Interview with Akbar Nawas: The Singaporean tactician helming Chennai City FC's ascension
- Nawas believes being the only Indian club in Asia motivates them and named five Indian players who can make the cut to ISL next season.
Akbar Bin Abdul Nawas Mohammad appears to be an intimidating person at first glance. At least that is what one comprehends when he walks with broad shoulders and heavy steps. But, after the exchange of customary greeting smiles and small talks, one realizes he is anything but intimidating.
With a bunch of debutant Spanish players and unheralded local Tamil Nadu players comprising the team, no one gave Chennai City FC a chance to clinch the I-League title last season. But, with his jovial attitude, Akbar Nawas instilled a sense of togetherness in the team that ultimately led them to bag the top honors.
So, what brought him to India?
"Three years ago, there was a Singaporean agent who supplied players to Chennai City FC. I had a conversation with that agent and he said that the club needed some technical help. I came to Chennai, spoke to the owner, and started looking after the team thereafter," Akbar replies.
Bye-bye long ball
One of the major talking points about Chennai City FC was their style of play. With a flexible formation, they surged forward with one-touch and short passes, scoring 54 times in 22 matches, and broke the hegemony of direct football which had plagued Indian Football and I-League, in particular, for a long time.
"I used to be a central midfielder or full-back in my playing days. When I played as a full-back, I used to be disturbed by the coaches who wanted me to send the ball long. The moment I gave a long ball, it would come back and I had to defend again. It becomes very tiring. So, you tend to defend a lot."
"I remember once while playing against South Korea, we had to defend the whole 90 minutes with this tactic. So, I told myself that when I will become a coach, I will never do this and try to control the game," he says with conviction.
Obviously, it isn't something which can be achieved overnight. But, with a methodical approach, Akbar believes it can be inculcated in any team.
"We have to instill this in training. Our training is full of repetition, showing videos, talking to players, and most importantly, everyone working towards a common goal in terms of philosophy. The staff here bought into this philosophy. So, when we train, we make mistakes but we become tolerant of those mistakes. That is what you want at the team."
New team, new challenges
Chennai City FC saw a mass exodus of talent after their title triumph. Michael Regin and Edwin Vanspaul were sold to ATK and Chennaiyin FC respectively whereas Gaurav Bora and Tarif Akhand's loan spell came to an end, the latter although returned back in the winter transfer window.
Nestor Gordillo moved to Hyderabad FC whereas the club fetched a record transfer fee over the sale of Pedro Manzi to Japan's Albirex Niigata in January. Another vital cog in their pack, Sandro Rodriguez, is still nursing injuries.
The migration of key players from the previous lot meant Akbar had to build the team from scratch. But, the 44-year-old has no complaints about it.
"The different sets of players bring to you different sets of pros and cons. So, you just need to adapt to them and bring the best out of them. In the first year, we had a certain set of players who played a certain brand of football and posed different problems technically."
"This year, we have different football problems. We are training the players to make them more attack-minded. We are trying to be a more complete team. But, I believe the squad this year is much more hardworking and they are working together as opposed to last year," he summarizes.
'Edwin has always been a midfielder'
Despite being the winners of the top division league of India, not a single Chennai City FC player was called up to the national team. Akbar, however, never let it bother him much.
"India is a very big country and we always have to give respect to the coach who calls up players. I can't say this fellow should be called up or that fellow should be called up. If you are in his position, it won't be easy. You can call-up only 20 players and out of that, you play only 11. It is very difficult."
"Of course, I would have wanted my players like Edwin or previous players like Soosai and all to be called up and they get more playing time for the national team," Akbar continues.
But, one player from the previous season's batch of players did make the cut to India's 43-member preliminary squad against Qatar. It was their captain Edwin Sydney Vanspaul who received the call-up after Chennaiyin FC's head coach Owen Coyle shifted him to the central midfield from the right-back position, where he operated in the first half of ISL and played for Chennai City FC last season.
Akbar, though, maintains he has always been a midfielder.
"Edwin has always been a midfielder and an offensive player. But if you see the way we played, I needed two central midfielders who can play as a full-back. Ajith (Kumar K) was a central midfielder, but I played him as a full-back. It is the same with Edwin. Last season, we got 7 assists through the middle. So, that's how we used him," he says elatedly.
"It is not wrong for other coaches to use him in the central midfield. Yes, if you use him as a pure full-back or the one in a typical British 4-4-2 system, he won't be much effective."
The road to Asia
A prize that came with winning the I-League last season was a guaranteed spot at the AFC Cup. Chennai City FC got knocked out in the AFC Champions League's qualifying stages after they went down to Bahrain's Al-Riffa Sports Club.
The ISL champions Bengaluru FC were supposed to accompany them in Asia's equivalent of UEFA Europa League, but they lost to Al-Maziya Sports Club at a two-legged tie in the second preliminary round. Many fans and critics argue that it had much to do with the team resting key players in their first leg away in Maldives. But, Akbar believes it would be wrong for him to comment.
"I won't comment on what the coach did tactically in terms of resting key players or not. Maybe he did that because he thought he had good depth in his squad. Probably, he was also thinking of the ISL playoffs. I think they had one or two crucial matches in the league table. So, it's a very difficult situation for the coach. I can't comment because it is between the coach and the club to decide which is more important."
The Indian club's performances in continental competitions matter a lot because the points accumulated determine a country's Member Association (MA) rankings. India is currently ranked eighth in the West Zone with the top 10 countries in each zone receiving a direct group stage slot from the 2021 AFC Champions League.
In the previous edition of AFC Cup, both Minerva Punjab and Chennaiyin FC stumbled in the group stages. One expects Chennai City FC to be mounted with pressure as they are the lone Indian representative. But, Akbar thinks it is otherwise.
"No, no. It is actually the other way around," he says laughingly. "Being the only Indian club (in AFC Cup), it serves as a more motivating factor for us. That's how I think. I am not sure about my players. It is the way we approach. We are the only Indian club. Usually, this is a good motivating factor."
Chennai City FC doesn't have the financial luxury which the ISL clubs enjoy. They mainly act as a feeder club to them, with the likes of Michael Soosairaj, Nandhakumar Sekar, and Edwin Vanspaul among others having transitioned successfully.
So, who among the lot will make the switch?
"Oh, there are so many. All the local players who played against Indian Arrows can easily go into ISL. Do you want specific names? Vijay N, Sriram B, V Ajith Kumar, Mashoor Shereef, and Jockson Dhas. These five for sure," he signs off.Published 05 Mar 2020, 07:00 IST