Stimac Needs To Go: Why India Cannot Give More Time To The Head Coach
Had India won the match against Afghanistan, it would have been a pyrrhic victory. Given that they did not win (again), let’s just call it a pyrrhic draw. The cost of the draw may just outweigh all benefits if it hands head coach Igor Stimac a contract extension.
The result meant that India finished third in the group and progressed to the next round of AFC Asian Cup qualification but you would be hard pressed to find a satisfied Indian supporter on the night. After a bright opening half hour, India faded away and were extremely fortuitous to get the point they needed with an unfortunate own goal by Ovays Azizi in the Afghanistan goal.
Over the past two weeks India have faced Qatar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. No one expected a positive result against Qatar but the overwhelming domination was disheartening. A questionable red card to Rahul Bheke did not help but there were still no positives to draw from the game other than Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s performance.
Against Bangladesh, India huffed and puffed. Two late goals gave the win but India were not clinical enough in both - creating, and finishing, chances. Afghanistan was a direct shootout for the third spot and India got the draw but were the second best team overall.
While India did get the required result on Tuesday, this has not been the case over Stimac's reign. The numbers are dismal - with Stimac at the helm, India have won just two matches out of 15 matches and only one in a FIFA recognized match.
Stimac has now been the head coach of the national team for two years and there is next to no progress. The only positive that can be drawn from his tenure is the increasing number of exciting youngsters coming through but that is largely down to improving developmental level football and the investment in scouting put in during the U17 FIFA World Cup in 2017.
There is no fixed plan and the formation keeps changing every match. From back three to back four to back five. One up top, two up top, a trident of forwards. Chopping and changing, changing and chopping. Stimac’s India simply do not have an identity and it is the continuous hard work of players that is still keeping him in the job.
Against Qatar, for example, India went a man down early. Now, Sunil Chhetri is still India’s best striker but his days of chasing each ball into the channel are past him. Yet there was no change made. Manvir Singh, on the other hand, is a hardworking striker who was in a rich vein of form but he was forced to become a de-facto right back. A simple substitution with more technicality in midfield, via Apuia or Brandon, and Manvir up top would have provided an outlet as well as shorn up the defence.
Against Bangladesh, Stimac deserves credit for putting on Ashique at half time who eventually provided the assist for Chhetri’s opener. However, the team looked bereft of ideas - always searching for Brandon to create. The Goan did all he could but a smarter opponent could easily have shut him down and blocked India’s only attacking route.
Against Afghanistan, with the score still 0-0, Stimac took off both Brandon and Chhetri. Understandably, the move was to protect the draw which was sufficient but the lack of ambition was clear. India were not playing to win. The cynic in me would say that alongside protecting the draw, they were also playing to protect Stimac and his job.
COULD INDIA DO BETTER?
For a moment though let’s consider the hypothesis that Stimac is not at fault. Is this India’s upper limit? Hard work bravos but no results? Does the squad say the same?
Starting from the back, India is stacked in the goalkeeping department - Sandhu has delivered top class performances time and again, Amrinder Singh was Mumbai City’s rock and Dheeraj showed great promise with FC Goa. The centre back department however is very light. Chinglensana Singh is emerging as a long term mainstay and Sandesh Jhingan still has at least a couple of years left as a top level defender. The less said about the backup options the better.
The full backs roster is exciting - Goan duo of Seriton and Saviour are modern day attacking full backs who are developing well under Juan Ferrando. Akash Mishra has impressed with Hyderabad and Rahul Bheke is a reliable option.
Central midfield is also steadily improving in terms of quality. Glan Martins’ emergence as a destructor gives backup to Rowllin Borges. Apuia and Suresh are dynamic box to box players who can do the dirty work as well. Anirudh Thapa remains the best Indian midfielder but his fitness problems are a big concern. Brandon is technically gifted and the hub of all creative endeavours - he is the one player that India do not have a back up to.
Indian wingers perhaps lack that extra edge of technicality but their leg work is impressive nonetheless. Ashique, Liston, Bipin and Yasir are players who can improve their output if provided the right guidance as they have all shown for their respective clubs.
The striker department has long been the one-man Sunil Chhetri show. This is an area of concern with only Manvir and the young Ishaan Pandita as alternatives to Chhetri. Despite his cult status as a super-sub, Pandita has not played enough to warrant the tag of heir to Chhetri and Manvir always tends to score in patches.
Overall the squad has a lot of promise. The absence of a talismanic striker to lead the line post-Chhetri may hurt the side but we never know when that day will come. Stimac has not had to deal with that issue and so, it is fair to say that the current Indian side is massively underperforming.
WHERE CAN INDIA IMPROVE?
One compliment that can be paid to Stimac’s India is that they have been hard to beat. However, that has been down to the doggedness instead of the team being well-drilled. The midfield is usually set up to chase than to create even against weaker sides like Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
India look clueless once they do have the ball - there is no playing philosophy undermining the possession. Indian fans do not expect tiki-taka but two years into the role, Stimac has failed to develop any form of cohesion in attack. Tactically naive, with no squad building, India have well and truly stagnated.
Whether or not Stimac’s removal will solve these problems, one cannot say. There are issues that run far deeper than the head coach in Indian football. The ISL setup has led to development of specific type of players and a few years down the line, this will become more emphasised. However, the bottom line is that India should be doing better given that the current crop of players is the most exciting in a decade at least.
Stimac’s contract has a few months left on it and they cannot run out soon enough. India will most certainly improcve post his departure and to extend his contract would be stupidity and cowardice, just the kind of thing the AIFF prides itself upon doing.