Thomas Dennerby, head coach of the Indian women's football team, has an extremely relaxed aura about him. He answers every question posed to him in a calm and composed manner. The extent of changes in the Indian side's playing style almost belies the fact that Dennerby took up the role only in August 2021.
This has also been evident in India's recent results. The team have beaten the UAE and Bahrain by comprehensive 4-1 and 5-0 margins. They did suffer a 1-0 loss to Tunisia in between, but the overall signs have been good.
Speaking at a press conference earlier today (October 11), Dennerby reflected on some of the major changes he's brought to the Indian team.
"It's a combination of everything (diet, physicality, mental aspect). Since we started, we have raised fitness to a good level now but we're not ready yet, we've only had three months to work with the players."
Dennerby believes the more games India play, the sooner we will see exactly where they stand with respect to fitness. He also emphasized that it remains a crucial aspect of his project with the side.
"But when we play better teams at higher pace, we need to be ready to handle the fitness level. If you get tired early, you take bad decisions; good fitness levels help keep your brains sharp too."
Additionally, Dennerby has made some tweaks to the team's defensive setup as well.
"In defending, we're playing more strict zonal defense now and we have worked a lot together on it in the training sessions. The girls understand what I want them to do in defense."
He also pointed out that they are working on moving the ball forward differently, stating that it was very much a work-in-progress. The Indian team used to depend a lot on long balls over the top of the midfield previously.
However, Dennerby is attempting to bring in a more coherent system that involves short passes and moving forward through midfield.
"Maybe the biggest change is in the attacking game. Now from the goalkeeper to midfield, I think we are now trying to play penetration passes and pass from higher positions and focus on the quality of the pass. I think we can work very much with [it] but, because you change styles from direct to playing through midfield, you have to work very hard with the team. It takes a little bit longer than organizing the defending, so we have to be patient with it."
"They want to learn" - Thomas Dennerby on the players within the Indian team
When asked what excited him most about the team, Dennerby connected it to the willingness of the Indian players to learn and the commitment they show in training. He said:
"They want to learn; very very serious in everything they do, they work very hard everyday whether we do running sessions, gym, on the football field. They try to do the right things which we need to do now."
The 62-year-old also added that their focus goes well beyond the ongoing exposure tours. Both Dennerby and India have their sights on the AFC Asian Cup to be held in India early next year.
"Even when we play games now on these tours, we don't rest; we keep working between games, we go to the gym, extra running sessions and so on because the final result is not the one we have on the exposure tours; it's the result we will have in the beginning of February next year."
Dennerby said with a smile that the team had "no complaints" about the rigorous practice methods, adding that they shared the coaching staff's vision.
"The games are important, but we follow our plan and train very hard too. The girls are doing really well and no complaints about training and so. They really understand that we're preparing them for the AFC Cup next year!"
We want to have the best players: Dennerby on Bala Devi's possible absence from the Asia Cup squad
Dennerby was also questioned about whether India's star forward Bala Devi is part of his plans for the Asia Cup next year. Devi, who has an unrivaled 42 goals for the side, is currently sidelined due to an injury.
In response to the question, the Indian coach replied:
"Good players are always a part of your plan. But we also need to be realistic. I think she (Bala Devi) had surgery in the beginning of September and normally, the quickest recovery after an ACL injury is like four and a half to five months. Some players, it depends, it could take up to six, eight, nine months. But we really don't know."
Dennerby was also matter-of-fact in his response, adding that as things stand, he and his coaching team need to plan for a team that does not include her. He believes uncertainty over Devi's injury cannot handicap their preparation.
"A good player, if she is 100% fit, of course (she will be in our plans). We want to have the best players but we also have to be realistic and plan for a squad without her. We will see in a couple of weeks how the rehabilitation is going."
India take on Chinese Taipei in their next match. Dennerby revealed in the press conference that the side will then travel to Sweden for friendlies against Swedish Premier League sides Hammarby Fotboll and Djurgårdens IF Fotboll.