Australian midfielder Erik Paartalu yesterday confirmed that he had signed a two-year contract extension with ISL side Bengaluru FC, putting an end to weeks of speculation that he would be leaving the club for greener pastures.
Paartalu joins Juanan in committing his future to the Blues for two more years, and with his signature secured now, head coach Carles Cuadrat has made his two most important moves in the off-season.
With the style that Cuadrat has developed in his two years in charge of Bengaluru, both Juanan and Paartalu have proven to be the most pivotal players in the system, arguably even more so than talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri.
So, why do we say that? First off, Bengaluru have just come off an immense defensive season, which was the sole reason for them making the playoffs.
The Blues conceded only 16 goals in the 20 games they played in, the lowest in the league. ATK had the next best rearguard in the league, conceding three more goals than Bengaluru.
Paartalu and Juanan, along with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, formed an impregnable spine that was strong, powerful, and barely made any mistakes.
Bengaluru barely concede because, in Paartalu and Juanan, they have two players who you have to do very well to beat in the air. They read the game superbly with their ability to make interceptions when needed, and both are never afraid to put their foot in for a tackle or two.
That has been important for Cuadrat, especially with the ever-changing nature of the side around these two. Albert Serran, Rahul Bheke, Nishu Kumar and Harmanjot Khabra have all missed a few games here and there with injuries or suspensions but Paartalu and Juanan have been constants, ever since the big Aussie made his comeback from injury in their 3-0 win over Chennaiyin FC at home in early November.
Paartalu won 62 headers at a success rate of 65% last season in the ISL, according to SofaScore. Juanan didn't win as many headers, with only 36 won for the Spaniard, at a success rate of 60%. But that, to go with Gurpreet's 46 saves in 19 games, has ensured that Bengaluru have a mean defence.
It's not just at the back that Bengaluru benefit from the presence of Juanan and Paartalu. For a team with the number of issues that they had upfront, it was important that they found some avenue of scoring goals, and in their set-pieces, they found that.
Obviously, Dimas Delgado's precision with his deliveries were a big enough factor in the number of goals that Bengaluru scored off set-pieces.
The Blues scored only 24 goals in their 20 games this season, with only 22 in the league phase. Only NorthEast United and Hyderabad FC scored fewer goals than Bengaluru in the league stages, which accurately sums up the troubles that Cuadrat's men had with scoring goals.
Luckily for Cuadrat, he could count on Paartalu and Juanan at both ends of the pitch. Bengaluru scored 15 out of their 24 off set-pieces, and both the big men were central to it, whether it was scoring them, setting it up for someone else, winning the first header, or just being a nuisance and creating space for someone else (read Sunil Chhetri) to score.
Cuadrat's Bengaluru need to evolve
Next season, though, Bengaluru know that this cannot be the only way they score goals. Obviously, having Raphael Augusto fit for a full season will aid with that. But Bengaluru need a recognized striker to pump in the goals as well.
Especially since Bengaluru have moved to the ISL, we've seen that the teams doing consistently well are the ones that have a top-class striker who scores in the region of 15 goals a season.
Deshorn Brown has a contract that extends to the end of next season, and the Jamaican looked a threat in front of goal whenever he did play, even if he missed a few gilt-edged opportunities along the way.
One part of Cuadrat's side, though, is solid, and with his two most important signings of the off-season, Cuadrat has ensured that the defensive aspect of his side will continue to remain solid for the next two seasons as well.
Udanta Singh, who recently signed a three-year extension to his contract with the Blues, and Ashique Kuruniyan, have got to contribute more than the one goal they each scored in 2019-20. Udanta didn't have a single assist either, while Ashique set up a solitary goal.
But it's simple, for Bengaluru's attacking play to evolve, it either needs a Miku-esque striker to knit everything together or for Udanta and Ashique to take their games to levels that we haven't seen before.
Otherwise, the Blues faithful might just fear the worst. Fortunately for Bengaluru, their worst isn't as bad as it could be, with a semi-final finish and third place in the league being considered a failure.