Here are the five things that Sportskeeda learnt about the Indian national team after their international friendlies against Philippines and Nepal in Siliguri.
Set pieces and crosses still best form of attack
During the Bob Houghton era, most of India’s goals used to come from set pieces or crosses as the team played a direct style of football. That has remained a feature under Wim Koevermans also although India does play more passes nowadays. The transformation in the style of play still hasn’t been completed and instead India have been mixing up their game under Koevermans. That was evident in the two friendlies as they both tried to play short passes in midfield and went long whenever necessary with the six feet one inches tall Robin Singh playing upfront and Sunil Chhetri just behind. In both games India looked dangerous from corners, freekicks and crosses with Sunil scoring against Philippines from a well-worked flagkick and Jeje Lalpekhlua could have scored a late winner after a cross from Denzil Franco which was kept alive by Clifford Miranda. Even the first goal against Nepal came after Robin had forced a save off the opposition keeper following a well-measured cross from Clifford. India may not be the biggest side but even under Koevermans they work really hard on crosses and deliveries from set-pieces and that is continuing to pay dividends on the pitch.
Skipper Sunil showed class is permanent
After being dropped from the SAFF Championship 2013 final against Afghanistan, Sunil had a point to prove to Koevermans. In these two games he not only achieved that but also created history because as per AIFF records, the two goals in Siliguri saw him become India’s all-time highest scorer with 43 goals. Sunil benefitted from playing in a withdrawn role just behind Robin instead of operating in a lone striker role where he had been struggling this year. His movement caused plenty of problems for the Philippines and the goal he scored was sheer class as he got away from his marker in a corner and scored with a thunderous header. He was lively against Nepal also with the goal showing his predatory instincts as he reacted first to a rebound. Sunil combined well with his teammates in both games and with a bit more luck could have easily scored more and assisted a few. The two performances reminded everyone about his importance to this team as there are not too many other genuine goal scoring threats. At 29, he looks good to handsomely improve on his current international tally.
Midfield general Mehtab is indispensable
Skipper Sunil might be India’s best player but Mehtab Hossain is indispensable to the national team. The East Bengal midfielder peaked under Trevor Morgan at club level and has gone from strength to strength ever since for club and country. Mehtab is central to Koevermans’ plans as he tends to dictate the tempo of India’s play and more importantly protects the back four, which was pretty inexperienced in these two games. Mehtab’s durability is one of his biggest strengths and that was visible in Siliguri also as he kept going with the same intensity from the first to the last minute in both games. The 28-year-old has been playing continuously for club and country over the last 18 months but Koevermans didn’t take the risk of resting him against Nepal. He had to work really hard against a technically superior Philippines midfield and produced another solid display in the Nepal game where he was playing alongside the inexperienced Lalrindika Ralte. Mehtab gave up the chance to have trials in Spain to play in the SAFF Championship but his consistency could earn him a similar opportunity in the near future and should see him win the AIFF Player of the Year this time.
Koevermans has a bigger pool to choose from
When asked to sum up this calendar year, the big positive that Koevermans talked about was that he now has a bigger pool of players to choose for the national team and going by the two games one would have to agree with the former Netherlands international. Several players have made their international debut under the Dutchman and three more made their international bow in these two matches with defenders Aibor Khongjee and Narayan Das being particularly impressive. By giving chances to several new faces over the 16 months of his tenure, Koevermans is in the process of having a solid group of backups who could come in and replace experienced names just like these two games where India fared well despite the absence of Subrata Pal, Gourmangi Singh, Nirmal Chettri, Syed Rahim Nabi and Arata Izumi. The 53-year-old took a bit of a risk in central defence but all other positions were adequately replaced. Koevermans is still getting to know Indian football and thus some of his selections will raise question marks but the fact that India were able to get two positive results despite the absence of nine players from the SAFF 2013 squad shows that a bigger pool has been created.
Rebuilding process on the right track
Despite the two results in Siliguri, the national team remains a work in progress but there are signs that they are moving in the right direction. India failed to qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup and win the SAFF Championship this year but statistically Koevermans hasn’t done much worse than the highly popular Bob Houghton. Encouragingly unlike Houghton, the Dutchman has been willing to play higher ranked teams regularly with the Nepal game being the first friendly that was played against a lower ranked opponent. The regular international exposure is helping the team immensely as they are getting used to playing matches without long camps with the two results in Siliguri being proof of that. The style of play is evolving while several youngsters are benefitting from being thrown into the international stage even if their club form hasn’t been great. Robin Singh is a very good example of that as the 23-year-old Bengaluru FC forward gives the India team something different with his physical presence upfront in the 4-4-1-1 that Koevermans likes to use. Tougher tests lie ahead but with the combination of Sunil and Robin finally starting to click, it looks like the national team is moving forward again after having gone backwards since the 2011 Asian Cup.