both the teams resorted to. Germany had a possession based system where they looked to create space and retain the ball as much as possible.
On the other hand, the Iranians didn’t care too much about the possession of the ball, they were direct with their play, much of their system was counter-attack based and whenever they gained possession, they quickly shifted it to the wings and progressed the ball up the pitch. When that option wasn't available they would go long and look for their target man, where when the ball came to him, the second striker would make runs off him into space.
Iran played in a rudimentary 4-4-2 formation but it was very effective against Germany’s 3-5-2; the space between the wing-back and the centre-back was constantly exposed by the Iranian wingers and the German back three had to deal with two strikers who caused a lot of problems throughout the match.
Germany established control in the midfield and with their wing-backs staying high up the pitch, they were able to create a lot of space, which led to the Iranian players getting constantly caught out of position hence creating a lot of goal scoring opportunities, none of which were converted. However, the Iranian pair of strikers was nothing but clinical and after a flurry of fast, effective and efficient Iranian counter-attacks, the match ended 4-0 with the Iranian U-17 team pulling off an impressive victory in the tournament.
When I saw Iran and Germany in the World Cup this year, their playing styles were quite similar to their younger counterparts (U-17). This shows that a particular playing style is coached throughout all age groups, it helps out the younger players of the aforementioned teams a lot because when they finally make the first team or are promoted, they already know the roles and responsibilities that they have to fulfill for a particular position.
This makes it easier for them to settle in the first team and helps them to perform. This holistic approach to a particular football playing style also helps a country in the scouting process, as they only have to scout players who will be the best fit for their system. Youth development also can be done in such a way that players can be coached for certain positions bearing in mind the fact that players will learn and get accustomed to the roles and responsibilities of that position over a period of time. The scouting team hence, won't have to endlessly search for talented players or for players who might have a role in the first team.
One of the best examples of a particular playing style helping a team go far in a major tournament is the Dutch side (Netherlands) that featured in the 2014 World Cup hosted by Brazil.
Their starting lineup against Spain in the group stage, who were the reigning European and World Cup winners, was as follows :
1 Jasper Cillessen (GK)
7 Daryl Janmaat (WB)
2 Ron Vlaar (CB)
3 Stefan de Vrij (CB)
4 Bruno Martins Indi (CB)
5 Daley Blind (WB)
8 Jonathan de Guzmán(CM)
10 Wesley Sneijder (CM)
6 Nigel de Jong (CDM)
9 Robin van Persie (c) (ST)
11 Arjen Robben (ST)
When you leave aside a few players, namely Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder the rest of the squad was pretty average. When you compare both the squads quality wise, Spain's squad was better and much stronger on paper. The Netherlands side, to everyone’s surprise, handed the defending world champions a defeat. 5-1 was the final score. It was an impressive and emphatic victory.
Louis Van Gaal's counterattacking style trumped the 'tiki-taka' possession-based system of Spain which was dominant for such a long time. This victory was only possible because he had the right players for that system, who could employ his tactics really well on the football pitch.
Like preparing your favorite dish, if you don't have the right ingredients the final result just won't be the same. Not only should a team have a defined playing style, but they also need the right players to implement it; that Dutch side had both. The Netherlands went all the way to the semi-finals of the World Cup where they eventually lost to a resilient Argentinian side on penalties. This proved that you don't necessarily need a bunch of world-class players in your team to progress in a major international tournament. Their performance at the World Cup was impressive, to say the least.
India too should adopt a distinct football playing style and coach that throughout the age groups. If this is done properly players can be scouted and coached for certain positions which will help them and the team in the long run. However, developing a distinct playing style and sustaining it throughout the age groups will require a lot of time and foresight and if done properly a World Cup qualification for India won't be far away.